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RHÔNE VALLEY

wpe6C.jpg (6663 bytes)This geologically diverse region in France produces some extraordinary wines.    The amazing point is that you can find stellar, rare and costly wines in this area, but there are many little gems to be had, also.  We're amused that many California winemakers put price tags on their wines which exceed those found on some of the wines which are viewed as "the standards. "

Wines from the Rhône used to be viewed as price-worthy alternatives to Bordeaux and Burgundy when those markets spiraled to dizzying levels.  This situation has changed in the past decade as superstar Rhône Valley wines now achieve prices as high as top Bordeaux and Burgundy. 

The main grape varieties here are the Grenache and Syrah for red wines, Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne for whites. 

NORTHERN RHÔNES
I've listed the appellations and the grape varieties allowed for each.  They're listed north to south.  While a major player in southern Rhônes, Grenache is not normally found in the north.

 


Vineyards of Syrah in the Côte-Rôtie area...

CÔTE- RÔTIE  Syrah 

with a 20% maximum of Viognier being allowed, though rarely employed.

CONDRIEU Viognier
Chateau GRILLET  One of the few curiosities in terms of appellation, this is the name of the winery as well as the appellation. Viognier
SAINT-JOSEPH Syrah for the reds  with 10% maximum of white grapes allowed.

Marsanne & Roussanne for the whites

CORNAS Syrah
SAINT-PERAY Marsanne & Roussanne for both white wine and a Rhône sparkling wine.
CROZES-HERMITAGE Syrah for the reds  with 15% maximum of white grapes allowed-rare, though.

Marsanne & Roussanne for the whites

HERMITAGE Syrah for the reds with 15% maximum of white grapes allowed-rare, though

Marsanne & Roussanne for the whites


The Southern Rhône is quite variable, the second largest regional appellation after Bordeaux.  The most broad appellation here is "Côtes du Rhône" and you'll find it on some wines ranging from very good to remarkably average.  There are some 77 or so little "burgs" which come under the appellation of "Côtes du Rhône Villages".  Of those, some 16 can actually put their village name on the label.   We've recently found good wines of the Costieres-de-Nimes, Coteaux-du-Tricastin and Côtes-du-Ventoux designations.   The most prestigious southern Rhone appellations are the world-famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape, followed by Gigondas and then Lirac and Vacqueyras.  Tavel is a famous and, usually, expensive rose wine.  

Most of the southern Rhône reds are Grenache-based wines.  Quality and character are variable, depending upon the location of the vineyard, soil type, vintage and vigneron.  

There are 13 different varieties allowed in producing wines such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape.   Grenache Noir, Syrah and Mourvèdre are the primary varieties, augmented with Picpoul (which comes in 3 "flavors": noir, blanc or gris), Counoise, Cinsault, Clairette, Terret Noir, Vaccarese, Roussanne, Bourboulenc and Piccardin.   You might also find a herd of others in the south, including Carignan, Grenache Blanc, Ugni Blanc, Marsanne, Viognier, Camarese, Pascal Blanc, Grenache Gris, Clairette Rose and something called Calitor. 

Winemaking in this region varies from rustic to ultra-modern.  While we've seen cellars here with 60-gallon capacity oak barrels, the percentage of wines with significant amounts of new oak is rather small.  Most winemakers attempt to showcase their fruit rather than the work of a barrel-builder.

Recent vintages have been reasonably good.  There is not a shortage of good Rhône wines at the present time.  

Some Rhône Selections:
E. GUIGAL
wpe17.jpg (3858 bytes)We've long admired the wines of Guigal, first visiting the winery back in the early 1980s.  We stopped in again recently and, despite our poor timing (the harvest was just winding down), both Marcel Guigal and his son were extremely hospitable.  

Guigal owns about 12 hectares of vines and so they operate as "negociants", too, buying fruit, juice and wine.  The remarkable thing is the high level of quality to be found up and down the line-up.  Their basic "Côtes du Rhône" is a terrific red wine (and we have it on sale for just $13.49 a bottle!). The 2007 vintage puts to shame a good many California Zinfandels at twice the price!  It's predominantly Syrah with a high percentage of Grenache and about 10% of Mourvedre...

The company has grown considerably over the past decade, or so, thanks to the high standards of the Guigal family.  It's not by accident these wines have gained a wide audience.   

Of course, Côte-Rôtie here is the specialty, Guigal owning several prime parcels.   These are labeled "La Landonne", "La Mouline" and "La Turque" and fetch amazingly high prices.   Some potential buyers view these as commodities, not as wine.  Prices, as a result, have become astronomical.  
We have the 2004s in stock.  $299.99 per bottle.

wpe36.jpg (13283 bytes)Now a large producer of Condrieu, Guigal's special bottling is tabbed "La Doriane" and has been exceptional Viognier.  La Doriane is matured in wood, so it's got the peach-like notes of Viognier, plus the sweet vanillin notes of the new oak barrels.

Photo:  A Zander filet (a type of perch) served on a bed of vegetable confetti seasoned with curry.  This was a sensational plate prepared by Norbert & Gaby.



Guigal has introduced a new Côte-Rôtie called Château d'Ampuis.   We were impressed by the fruit, spice and sweet oak of the 1995, the inaugural vintage.  The wine continues to be a delight.  The 2006 is in stock and it's a major league, very showy Syrah.

The local importer recently landed some bottle of Guigal's 1997 Côte-Rôtie and we bought one, curious to see how this has matured.  Well, in April of 2008 the wine is still deep and youthful in color.  It's aromas are young, too and the wine is quite full and vigorous on the palate.  I would not have guessed it to be a ten+ year old wine from such a warm vintage.  I suspect it may cellar nicely for another decade.  Maybe more.
 
We're big fans of the Saint Joseph bottling called "Vignes de l'Hospice."  This is a magnificent Syrah from two vineyard sites.  It's made entirely of Syrah and the wine spends two and a half years in brand new oak barrels.  This contributes a magnificently sweet, woodsy quality to the nose and palate.  The wine is supposed to retail for $135, but we've got it sale tagged presently at $109.99.    It's drinking well not, especially if you like lavishly oaked Bordeaux and can imagine that mixed with some dark blackberry fruit and a hint of wood spice.  This is amazing.  Limited, though.

Guigal was once highly-regarded by young, hip sommeliers and wine geeks.  Theirs was the label of those-in-the-know.  Now, perhaps 20 years later, the label is no longer viewed as being "cool" and the brand is viewed by those folks as akin to Silver Oak-from-the-Rhone.  



Currently available:  2009 Côtes du Rhône Rouge  Sold Out (half bottles are $11.99)
2007
Côte-Rôtie Sale $69.99
2010 Saint Joseph "Vignes de l'Hospice"  SALE $99.99
2001 Chateau d'Ampuis
Côte-Rôtie  $149.99
2012 Condrieu "La Doriane" Sale $109.99
2004 Single Vineyard
Côte-Rôties...SALE $299.99
and we can order numerous other bottlings for you...

ABSOLUTELY STELLAR:
2010 GUIGAL Saint-Joseph "Vigne del





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DOMAINE CLUSEL-ROCH
A rather tiny property, this firm is located in Ampuis and produces a few bottles of Condrieu and a few more of Côte-Rôtie.  

Run by Gilbert Clusel and Brigitte Roch, they have something like 3 hectares of Syrah vineyards and a half of a hectare of Viognier.  
Their son is now part of the firm and he's renting a couple of parcels of Gamay near Lyon, hence the new sign (depicted above) with the notation of "Lyonnais."


The Côte-Rôtie sees time in new wood and seasoned cooperage to achieve a balance and highlight the spicy, bacony Syrah fruit.  

If you taste a really young bottling, the wine "merely" shows dark fruits...it takes a few years of aging in the bottle for the wine to develop and blossom.  


Brigitte opened a couple of bottles of their 1999  Côte-Rôtie wines for us in 2008.  These were, frankly, superb.  Best wines of my French visit, in fact.

 

2011...the entire Team of Clusel-Roch



 

 

I tasted their 2002 vintage and, despite it being a tad light, the wine was thoroughly delicious!  We currently have the 2003 in stock.  This is a nicely done wine and it's drinkable now, if you like.  I suspect it will continue to develop for a few more years and maintain on a plateau through 2015, or so.  I don't find it to show as much wood as did earlier vintages.  
 


They make an even tinier amount of Viognier from the Condrieu appellation.  This is a really fine example of Viognier and it sees a bit of wood.  The wine is peachy, dry and has a mild woodsy note.


Currently in stock:  2007 Côte-Rôtie  $59.99
2007 Côte-Rôtie 
2007 Condrieu  List $60  SALE $49.99




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DOMAINE ALAIN GRAILLOT

Moving from Paris to the northern Rhône in the mid-1980s, Graillot has become the leading producer of Crozes-Hermitage wines.   

Graillot had been a fan of the wines of Guigal, Jaboulet and Grippat, so when the opportunity for a new career path became available in 1985, he took it, renting a vineyard in Crozes-Hermitage.  Now he owns these vineyards and he's a major luminary in the French wine scene.
 
His early vintages were quite good, putting him at the head of the class. 

His wines today are as good as ever.  Graillot farms about 21 hectares of vineyards, mostly in Crozes-Hermitage, though he does have a small holding in Saint Joseph, as well. 

Today Graillot's wines are regarded as a bit of a benchmark for the appellation, though his neighbor (and buddy) Laurence Combier also makes remarkably good wines.

The 2011 vintage of Crozes is quite good.  This is a deep, dark Syrah with tremendous Syrah fruit and spiciness.  Plummy.  Dark berries...blackberries...It's showing beautifully today with nice spice notes and a dark berry fruit.

Graillot makes a special bottling, selecting his favorite barrels for this wine.  It is labeled "La Guiraude".   We periodically have this in stock...it's allocated and we're fortunate to receive a few bottles from time to time.

Currently available:  2011 Crozes-Hermitage SALE $31.99
2011 Crozes-Hermitage La Guiraude Sale $54.99


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PAUL JABOULET AINE

wpe16.jpg (2970 bytes)This winery cranks out more than 2 million bottles of wine annually!    The Jaboulet family lost the 'recipe' and finally sold the winery to someone more interested in producing good quality wines.  

We had read some sad reviews of Jaboulet wines which mirrored our tasting experience.  I bought some bottles of 2005s and these show a marked improvement in quality.

 
The crown jewel is their "La Chapelle" bottling of Hermitage, a rare and expensive bottling which is named after a chapel at the top of the hill.  The wine is reportedly from two parcels of vines owned by Jaboulet.  




We trekked up to the "chapel" one winter's night in 2003 and nearly froze to death.  But we did drink a nice bottle of 1999 La Chapelle there.
 
 
The wine spends around a year in oak, not nearly as long as Guigal ages his super-cuvees (3 years!) and it takes a long time to really evolve and blossom in the bottle.  We've periodically found some of Jaboulet's other wines to have quality matching the price tags. 

The 2005 La Chapelle is a very fine, but very young wine.  I would not suggest this wine as something to be opened in the next year or two.  If you don't mind spending two-hundred bucks for a wine to open in 2015 to, say, 2020, then go ahead.  If you're buying the 2005 to drink now, you're wasting your money.

Jaboulet is  always promoting its basic Côtes du Rhône, Parallele 45, but we're not fans of the raisiny, over-ripe, jammy fruit this wine seems to display.

We have access to their full range of wines, so if you are looking for something particular, please let us know.  We recently included a Saint-Joseph and a Crozes-Hermitage in a blind-tasting of 2005s...I liked them both and was pleasantly surprised the wines showed as nicely as they did.

In a blind-tasting of white wines from the Northern Rhône, I included both their Crozes-Hermitage and Hermitage.  The Hermitage fared very well, finishing in second place out of the 8 wines.
Even better was their Crozes-Hermitage "Mule Blanche" which finished in first place.  It's less than half the money of the Hermitage and it's a splendid bottle of wine.
Peach and ripe pear notes are enhanced by a touch of a woodsy element from its maturation in oak barrels.  Very fine!

Currently available:   2005 Hermitage "La Chapelle"   SALE $199.99




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DOMAINE PIERRE GONON

Pierre Gonon "senior" is an old timer who was part of the group of growers helping draw up the boundaries for the Saint Joseph appellation back in the 1950s.

Today his sons, Jean and Pierre Junior run the estate and many view it as a reference point for the appellation.  They've been running the domaine since 1989.

In Dad's day, the appellation of Saint-Joseph was fairly small, comprising the town of Saint Joseph and the neighboring villages of Tournon, Mauves and St. Jean de Muzols.  In 1971 the appellation was expanded, some say to its detriment.  Now, in fact, there's a move to eliminate some of the marginal sites in an effort to elevate the reputation and status of the appellation.

The Gonon brothers farm something like 9 hectares of vines, including a couple of hectares of white grapes.  It seems their Pop had the idea that Marsanne and Roussanne were worthy grapes and so he began cultivating those, once upon a time.

The vineyards are too steep to drive a tractor through them, so the brothers laborious tend the vines by hand.  They've been farming organically for a number of years, but only recently have set about obtaining certification for this.

Yields are kept to a modest level, as they prune severely and are willing to 'green harvest' in the summer if they think that's going to improve the quality of their wine.  Further, though they have a number of parcels which could produce a 'super cuvee,' the brothers have been reluctant to follow the current fashion of producing single vineyard wines, though I believe they've periodically offered an "old vines" bottling.

Their red wine vinification is a bit old-school.  Partial de-stemming...old wooden, open top fermentation tanks with pump overs and periodic "punch-downs" by foot...large casks and puncheons for the elevage of the wine...no filtering, but egg-white fining...

We have their 2008 vintage in stock.  The brothers will tell you this was a "difficult" vintage and if you taste the wines from some of their competitors, you'll get the idea.  But if you taste their wine, you'd have no clue that 2008 was a challenging harvest.  That's the sign of good winemakers...they make something really fine in a vintage when the jokers are lost.

It's a medium-bodied, rather elegant Syrah...definitely cool climate Syrah aromas and flavors...spice, herbs, 
and a hint of white pepper.  Very fine!

The 2011 is also exceptional and, for us, a classic example of Northern Rhone Syrah.  It's a wonderfully aromatic wine showing the white pepper and some of the green olive/black olive sort of tapenade notes we look for in this variety.  
We have a few half bottles, full bottles, magnums and, now, an empty bottle of the 2011.  

We also picked up some of their very rare white St. Joseph wine.  It carries the specific site of the vineyard on the label, Les Oliviers, a south-facing slope with a terroir of alluvial stones, clay and some granite.  One taste of this and you'll recognize the wine as truly "noble" and superior to some of the more costly Condrieu wines made nearby.  In fact, putting this on the dinner table in place of a fairly noble white Burgundy is certainly a good idea.
This rarity comes solely in 750ml bottles...
 

Currently in stock:  2008 GONON SAINT-JOSEPH  $36.99
2011 GONON SAINT-JOSEPH Rouge SALE $39.99 (750ml)
2011 GONON SAINT-JOSEPH Rouge $24.99 (375ml)
2011 GONON SAINT-JOSEPH Rouge SALE $89.99 (magnum)
2011 GONON SAINT-JOSEPH Blanc "Les Oliviers" $47.99 (750ml)








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COTEAUX DES TRAVERS  (Robert Charavin)
Robert Charavin's grandpa Elie began selling his wines in 1931 and when World War II ended, the domaine found even more success.

In 1976 they discovered wine bottles and corks and began employing both.  Soon customers were coming directly to the cellar door in beautiful downtown Rasteau (well, close to what passes for 'downtown' in the sleepy village of Rasteau) and carrying away bottles and boxes of bottles to enjoy at home.
 
Today the domaine comprises about 14 hectares, ten or eleven of them in Rasteau and the rest in neighboring Cairanne.    The vineyards are quite mature, averaging about 40 years of age in most instances, with the oldest parcels being around 90 years old (Merci beaucoup, Grandpa Elie!).

Robert told us in 2011 that he'd just acquired a nice patch of 70 year old Carignane vines.
 
 
The soil in Rasteau tends to be mostly clay, while his vineyards in Cairanne tend to be a mix of clay and sand.
 
 
 
 


Old vines in Rasteau
 
We've been fans of this winery for a number of vintages now.  The wines are routinely of really fine quality, well-made and showing "precision";  precision in their viticulture, precision in their vinification and precisely balanced, too.
 
The vineyard are now being farmed biodynamically, but Charavin doesn't make a big fuss about this.  Many vintners crow about their organic farming, but Charavin has long had respect for the vines and has cultivated in a "responsible" fashion for many years.  These days it's a marketing point for many producers and Charavin seems to prefer to let his wines do the talking for him.

Though he makes good white wine, it's his Rasteau rouge which is especially appealing.  

"For the red wines, my fermentation is like that of a rosé for the first 6 to 8 days.  I like to start with a cool fermentation, so it's around 16 to 18 degrees Centigrade.  Then I let it rise so we obtain good color, but starting it somewhat cool provides especially fine aromatics." Charavin explains.
 
Robert CharaVin avec un Verre-a-Vin
 
The 2011 Rasteau is presently in the shop.  It's roughly 60% Grenache, 30% Syrah with 10% Mourvèdre.  As usual, it's a fine bottle...deep in color, teeming with fruit and a touch of spice.  It's delightful in its youth and should be good for several more years.


Currently in stock:  2011 COTEAUX DES TRAVERS Rasteau $15.99


Cellar at Coteaux des Travers


You'd be smiling, too, if you made wines as good as Charavin's!

 







More Rhône Selections

 

 

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