Monday, April 15, 2013

The Southern Rhone—Grenache is the King, but Others Help

We now head south past the city of Montelimar into the Southern Rhone. This region is more spread out than the Northern Rhone, with many small towns nestled in the hills on both sides of the river.  Many of these towns are tiny and beautifully picturesque, with narrow cobblestone streets and quaint names like Segurat and Sablet.

The climate here is more Mediterranean, and the differing terroir combines with the rugged terrain partially protecting the valleys from the mistral to produce varying microclimates. As a result, a diversity of wines are produced. Grenache is the most widely grown grape here. Also found are Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault, and Carignan, among others. In fact, the most famous A.O.C. here, Chateauneuf du Pape, allows up to ten different varietals in the red wines and nine in the whites. Gigondas, on the other hand, another well known appellation, only allows Grenache and a few others. The white varietals are primarily Ugni Blanc, Roussanne, Bourboulenc, Picpoul, Viognire and Clairette.

Most of the red wines are pleasant, fruit-driven (primarily dark fruit) earthy wines. Those from Chateauneuf du Pape have power and structure and can rank with Bordeaux and Burgundy as the country’s most respected wines. They are all excellent food wines, are great with pork, game, poultry, sausage, and are as good as it gets with lamb. They are also priced much lower than the Northern Rhones, with very good examples in the $12.00 to $20.00 range. Only the great Chateauneuf du Papes are really expensive.

While the majority of the wines are red, some very nice whites are produced here as well. They are usually blends with a combination of fruit, acidity, and minerality that make them interesting and food friendly. The A.O.C. of Tavel is one of the world’s most famous areas of rosé production. Finally, the appellation of Muscat de Beaumes de Venise produces fortified white wines.

Labels indicate the quality of the wine according to the following classification:

Cotes du Rhone—denotes wines from the entire southern Rhone.

Cotes du Rhone Villages—higher minimum requirements for wine maturation and production.

Cotes du Rhone + village name—Usually the highest standards before Cru status.

Cru—the name of the actual A.O.C. is on the label, best quality of all. These are wonderful wines for the price. They are Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas, Lirac, Rasteau, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, Tavel, and Vacqueyras.

The shelves in our store contain dozens of these great wines, but here are a few of my favorites.

Cotes du Rhone: Chave’s Mon Coeur 2010 (Grenache, Syrah) shows kirsch and black currant fruit intermixed with earth and spice. Luscious but has good structure. All this for $19.99. Chapoutier’s Belleruche 2010 (80% Grenache, 20% Syrah), an excellent bargain at $12.99, has wonderful red fruit aromas with dark red fruit and spice flavors. There is surprising structure at this price. At the same price point, Oraison 2009 shows the lush fruit typical of that vintage.

Cotes du Rhone Villages: Domaine Boisson Cairanne 2010 (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Carignan). Prepare yourself for awesome red and dark fruit, great earthy structure. I love this wine at $19.99, and the L’Exigence 2009, its big brother, is ready to knock your socks off after getting an extra year in the bottle.

Cru: Cuvee Prestige Gigondas 2011 (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) is an amazing bargain at  $19.99. The  typical price from this appellation is $30.00-40.00, but this is classic Gigondas with a fleshy and velvety mouth feel. There are lush blackberries, plums, cherries, licorice and spice on the palate, held together by soft but structured tannins with a long spicy finish. This is a lot of wine for $19.99.

My vote for best Chateauneuf du Pape for the money is Bois de Boursan 2009. Classic, old school, full throttle Chateauneuf with rich layers of fresh and stewed fruit, wet earth, spice, juicy tannin… OMG this is good! It’s not cheap at $47.99, but great Chateauneuf is never cheap. Get this for that special occasion or meal. You will not soon forget it.

The Rhone Valley is definitely a wine region to be explored. There are great bargains from the south and great wines from both sub regions, so do yourself a big favor and check them out.

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