Pinot noir is generally considered the most sensual of wines, and it is often proposed as the ideal wine to celebrate Valentine’s Day. I admit to have fallen under the spell of the aromas of strawberry jam, cherry and even blackcurrant, mingled with soft woods, at once elegant and intense… but with this cold and wet weather, I am rather reminded of the warm sunny romantic late summer days in the Rhone valley. The wines are more accessible and more affordable.
The Rhone valley is in the south of France where grapes have been grown since antiquity. There is no cru classification in this region, but this does not mean great wines are not produced – quite the contrary, if I do say so myself, as these are my favourite wines in the world. The valley stretches longitudinally over 200 kilometres, and it is divided in two enclaves.
The north called Côtes du Rhône septentrionales located between Vienne and Valence, is considered to produce better wines and they are indeed more expensive. The climate is continental (marked differences between the seasons). Red wines are from the varietals cinsault and mourvèdre, but it is the AOC ones made from syrah are world renowned and sought-after. The syrah made here is highly tannic and intensely coloured. It is not the boring Yellow-Tail from Australia. In general, the style is made for cellaring. With age, these reds become exceptionally elegant, and give off perfumes of violets and spices. The whites are expressed in a generous style and many benefit from cellaring also. Some wines from very old vines are quite unique and exceptional. The viognier wines are known for its perfumes of apricots and nuts, the marsanne are robust and textured, while the roussane is delicate – the latter two complement one another and are often blended together. Some whites are aged in barrels. The famous cuisine of Lyon a bit further north is often paired with these fabulously gastronomical wines.
Another typical Lyon dish, pork sausage called andouillette
Wines from the appellation Cornas are always 100% syrah. Often very high in tannins, they retain a wild and gamey character after many years. A glass of Cornas served with a fried trout and a sauce made from the wine is unusual and very good. Cornas is sadly not verily available in Vancouver.
Côte-Rôtie wines are blended with a splash of viognier. In hotter vintages, they are complex, fresh and herbal, reminiscent of tapenade and grilled game or bread, and exquisitely round. In colder or wetter vintages, the less complex and the more elegant, fruity, and floral characters are brought to the forefront while tannins are sharper. They usually always propose red or black fruits, are spicy and relatively dense with delicate expression of wood. They can be enjoyed in a decade. This appellation is located near Vienne at the northern extreme. The Rhone river swerves, and the vines are planted on a southern facing slope that gets a lot of sun. The grapes tend to reach full phenolic ripeness, and they are able to withstand pressing with some of the stems. This feature is important because the vines planted near the bottom of the valley do not fully ripen at this latitude. Because Hermitage has been making poor quality wines (for its price), this appellation has gained a lot of reputation lately. These wines are served with food prepared in the same spirit; roasted meats with Provence herbs, for example.
The neighbour Saint-Joseph is larger in geographic area, and produces a different style. It is generally spicy and gamey; the fruit is red and black, in warmer years more complex and jammier. Saint-Joseph is probably always de-stemmed. They are leaner in structure and accessible sooner than Côte-Rôtie, 2009 should be consumed soon.
When driving by Hermitage, the most striking feature is the sharp incline of the slope where these vines grow. I was told they are the most extremely slopes in all of France. Hermitage is the wine that put syrah on the world map. Tending to be on the more expensive side, I have yet to taste those legendary old vintages. The ones I have tasted were young reds and some beautiful older whites, and to be frank, the whites have left a better impression on me. The whites are golden but become much darker with age, with a heavy and oily texture that coats the mouth. They are expressive with intense aromas of apricots, dried fruits and white flowers. They open up with notes of honey, bitter almond and hazelnut after a decade, and it’s quite surprising – the lack of acidity does not at all diminish the experience. I am a big fan of white Hermitage. The red Hermitage are supposed to be powerful and tannic, but the ones I have tried are much like Saint-Joseph but far more expensive. Around Hermitage lie the more moderate hills of Crozes-Hermitage. The wines are of a similar style, but the experience is more subdued. The reds are accessible and pleasant.
The hills of Hermitage
In Condrieu the vines are all viognier, and many are very old. Even in France they tend to be rare and expensive. The smaller producers create wines that are so unique, with expressions of exotic fruits and textures that one would not expect. My friends say these are faults, but they are not unpleasant. Sadly, these are not available in Vancouver, so I make an effort to taste as many as I can while I am there. Within Condrieu is a small appellation called Château-Grillet. These wines are also all viognier, expensive and rare — I’ve yet to see a bottle despite searching in earnest. A truffled Bresse chicken is typically served with a Condrieu that was raised in wood. The AOC examples are similar to the white Hermitage, but they are lighter but no less complex, less opulent, more graceful and refined. The aroma of apricot is always present, however.
There is finally the Saint-Péray appellation, but I have never tasted these wines. They seem to be of little interest even to the locals.
The south is called Côtes du Rhône méridionales, and it lies between Montélimar and Avignon. The climate is Mediterranean, and in some places it is extremely warm and dry. The wines are made from a backbone of grenache noir, and tend to be in an extremely ripe style and very high in alcohol. The wines are less expensive, but Châteauneuf-du-pape, along with Gigondas and Vacqueyras are able to put out well balanced wines, even some whites are surprising. The better examples come from a geographic feature called les Dentelles de Montmirail, which is a large hill.
Les Dentelles de Montmirail around Gigondas and Vacqueyras The white crests on top of the hill look like lace, explaining the namesake “Dentelles”
These wines are powerful, tannic, high in alcohol, generous and virile. I prefer the Gigondas because I find it is rounder in its youth. They can cellar for some years before they are ready, but a good Châteauneuf-du-pape will begin to reach its apogee after 10 years. Savoury and heavier winter dishes would be the perfect match for such wines. There are lesser appellations all over the place. I’ve travelled this region extensively and the winemakers proposing their grands vins are rather non-descript, off-balance and simply too high in alcohol. On the other hand, the rosé and vin de pays wines are very pleasant and charming.