“Six? We really only have six people signed up for this class?” me as I flipped through the nearly empty pages of reservation sheets for our Rhone North to South tasting last month. I was feeling a little heartbroken but truthfully, not all that shocked. France’s Rhone Valley has been in the middle of an identity crisis for the past few years, thanks largely to tweaking their wines to dazzle a few press palates and the result sadly has been wines that no longer taste of place or whisper an accent. No, the wines have been largely, well large and taste as if they could have come from anywhere. Got them some press alright and for about two vintages that moved the wines quickly enough but eventually pushed away many people that had fallen in love with the flavors of that specific place; the beautiful spicing in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the flowering violets in Cornas, the fragrant herbs that run wild through Cotes du Rhone. And from as much as I can tell, the only thing wineries can count on when it comes to score chasers is loyalty isn’t really a factor in the game and eventually those cellars, (and palates) will be stuffed to overflowing and those folks are instead now looking for wines to drink every day, at the table.
Rhone is far from alone in this momentary loss of sanity. Alsace, Bordeaux and Burgundy have fallen onto the same loss of their way and stores, like ours, that have no interest in “International” style wines react by trimming those departments, seeking out the guys that aren’t looking to score 98 points and are steadfast in making wines that showcase the name they proudly display on their regional driven labels. We wait out the storm and as has been the case with Alsace, Burgundy and Bordeaux, wait for the pendulum to swing back before loading up the shelves once again. Makes the hunt a bit harder for us but when I taste a wine like I did the other day, one from Chateauneuf-du-Pape that is bursting with chocolate covered cherries and coconut, a wine that made me think instantly of the Molly Dooker wines from Australia, well I just assume that if anyone wanted Molly Dooker they would buy Molly Dooker so therefore that wine has no place in the French department. We don’t buy wines that are red or white, we buy wines that show why that place is like no other growing region and that actually say as much about where it comes from as what it is made from.
We fired off a couple emails that inspired a nice turnout for our Rhone event and I set about picking the wines and the order with which to pour them. “Now why would you pour the most expensive reds right away?” a curious and observant class attendee asked as we were getting ready to start the event. “Now conventional wisdom, and marketing for that matter, would tell me to pour the most expensive wines at the end of the night, prove how special they are but the thing is, these wines are not conventional, at least not in the way we are used to judging wines here. These aren’t the big, massive, toasty, rich wines that tend to be show stoppers…..at the end of a tasting fourteen other wines.” I was referring to the rare and powerfully elegant wines of the Northern Rhone. I chose to start with white, poured in flights of two with one being from the north and one from the south. Just wanted to start the wheels turning and education as to what weather and soil can do to essentially the same varieties, even in from the same region.
From white we jumped directly in to the Syrah based wines of the northern Rhone. Starting at the very top of the region with Cote Rotie then moving south with Crozes-Hermitage and on to Cornas. As we poured these pricey wines I explained that the cooler climate and treacherously steep vineyards were where Syrah was capable of reaching truly noble status. These tiny areas so perfectly suited as to coax a perfume, density and power that could be found nowhere else on the planet, not for Syrah anyway.
As we progressed south we explained that this is where those narrow slopes open into more of a valley floor, where the sun baked pebble and stone loaded vineyards are more suited for varieties like Grenache, Mourvedre, Cinsault along with Syrah, (used far more in blending in the south) grapes that long for the warm sun and flourish in the warm, rocky clay soils. One sip of these juicier, more rugged wines and the crowd could tell why I chose to end with them. The fruit is more playful, spicier, exuberant and aggressive and they simply would have trounced or masked the subtlety and grace of the cooler climate wines of the north. I took a poll at the end of the night, asked everyone which area of the Rhone they preferred and although I went against the convention this crowd absolutely got it, the hands raised in favor of the north were something like ten to one.
So while filling a class and selecting wines that reflect the true taste of France’s Rhone is more of a struggle than ever before we are still finding wines that scream of place, regionality and purity and more importantly, finding new faces to fall in love with them all over again. Was a wonderful class and a very welcome taste of the Rhone that I fell in love with.
2009 Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage Blanc $29.99
Rhone whites, be they from the north or south are not always the easiest wines to wrap your head and palate around. Big in the mouth like Chardonnay but nowhere near as fruity or long. This Roussanne and Marsanne blend is heady with green herbs, peaches and anise. Light on the palate as far as weight goes but leaves a linger that makes it perfect for an aperitif.
2009 La Cabotte Cotes du Rhone Blanc $10.99
Have to admit that this is one of my favorite little whites in the Rhone department right now. A blend of Clairette, Viognier and Grenache Blanc all in equal parts, the wine has a blast of super fresh fruit upfront but finishes with a nice dry bit of minerals. Grilled fish and chicken would simply sing with this value driven white.
2008 Domaine Mucyn Crozes-Hermitage $22.99
I had tasted this wine just a week before our Rhone class and knew it had to be included. Such an old school hand at work here. Rustic nose of roasted meat and cracked pepper but the palate is so pure and delicious. You get some subtle floral notes but it’s the pepper that carries through on the very long finish. Grilled lamb or steak needs nothing more than this wine.
2007 Patrick Jasmin Cote Rotie $55.99
Without question my wine of the night. Even thinking about now makes the tiny hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Deeply saturated aromas of roasted coffee, dried violets, minerals and fresh berries. Silky and luscious on the palate with tannins so fine you barely notice them, An astounding offering from one of the greatest estates in the northern Rhone. Buy one, you will not regret it.
2008 August Clape Cornas $91.99
Felt a little bad opening this wine so young and feel that on the evening of the class it was showing a little shy. Still expressing place and beautiful purity but it seemed to be aching to express more. Well when I ran through the wines the next day, it had come out of its shell! Still showing plenty of tannin assuring me that this wine has years to come around but all that purple fruit and flowery elegance was staining my palate. A wine for the cellar or one that needs some serious decanting. Hold on to this for about five years and you will have a bottle of wine that will no doubt blow your mind.
2008 Domaine les Pallieres Gigondas $33.99
This wine seemed to straddle that line between sumptuousness and balance. Dark black fruit, and allspice kind of note and a blast of dried lavender and rosemary. Big and full in the mouth, brimming with both sweet and savory flavors this wine would hold up to strongly seasoned meat dishes but has enough sheer yummy to drink on its own.