The Rhône Valley of Southeast France, named for the river with headwaters in the Swiss Alps, winds its way into France and then bisects the valley for 250 miles on its path to the Mediterranean Sea. It is home to hearty vines, hearty wines and hearty people, and for years it was relatively undiscovered. That is no longer the case, but it remains home to some of the greatest wines wines of the world.
The northern Rhône Valley is Syrah country. A small amount of white wines are made from Viognier, Marsanne or Roussanne, or a blend of these grapes. The Southern Rhône, however, produces at least 23 grape varieties, with 13 allowed in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape district alone. The southern Rhône is also primarily red wine territory. The wines of the Rhône typically emphasize fruit, not oak. Many wines are vinified in large, completely neutral cement vats and then aged in large old oak foudres (barrels). A wine generically identified as being from the Côtes du Rhone may represent terrific value and frequently will consist mostly of Grenache blended with a variety of other Southern Rhône grape varieties.
A recent tasting at Kellogg Center’s State Room provided an introduction to available wines representing a good cross section of southern Rhône wines at a variety of styles and price points (at approximate local prices). The tasting also emphasized the distinct vintage difference between the concentrated, structured 2010 vintage and the more accessible 2011 vintage.
2011 Les Vignerons du Mont Cuvée des 3 Messes Basses ($10) from the Ventoux appellation consists of 60 percent Grenache, 20 percent Carignan and 20 percent Syrah. Grown in vineyards on the southern slopes of Mont Ventoux in hard limestone and ancient alluvium, this wine is medium ruby, with only modest tannins and a very soft presentation. Refreshing, bright, berry notes highlight this easy drinking wine; a good party quaffer. Like many wines from the Rhône, it is aged in neutral vats and sees no oak.
2010 Chateau La Tour de Beraud from Costieres de Nimes ($11) is a different entity entirely. Grown in a vineyard composed of flat, rounded stones over clay limestone marl, this is 50 percent Grenache, 30 percent Mourvèdre, 15 percent Syrah and 5 percent Marselan. Much more structured than the previous wine, it is darker and more aggressive, with tart overtones, a strong acid backbone, concentrated fruit and a bit of dryness on the finish. This will benefit from decanting, or some time in the cellar.
Domaine de L’Espigouette Côtes du Rhone ($13, a great value) is a wine I return to year after year. The 2011 displays soft fruit, modest tannins, bright, berry flavors, and perhaps overtones of cinnamon and clove. It is 70 percent Grenache, 10 percent Syrah and 20 percent Mourvédre, Carignan and Cinsault. The wine is aged in neutral vats.
Domaine des Amouriers from Vacqueyras Cuvée Signature ($21) from the 2010 vintage shows more structure, but is far more approachable than the 2010 La Tour de Beraud. A blend of 60 percent Grenache, 30 percent Syrah, 7 percent Cinsault and 3 percent Mourvédre, this is an impeccably balanced wine with modest but lingering sweet tannins, a touch of earthiness and spice. Enjoyable now, or it certainly has the backbone to put in the cellar.
Domaine de la Tourade from Gigondas ($24) really showed the power of the 2010 vintage. A blend of 80 percent Grenache, 10 percent Syrah and 10 percent Mourve dre, this wine spent 12 to 18 months in old oak casks and saw no new wood. Structured, concentrated, and with great depth of flavor, the wine has moderate tannins, a dark fruit flavor profile and an extremely long, lingering finish. Aerate now, or put in the cellar to enjoy later.
The last wine of the tasting and a perennial personal favorite was the Domaine du Pegau Chateauneuf-du-Pape, this one from the more approachable 2011 vintage. Pricing for this wine may vary widely because it is such a popular and highly respected producer, but $65-$75 should encompass the range. Although Pegau sometimes requires years to develop, evolve, and become approachable, this 2011 is ready to go. It shows a medium dark ruby color, sweet dark fruit nose, modest tannins, a bit of earthiness, impeccable balance, and is succulent now. Complexity is enhanced by the blend of 80 percent Grenache, 6 percent Syrah, 4 percent Mourvédre and 10 percent of all other permitted grape varieties, including Counoise, Cinsault and Vaccarèse. As usual, the fruit shines because the wine is vinified in cement vats, aged in old oak foudres and sees no new oak. The stony, heat-retaining vineyards have been tended by the same family for generations and it shows in the quality.
All of these wines should be available from your favorite wine merchant. They are brought into the country by Dan Farley of J&R Selections/J&J Importers and his colleague Kristen Pennington, and are distributed through Woodberry Wine.
In Vino Veritas (Michael Brenton is president of the Greater Lansing Vintner’s Club. His column appears monthly. You can email him at email@example.com.)