Rhone Month at Kew
Posted on October 16 2013
At Kew we’re big fans of the wines of the often overlooked Rhone region of France.
This October we’ve put together a special mixed case and have held a Rhone red wine weekend. Our in-house Wine Educator, Pippa Hayward, has also put together this snapshot guide:
It’s a tale of two halves, North and South, separated by a good hour’s travel and quite distinctly different in appearance and climate.
Head south out of Beaujolais, down past Lyon and the Rhone narrows to a steep – sided valley where vineyards perch on vertiginous granite terraces so steep no mechanisation is possible. It’s significantly cooler and wetter here too – decidedly less Mediterranean. Here the only red grape to make it through the growing season successfully is Syrah – so any red wine labelled Cornas, St Joseph, Hermitage or Crozes Hermitage will have to be 100% Syrah.
Syrah has been cultivated in the Rhone for centuries and in the nineteenth century Hermitage was routinely used to “improve” Bordeaux in poor years. In this cooler climate Syrah often produces more red fruit and floral notes with its hallmark whiff of black pepper. In the best sites –Hermitage, Cote Rotie, Crozes Hermitage and Cornas, and in the hands of a good grower, it can produce stunningly perfumed and concentrated wines which will easily out-last any Australian Shiraz.
While the wines from top growers in good years will always be expensive, sought after and collected, there are also excellent value reds from lesser known makers and good local co-operatives as well as “Junior Wines” from great growers like Yves Cuilleron.
Based in Charnay in the far northern tip of the Northern Rhone vineyards, Yves Cuilleron produces outstanding Cote Rotie and Condrieu. He also has vines just outside these prestigious areas and bottles the resulting Viognier and Syrah as “Vignes d’a Cote”. These are textbook examples of these Northern Rhone grapes at user-friendly prices.
Viognier and Condrieu
Condrieu was once home to the world’s entire stock of Viognier – until the seventies. It was all but extinct, when saved by Georges Vernay, who still makes one of the very best examples of Condrieu, and by the efforts of Georges Duboeuf who planted it in the Languedoc. It’s strange to think that a grape we now take for granted as a creamy and aromatic alternative to Chardonnay was almost lost to us.
Nowhere else in the world does Viognier deliver quite the distinctive style of Condrieu – headily perfumed with a scent of violets and notes of ripe white peach and apricot, yet with a creamy mineral streak that tempers its luscious side, this is a sumptuous, hedonistic wine that ought to be on everyone’s Must Try list.
Head south in summer by Eurostar to Avignon and you realise that almost hour elapses after you’ve left the Northern part of the Rhone’s vineyards behind – and that you haven’t hit any more vineyards yet. The weather changes too – often you emerge from cloud into sunshine, just as you start to notice vineyards once again. The landscape is a wide, gently undulating green valley covered with vines. A little further on and you spot the famous Dentelles de Montmirail –a jagged ridged hill range home to famous names like Gigondas and Vacqueyras. Finally you follow the flat plain of Chateauneuf-du-Pape into Avignon. You sense the Provencale warmth…
Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre
The drier, hotter climate here ensures that besides Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre will ripen –although even in this warmth Mourvedre still needs the hottest sites. Having a trio of great grapes to play with, allows winemakers to blend, creating wines that are greater than the sum of their parts.
Grenache ripens with a lot of sugar, not much colour and unless the vines are very old, not a lot of complexity or concentration. It needs the balancing qualities of Syrah – freshness, deep colour, great tannic structure for ageing and a flavour profile that just improves with age. Mourvedre brings a lovely perfumed quality, and a warm, earthy, spicy sweet fruit which mellows with age into soft leather armchair. The usual coupage – or blend, is roughly half Grenache, a third Syrah and the rest Mourvedre. It’s a deliciously successful recipe which most Cotes du Rhone reds follow – and which the Aussies have appropriated as GSM (Grenache/Shiraz/Mataro).
The Pecking Order
Chateauneuf-du-Pape is the star of the southern Rhone constellation. It was France’s first Appellation Controlee region in the early 1930s. It all happened as a result of replanting after the ravages of Phylloxera at the end of the nineteenth century. Prior to this catastrophe Chateauneuf had an enviable reputation for quality. In the aftermath of replanting, quality took a nose dive – possibly because the vines were too young or simply the wrong varieties. A group of concerned growers decided to establish a set of rules to remedy this. The land used had to be so infertile as to support only lavender and rosemary . Thirteen grape varieties were approved – five white and eight red. The minimum alcohol had to be 12.5%. Thus was born the first AC.
Below Chateauneuf are the Cotes du Rhone Villages from those villages allowed to put their name on the label – Gigondas, Rasteau , Cairanne, Seguret, Vacqueyras, Beaumes de Venise, Vinsobres, Massif D’Uchaux and Plan de Dieu. Generic Cotes du Rhone Villages can be a blend from any of these.
Beneath this sits basic Cotes du Rhone – which can come from anywhere within the Rhone vineyards –north or south.