by Jean K. Reilly
Recommending wines from the Rhône Valley can be as tricky as navigating the enormous river that winds through this famous region. There are a large number of grape varieties and styles to keep in mind and, oddly enough, little connection between the two major regions.
The two dominant red grapes of the region, Syrah and Grenache could not be more different. Syrah, the grape of the Northern Rhône, typically creates big, muscular wines with high acidity and gripping tannins. Grenache, on the other hand, is a lazy lap dog of a grape with moderate acidity, soft tannins and easy fruit flavors.
Northern Rhône Reds
The most tempting way to explain the style of these Syrah-based reds wines is to invoke the near-ubiquitous Australian Shiraz. However, unless a consumer is drinking exceptionally lean Shiraz, he is unlikely to see the parallel between his fruit-forward, easy-drinking Aussie wines and the tannic, low-fruit wines from the Northern Rhone. Bordeaux, with its more restrained fruit, powerful structure and in-your-face tannins, turns out to be a better way to explain the Northern Rhône style to newcomers.
Cornas, St Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage
These are very large appellations that cover a broad range of terroirs and quality levels. At the low-end, they are simple, pleasant wines, a perfect accompaniment to barbecue. Some single-vineyard wines, however, such as Jaboulet's Crozes-Hermitage Domaine de Thalabert, can rival Hermitage for complexity and ability to age (though, thankfully, not in price.) Crozes-Hermitage tends to make the lightest wines, while some Cornas can be so dense as to be unapproachable in their youth.
Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage
These tiny communes are the heavy-hitters of the Rhone valley. They are universally expensive and made to age. At their best, they show a powerful structure with forthright tannins, high acidity and aromas of game and raw meat. Due to the frequent inclusion of a small percentage of Viognier grapes in the blend, Côte-Rôtie tends to be more perfumed while Hermitage is often denser.
The one thing that all Rhône whites have in common is low acidity. If someone is a fan of racy Rieslings and Sauvignon Blancs, he will likely find Rhone whites to be lacking in that vital zest. On the other hand, they tend to score high with New World Chardonnay drinkers for their mouth-coating weight. Fans of the exotically perfumed Viognier will find its most unique (and expensive) expression in Condrieu, a small stony appellation squeezed between Côte-Rôtie and St. Joseph. The rest of the white wines in the Rhône Valley, based on the Marsanne and Roussanne grapes, are not quite as aromatically intense as Viognier, but often come across as quite powerful due to their high alcohol and particularly full body.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Friends
Almost all of the wines from the Southern Rhône are based on Grenache, with varying amounts of a number of other heat-hardy grapes, including Mourvèdre, Syrah and various supporting characters. While Chateauneuf-du-Pape unquestionably produces the best wines of the Southern Rhone, its fame is such that there are plenty of producers who are merely coasting on the reputation of the appellation, turning out substandard offerings with hefty pricetags. On the other hand, for a wine from one of the less well-known areas such as Vacqueyras, Costiéres de Nimes, Gigondas or Cairanne to make it to these shores, it has to rise well above its numerous peers to catch the attention of an importer. These are the appellations to look to for value.
And then there's the vintage question. Though usually more consistent than either Burgundy or Bordeaux, Rhone has hit some hard spots in recent years. 2002 saw floods that wiped out entire vineyards, halved yields and impaired ripening of the grapes. Many of the reds come across as a bit hard and mean.
Early tastings of the 2003 red wines showed excellent promise. Syrah and Grenache are naturally tolerant of heat and drought and suffered little from last year's famous heat wave. The whites are another question. Many of the native white grapes of the Rhone, including Viognier and Marsanne are naturally low in acidity in a normal year. The record-breaking heat wave of 2003 reduced the acidity to distressingly low levels. Of course, most producers acidified their wines but the results are generally unimpressive.
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