GOOD GOLLY! WHAT'S GOING ON IN THE SOUTHERN RHONE?
In 1998 or thereabouts, wines in France’s Southern Rhone Valley—the home of the traditionallhy great wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape—shot up in alcohol, and for me at least, dropped off my dinner menu. While tasting the ’98 reds of a prominent Vacqueyras producer, I wrote “Turley Zin” in my tasting notes, which was not meant to be a compliment. The world fell in love with GSM (the traditional southern Rhone varieties Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre) blends from places like California, Washington State and Australia, but sales had significantly slowed from the traditional GSM region, the southern Rhone.
What happened, I wondered? Was it climate change or were the wines changing to appeal more to mega-critic Robert Parker’s increasingly deadened palate? Or both?
In the vintages that followed over the past two decades, it has become clear that whether or not Parkerization has had any enduring influence on winegrowing, climate warming has taken its toll. It has been widely reported that the growing season for Grenache has changed so significantly, particularly its out-of-control ripening, that Chateauneuf producers were reducing the amount of Grenache and upping the amount of Mourvedre in their blends to make wines of better balance.
If that is indeed the case, how does that impact the taste, and from the perspective of fine wine appreciation, how does that impact the age-worthiness of one of the world’s most revered wines?
A few years ago my friend Jack McLaughlin pulled out of his cellar an aged Vieux-Telegraphe from the mid-1980s, and on another occasion an aged Beaucastel from the same period. Both wines were spectacular with age, exhibiting all the spice, nuance, delicate fruit, resolved tannins and beautifully balanced character you find in all great aged wines. Now that everything has changed in the making of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, from its ripeness to its blend to its alcoholic strength, it is doubtful to me that the kind of caterpillar-to cocoon-to butterfly development will be possible. The lore of the appellation has created an expectation of great wine, but at this point it is a misplaced one.
Personally, in the past two decades, the most appealing wines of the southern Rhone have not been the vaunted appellation reds of Vacqueyras, Rasteau, Cairanne, Sablet, Gigondas, Lirac and Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but the “everyday” wines labeled Côtes-du-Rhône. Because they were more modest to begin with, the wines seemed to have benefited from the additional heat, cancelling out the green, briary, roasted herb “garrigue” flavors, adding just enough weight to produce juicier, more appealing wines without the punishing alcohol, at least for now. (When California Zinfandels got riper, they also lost their briary character also, but instead of table-worthy balance in place of it, their wines got prune-y, alcoholic and gawd-awful overripe. Which was just fine for folks who like their dinner wines the way they like their port.)
So I was riddled with curiosity as I approached our recent Saturday tasting of red wines from the Southern Rhone. To my surprise, a lot of the wines had left their garrigue character behind, and thanks to Samantha Dugan’s selection, they retained balance and typicity. There was considerable variety on the table, both in flavor and intensity, but for the most part, they represented some of the most satisfying tastes I’ve experienced in red wine in a very long time.
Best of all, compared to the great wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux, the wines of the southern Rhone valley are still great values, several able to be picked up for $25 and less.
As for food-worthiness, I remember enjoying a lower-alcohol Chateauneuf-du-Pape in the early 1970s with a beef dish, but in recent years have preferred southern Rhones with lamb and other Mediterranean delights, as long as the wines weren’t too alcoholic. Unfortunately, it has become harder and harder to find satisfying Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras and others that are under the 14% ABV table wine threshold.
That’s how I ended up drinking more Cotes-du-Rhone bottlings than before. And I saved a lot of money doing it.
Here are my standouts during our Southern Rhone Valley Red Wine Tasting:
A recent Wine-of-the-Month, this wine was just a bit a-typical of others in its appellation, in that it was the least “Rhone-y”, performing more like a Beaujolais in the glass than a Chateauneuf-du-Pape. There were no briary flavors, just lighter-bodied, pure cherry notes from its Grenache. Hugely popular, especially during the fall season.
$13.99 per bottle
For over a quarter century, this over-achiever has performed as our unofficial house Cotes du Rhone. What I’ve always loved about this wine is its friendly juiciness and its easy-going personality. Irresistible. Marie-Pierre, Eric and Etienne Plumet farm their grapes biodynamically (a sort of ritualized hyper-organic system), and for decades have made true artisanal wines at affordable prices…real integrity that deserves to be rewarded.
$12.99 per bottle
Long Beach chef and Thai District restaurant co-owner André Angles has family connections to this wine. His mother owns a vineyard that is part of the Terres d’Avignon group where Kermit Lynch imports makes its component selections for this super-popular blend. Easy-going, straight-forward and correct, this wine does what Cotes du Rhone should do, mainly provide enough fruit and balancing acidity to cut through the fat in a slice of salami, and finish dry doing it. It’s medium-bodied, and depending on the year our first or second best-selling Cotes du Rhone.
$13.99 per bottle
Chateauneuf producers Famille Lançon need to make their Cotes du Rhones with a bit more forwardness than most of their neighbors because they have a reputation to protect. And here they have succeeded. Good concentration in the aroma of strawberry jam. In the mouth there is a medium-to-full body packed with attractive fruit, finishing dry. It is a pleasure to drink.
$15.99 per bottle
The most positive reaction to the wines of our recent southern Rhone tasting came after sampling Alain Jaume’s Champauvins bottling. Super-vintner Jaume makes impressive wines from all over the Rhone Valley. Here he singles out the Domaine Grand Veneur as the source of this super selection. Perfumed (is Syrah asserting itself?), solid and serious wine with impressive black raspberry flavors produce thrills in the beginning, middle and bone-dry end. Excellent bottle. It’s a very good wine.
$22.99 per bottle
This Kermit Lynch import (at 14%ABV) is a denser, more tannic side of Cotes du Rhone. There are faint notes of southern Rhone herbaceousness, but the overriding strawberry/dark-cherry flavors are more assertive. There is a solid structure that should bode well in the cellar for five to ten years, but the wine performs well right now. There is just enough juiciness to balance the tannin.
$28.99 per bottle
This is a new estate for us, one that Samantha Dugan was so impressed with, she bought three wines from. We featured the Vacqueyras at our recent Cotes du Rhone event, and it became many of our tasters’ favorite wine of the day. Located about 5 miles from Gigondas, Vacqueyras was elevated from named Cotes du Rhone Villages status to having its own appellation in 1990. This wine is beautifully perfumed. Silky at entry, then the tannins kick in. The flavor features juicy fruit with some berry and milk chocolate notes and a dry finish.
$31.99 per bottle
Gilles and Thierry Fravel produce one of our most popular wines from this respected appellation (achieving appellation status, like Chateauneuf-du-Pape, in 1971). I took one sniff of this vintage and was happily reminded why I’ve always been attracted to this wine. It is a serious dry wine, which will need salty and fatty foods to bring out the fruit which is lurking behind a berm of tannins. There is a serious demeanor in this estate’s 2019.
$38.99 per bottle
Perhaps the most apt comparison of Chateauneuf-du-Pape with California wine is Zinfandel. Once briary, brambly table wines, both have have become behemoths in an effort to achieve uniform ripeness. In the case of Zinfandel, too many have become either disjointed or overripe and prune-y. In the case of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the proportion of their blends keep shape-shifting, yet the excessive alcohols in both make them problematic with food in modern times. Although 14.5% in alcohol, this wine attempts to rein in the excesses, with apparent restraint in the nose and in the mouth. The only giveaway to its elevated ripeness is a little alcohol burn in the finish, but it’s tolerable. This is not a wine that hits you over the head; instead, it pulls you in. With medium weight, it exhibits attractive cherry fruit followed by a tannic/alcohol grip in the finish. It’s definitely a wine you’ll want to explore if you’ve been a fan of Chateauneuf.
$49.99 per bottle
The mighty Le Vieux Donjon Chateauneuf has been making impressive wines for at least two decades, delivering solid, full-bodied examples in ripe years and challenging ones. The 2020 has an elegant, viscous appearance. The richness is also apparent in the aroma and mouth, with a roasted coffee aspect. It is a powerful wine that can’t be ignored. Yes, it has heat in the finish (what 15% wine doesn’t?), but if we’re going to continue our love affair with Chateauneuf-du-Pape, we’ll have to adapt.
$70.99 per bottle
AND A DELICIOUS HIDDEN-GEM BONUS WINE:
This wine has delighted me since I first tasted it at the domaine in 1991. Beaumes-de-Venise is a sleepy village not far from Gigondas that gained notoriety not from its red blends, but a fortified version of Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, the same clone that goes into the refreshing Moscato of Asti. Before there were refrigerated tanks that could help stop fermentation to make sweet wines, as in Germany, vintners had to add clear brandy to kill the yeast, the same as they do in the great port wines. The resulting wines are around 15% ABV, more like vermouth than Asti. The Leydier family of Durban has been producing the most celebrated version of this specialty, and the 2020 shows why. The perfume is mandarin orange and tangerine. In the mouth, you’ll discover the same delightful fruit flavors with perhaps a little creaminess. Aptly labeled “dessert wine”, it is sweet, but not syrupy. This wine is also a favorite cooking wine with French chefs, adding it into their Sabayon and other sauces. Like Lillet, which is also sweet and citrusy, you could serve this as an aperitif, with some duck paté, but it is too delicate to serve with anything sweet. Perhaps a little slice of creamy cheese is all you need.
$15.99 per 375ml bottle