SEARCHING FOR VALUE IN THE RHONE
By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 6 March 2021
“Many of the best southern Rhone wines are drunk far too young”. That is the verdict of Matt Walls, author of a new book ‘Wines of the Rhone’ (£30 Classic Wine Library).
Grenache is so approachable in its youth, many are consumed before they reach maturity, says Walls (pictured below). To guide us when to broach our bottles to ensure secondary aromas have developed, Walls includes an ageing appendix. Keep the best Rasteau up to 8-16 years, best Gigondas 8-20 and Chateauneuf du Pape 8-40.
That is just one of the useful tips in this new Rhone tome. Another Walls recommendation is for a safe value bet from the Rhone, buy the least expensive wine from a well-known reliable negociant like Marcel Guigal, as the wines are well-made and consistent in every vintage.
What I particularly liked about Walls’ book was its focus on small lesser-known appellations, where you can hunt for good value drinking red, white and rose in both Northern and Southern Rhone. Walls spent two years living in the region hunting down producers. He really digs deep into little-known villages and crus often neglected in the past.
Take, for example, Duche d’Uzes. I had never heard of it before I opened this book and had to hunt for it on the map. Turns out it is a newly created ‘Other Rhone Valley’ appellation with a tiny amount of ‘galets roules’ and can taste like mini-Chateauneuf du Pape. I tracked down a bottle from Domaine Camp Galhan based on this rocky terroir, from exceptionally hot 2019 vintage.
The Rhone, as Walls explains, is a vast diverse region – second biggest in France after Bordeaux with 52 appellations, over 1700 wineries and 90 co-operatives. Only 5% of wines are in the northern Rhone, he questions why the Southern Rhone with 95% of production does not have more confidence in itself.
What has happened is that big southern Rhone appellations like Chateauneuf du Pape and Gigondas, on the East Bank of the river, tend to overshadow the mass of little-known crus on both sides of the Rhone.
[Pictured : some of southern Rhone's highest altitude vineyards (550-650m) at Clos des Cimes near Merindol-les-Oliviers in Rhone-Alpes].
Walls highlights the difference in character between the West Bank and East Bank in the south. “The West Bank was more famous in Middle Ages”, he says. Today good value Cotes du Rhone Villages like Laudun north of Lirac on the west bank, historically so well known, is one to watch – it may be the next ‘Named Village’ elevated to cru level.
Over on East Bank, you need to head into the hinterland away from big names. Walls points to Cairanne, Ventoux and Rasteau.
“Cairanne is very exciting with lots of good producers in this new Rhone Cru like Domaine Alary, Domaine Brusset and Les Haut Cauces – it also has the most balanced white wines in southern Rhone”, he says.
Rhone only produces 10% white wines, but Walls reckons we will see more in future. He suggests heading to Vacqueyras for big rich generous whites (look for Sang de Cailloux), but only 5% white is produced in this appellation.
Rose lovers will be pleased to hear that venerable old Tavel (pictured) on the West Bank is another to watch.
“There are an increasing number of producers pushing the envelope with a burgeoning natural wine scene in Tavel”, says Walls. Producers to watch here: Clos des Grillons, d’Aqueria, Moulin La Viguerie and L’Anglore.
In the latter part of the book, he heads to the Northern Rhone to Cote Rotie, Hermitage and Cornas to discover the purity and finesse of their Syrah. If you are looking for lesser-known names here he points to Cotes du Rhones from Brezeme, a good alternative to Crozes Hermitage or Cornas.
Climate change is being keenly felt in the Rhone. “Thankfully Southern Rhone vineyards have plenty of varieties to play with so could plant later ripening ones which retain acidity…other vigneron are planting late-ripening whites amongst parcels of reds and planting on cooler sites”, he says. On the plus side, warmer temperatures have opened up areas like Puymeras and Ventoux where wines are more consistent.
However, as Walls points out, adapting methods to warmer temperature is one thing – addressing the causes is another. “I’ve heard previous little from Rhone wineries about renewable energy, carbon capture or lighter weight bottles”, he says. Sustainability is something the Rhone will need to work on in future to survive.
CAIRANNE BLANC 2019 Domaine Richaud (14%)
£13 Fine Wine Musselburgh
Clairette/Bourboulenc-dominant blend with honeysuckle apricot spice with zesty acidity – well balanced richly fruited white.
LIRAC LA REINE DES BOIS BLANC 2019 Domaine de la Mordoree (14%) ***STAR BUY***
£28 Lea & Sandeman
According to Walls, several Chateauneuf producers have bought land in Lirac. It offers West Bank finesse with some superb spicy, floral, gentle minerally white blends.
CROZES HERMITAGE BLANC 2018 Alain Graillot (13%)
£24.75 Yapp Bros
Crozes is normally known for reds, this enchanting Marsanne/Roussanne partly-oaked blend is rich honeyed full with vibrant freshness.
TAVEL ROSE LA FORCADIERE 2019 Domaine Maby (14%)
£14.25 Yapp Bros
Full-bodied dark traditional rose; powerful structured food-friendly wine with rich red berry fruit; almost a light red.
DUCHE D’UZES, LES PERASSIERES 2019 Domaine Camp Galhan (13.5%) ***STAR VALUE***
£10.50 The Wine Society
Slimmed down west bank finesse with opulence richness and generosity, a delightful Chateauneuf-lookalike from Alain & Lionel Pourquier.
BREZEME ROUGE 2017 Domaine de Breseyme
£22 The Wine Society
I have written about the lush ripe 2016 from this producer; 2017 is tauter, but still fragrant spicy with purity of fruit.
LES QUARTZ 2018 Clos du Caillou
£25.50 L’Art du Vin
Superb Cotes du Rhone from Chateauneuf du Pape’s north-east border: forest-floor aromas, spicy garrigue, liquorice and cherry fruit.
HELOISE 2011 Chene Bleu (14%) ***STAR BUY***
£59 Justerini & Brooks
Hidden high-altitude gem from north-east side of Dentelles de Montmirail (this beautiful estate is pictured above); 2011 is so well developed, rich and opulent, a wonderful expression of the richness of this site.
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