I recently had the pleasure of meeting several winemakers from the Rhône and tasting some of their wines, and it reminded me how much I enjoy the wines of that region. But more importantly, it reminded me why the Rhône is such an interesting and accessible region for people who enjoy learning about wine.
It’s not just that I like the wines! The fact that Côtes du Rhône is the second largest French wine producing region (AOC) in terms of both area and wine production means that the wines are widely available. As well, many of the wines are relatively affordable, and that’s always important for me as a consumer. Moreover, despite its large size, there is a clear and understandable organization to the region that corresponds to fairly recognizable quality and style differences. Altogether, the Rhône is a perfect destination for the wine explorer.
Rather than reporting here on the wines I tasted that cannot be easily purchased right now (they are discussed on winediscovery.ca), I thought it would be more fun to take a little tour of the region using some wines that are readily available. So I strolled over to my very tiny local LCBO and picked up four bottles to taste, with another waiting in my “cellar.” But before I tell you what they were, let me step back for a moment and prepare you for the journey.
The map to the right places the Côtes du Rhône region in France: roughly south of Burgundy and north of the Mediterranean coast and Marseilles. The Rhône River runs southwest from Lake Geneva in Switzerland to Lyons, and then turns south as it flows toward the Mediterranean. The Côtes du Rhône AOC lies on that southern stretch, from Vienne (32 km south of Lyons) to Avignon(about 80 km northwest of Marseilles on the coast.)
While Rhône white wines are very interesting, 94% of the production is of red wine, and it is the reds that are easily found here in Ontario. Indeed, since I wanted this exercise to be something anyone could do without major planning, I decided to focus on wines from the Southern half of the region, and I’ll explain further in just a moment.
There are three levels of AOC classification. The broadest is the general AOC Côtes du Rhône – rouge or red in our case – which can come from any of the pink-coloured areas in the detailed map on the left, but usually come from the southern half of the region. Southern Rhône wines are blends dominated by Grenache, but normally include Syrah and Mourvèdre as well. For example, the rules governing generic AOC Côtes du Rhône reds require that at least 40% is Grenache. The remainder can be any combination of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and any of the other allowed varieties such as Cinsault and Carignan.
The second level, Côtes du Rhône Villages AOC, covers 90 communities in the southern half of the region. Within this classification there are 17 villages which, if the grapes come only from the designated village area, have the right to be named on the label, as in Côtes du Rhône Villages Rasteau AOC. Village wines must have a minimum of 50% Grenache and a minimum combined total of 20% Syrah and Mourvèdre. A maximum 20% can come from other allowed varieties. Village level reds have a minimum alcohol requirement of 12%, while named Village wines have a minimum 12.5% alcohol.
The top level of classification is for the named Crus, such as Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the south, and Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage and Saint-Joseph in the North. These are all AOC’s in their own right, and do not include “Côtes du Rhône” as part of the AOC name. Regulations for each Cru differ, although the blends of Southern Rhône Crus are all Grenache-dominated blends. For example Gigondas allows a maximum 80% Grenache and requires a minimum 15% Syrah and Mourvèdre combined, and places limits on the other allowed varieties. While Châteauneuf-du-Pape allows 13 varieties and places no restrictions on their proportions, the wines are still dominated by Grenache since about 70% of the vines planted within the Cru boundaries are Grenache. Minimum alcohol levels for both Gigondas and Châteauneuf-du-Pape are 12.5%. Red wines from the northern Crus are 100% Syrah (with certain specific exceptions).
The reason that I decided to focus on the Southern Rhône today is that our Monopoly provides a selection of these wines from all levels, and distributes them pretty widely. For example, at my neighbourhood store, of the 20 or 25 French reds on the tiny Vintages shelf, 5 were from Southern Rhone, and I didn’t notice any from the North. Perhaps in my next tasting I will focus on Syrah from the North, although the preparation will have to be less casual, and prices will be higher.
I was hoping to find wines from all AOC levels, but couldn’t quite manage that at my store. I found one generic AOC Côtes du Rhône rouge:
- the 2009 Perrin “Reserve” AOC Côtes du Rhône rouge (13.5% alc. $14.95).
While there were no wines from the general Villages category, there were three named village wines, and I chose two:
- the 2009 Domaine Armand “Solaïador” AOC Côtes du Rhône Village Cairanne (14.5% alc. $14.65), and
- the 2009 Chateau Saint Maurice “Vielles Vignes” AOC Côtes du Rhône Villages Laudun (14.8% alc. $15.95).
I found one southern Cru wine:
- the 2007 Domaine de Cabasse AOC Gigondas (15% alc. $29.95).
In order to make the tasting a little more interesting I added a second Cru from my “cellar” (i.e. basement storage cupboard)
- the 2006 Perrin Les Sinards AOC Châteauneuf-du-Pape (14% alc. $38.95)
Châteauneuf can cost a great deal more, but you can often find one in this price range if you search around.
What we tasted
Given the AOC classification system, you should expect that the generic AOC wines will be the simplest and most straightforward wines. While there can be considerable variation in style, the Perrin Rouge was a good example of a simple and easy-drinking wine. It was a transparent ruby colour, with a pretty nose of violets, strawberries and (if you paid careful attention) a little note of pink bubblegum. That may sound strange, but it indicates that this wine probably has a component that underwent a partial fermentation using carbonic maceration, the type of fermentation used in Beaujolais Nouveau. In small amounts, as here, it enhances the fruitiness of the wine. The palate was pleasant, the fruit notes from the nose were repeated, complemented by fresh acidity. This is a very pleasant quaffing wine, meant to be drunk early. I liked this wine for what it is, but wonder if you might not find something similar for a dollar or two less.
At the village and especially the named village level, I expect a more complex offering, and both of these moved away from the lighter fruitiness of the first. The Cairanne was dark ruby with a pink rim, and nose included earthy and herbal notes, along with blueberries and cassis. The Laudun was similar in appearance, with a nose expressing black licorice, along with cherries and red berries. Both these village level wines had more body and complexity than the first.
The 2007 Gigondas raised the complexity a notch higher. It was ruby, but the rim was just beginning to move away from pink into the red spectrum, consistent with its slightly older vintage. The nose hinted at garrigue, the wild lavender, thyme, rosemary and sage that inhabit the scrub bush and woodlands of the Southern Rhône, along with red and black berries and black licorice. Despite the high alcohol, I did not read this as “hot” or out of balance. The nose was very closed at first, and decanting for an hour or two would help, and probably another year or two in bottle would serve it well. In fact this wine was a real treat on the second day.
The 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape was garnet, with noticeable bricking on the rim. The nose spoke of warm earth, garrigue, red fruit and a hint of sweet vanilla. The aromas repeated on the palate, the tannins were soft and round, and the finish was quite long. The wine was still expressive and luscious on the second day. I’m really happy to have a second bottle waiting (and I wish I had more), but I’ll try to hold off opening it for at least two years.
Once you make a systematic start to understanding the wines from a region, it’s always a good idea to do some further study! For example, the LCBO brings in lots of village level Rhône wines, along with some of the Crus like Gigondas and Vaqueyras at reasonable prices. Explore and compare, and when you find ones that you really like, you’ll feel much more comfortable tucking away a few extra bottles for a rainy day.
For more from Tim Appelt please visit: Winediscovery.ca