March 31st, 2017/ BY Evan Saviolidis

Rhône wines can be described with one word – value

As I sit in the Frankfurt Air Canada lounge, after my weeklong multi-appellation Rhône visit, I look for the one word which best describes the wines. It finally hits me as I begin to board the world’s largest commercial aircraft, the Airbus A380 — renowned for high passenger counts and low operational costs. Value!

20 years ago, as a newbie oenophile, I gravitated to the wines of the Rhône Valley, especially Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the Southern Rhône and Hermitage in the North, since they provided incredible bang for the buck. Unfortunately, that price bubble has burst. Luckily, there are other appellations that have really upped their game. Four are mentioned below, two each from the Septentrional and Méridionale, where I had the pleasure of sampling over 400 wines.

Ventoux

Northeast of Avignon lies the rising star of Ventoux, which derives its name from the famed mountain that acts as a canvas. A great deal of investment has occurred here in the past two decades as a younger generation of winemaker, with limited financial resources, has set up shop due to the affordability of the land. This has translated to a whole slew of under 20-dollar wines with lots of personality. Here you will find a trio of colours, but it is the red renditions, made from a combination of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre that shine both in terms of quantity and quality. During the day, the southern Provençal heat and sunshine push the ripeness, while the cool breezes in the evening from Mount Ventoux ensure freshness. Tying it all together is the powerful wind known as the Mistral, which dries out the vineyards when inclement weather hits.

Vacqueyras

Many consider Vacqueyras part of the qualitative triumvirate of the Southern Rhône, alongside Châteauneuf and Gigondas. That said, there is no need to break the bank as most wines hover around the magical 25-dollar price point. Like its neighbour, Ventoux, it is red production (95 percent) that dominates here, with Grenache composing at least 50 percent of the blends, alongside Syrah and Mourvèdre. There are three main styles of wine produced and this all relates to location. From the “Plateau des Garrigues” comes the powerful, tannic and spicy wines; the sandy hillsides produce aromatic and fruity reds; and sandstone produces the smoothest versions.

St-Joseph

The history of viticulture in St-Joseph started circa 600 BC, via the Greeks, and continued to expand under Roman tutelage. Being that the Rhône River was the primary communication and trade route between the Mediterranean and Northern Europe, it was only natural for settlements to be established along its banks. Enamoured by the steep slopes, the Romans took to the hills, planting the vine and supporting them with retaining walls made of stone, known as challeys.

This prosperity lasted until the collapse of the Empire. It is at this point that St-Jo (the local nickname), as well as the rest of the Rhône, fell into a dark period. Post Romans, undoubtedly, wine was still being produced by the locals.

Today, it is a 50 km long strip, running north to south on the left bank of the Rhône. The majority of the 2500 acres of vines are planted on the steep south/southeastern granite slopes, which provides maximum sun exposure, retains and reflects heat back into the vineyards, offers excellent drainage, and protects against northern and western winds. All these factors assist in the ripening of the Syrah grape.

The white varietals, Marsanne and Rousanne, are also planted, and by law, can be blended with Syrah, to a maximum of 10 percent. It is a practice which is generally eschewed, since most producers chose to make a small percentage of white wine instead. For every one bottle of white, ten-fold is produced in a darker shade. Of the two, Marsanne is the most cultivated due to its ease of ripening. Rousanne is more of a precocious creature, but when treated with respect, it produces elegant wines with wonderful aromatics. 35 dollars usually earns you a solid bottle of St-Jo!

Cornas

Some might say that I might be off-centre, grouping Cornas with the previously mentioned appellations as prices usually start at $45 a bottle. However, when compared to the pricing of the two titans of the North, Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, the powerful, dark, spicy, liquorice-tinged wines of Cornas are relative bargains. The best will age for two decades. Always 100 percent Syrah, this is the first appellation in the Northern Rhône to harvest due to its granite-based southern slopes which create an alcove, pushing back cold northern wind while capturing Mediterranean heat.

One must also understand that production costs and weather tend to favour the South over the North. The steep slopes of the latter require that all viticulture is done by hand, which is difficult in the area’s precocious climate. In the South, where the majority of wines are vinified (95 percent of the entire Rhône), things tend to be easier due to the Mediterranean heat and partial mechanization.

 

 

Red

92 Domaine Durand Cornas Empreintes 2012 ($46.95)

This 100% Syrah offers depth and complexity. Smoke, cassis, rosemary, cured meat, iron, violets and liquorice are all present on the nose. The same is found on the palate as well as a cocoa/pepper element which carries the finale. Medium body. Drink now until 2022.

91 Château Pesquié Ventoux Les Terrasses 2014 ($17.95)

Pesquié, the undeniable star of the Ventoux, continues to churn out impressive wines at all price points. The 2014 Les Terrasses possesses a black/purple colour and doles out violets, crème de cassis, kirsch, oregano, anise, olive and graphite. Full bodied and concentrated, the plummy tannins will ensure a decade of aging. For the price, make sure to pick up a few bottles for the cellar.

91 Cave de Tain Cornas Arènes Sauvages 2010 ($51)

Quality is the mantra for this co-op, which is one of France’s finest. The 2010 Arènes exudes a perfume of plum, cassis, chocolate-covered coffee bean, cinnamon and violets. Elegant and long, the firm tannins will ensure a decade of life ahead.

91 Domaine Courbis Cornas Les Eygats 2013 ($60)

Linear, ripe and flavourful, pepper, plum, blackberry, cherry, earth and anise are all present in this full-bodied Syrah. Fresh acid and solid tannins will ensure great cellaring potential.

90 Arnoux et Fils Vacqueyras Seigneur de Lauris 1717 2011 ($25)

Made from over 50-year-old vines, this 15%, fruit driven, polished wine was aged in new wood. Full bodied, it reveals plum, spice, vanilla, cherry, cocoa perfume flatters. Elegant, the palate is ripe with excellent length. Drink until 2022.

90 Domaine Durand Saint-Joseph Les Coteaux 2012 ($35.50)

A great expression of Syrah. The cassis, plum, spice, vanilla, hickory and rosemary on the nose replay on the palate. Great length and suave tannins round everything out. Drink now or hold until 2020.

89 Marrenon Orca Ventoux Vielles Vignes 2014 (N/A)

This 90% Grenache and 10% Syrah combines power and grace. Cassis, plum, kirsch, garrigue and anise are all in play. Full bodied, concentrated and excellent length. Drink until 2020.

89 Les Vins de Vienne Saint-Joseph L’Arzelle 2012 ($37.50)

A delicate St-Jo with cassis, raspberry, tobacco, herbs and cocoa on the nose. Medium bodied with a long pepper-dowsed finale.

88 Domaine de Fondrèche Ventoux 2014 ($18.75)

A blend of 50% Grenache, 30% Syrah and 20% Mourvèdre will appeal to those who like funky wines. It displays leathery/animal qualities which meet up with cassis, cherry, toast and tobacco. Not for everyone but a solid bottle of juice for the old barbecue.

88 Domaine des Amouriers Vacqueyras Signature 2012 ($24.95)

Cherry, plum, vanilla, rose, spice, truffle and coffee are all built on an ample frame with powerful tannins. Very good length and in need of some braised lamb or medium-rare steak to round everything out.

88 Cave de Tain Saint-Joseph Esprit de Granit 2013 ($34.50)

Mid-weight, cassis, cherry, violets, cracked pepper, anise and graphite on the nose meet up with raspberry and vanilla on the palate. Very good length, fresh acid and supple tannins round out the experience.

87 Vidal-Fleury Vacqueyras 2013 ($24.95)

This gulp-able and appealing red is ready to drink, and offers up plum, cherry, spice, herbs and earth. Very good length with a peppery aftertaste. Pair with grilled fennel sausage.

Rosé

86 Ogier Rose Ventoux 2014 ($12.95)

An undeniable value in the realm of rosé wines. Dry with fresh strawberry, raspberry and cherry flavours. Medium length and spicy finish. Drink with charcuterie.

Alex, Fred and Paul Chaudiere are the family team behind Château Pesquié (image source: Château Pesquié website)
Father-son team, Jean-François and Marc Arnoux, at Arnoux et Fils (image source: Arnoux et Fils website)
Winemakers François Villard and Yves Cuilleron pioneered Vins de Vienne with wine-growing landscaper Pierre Gaillard (image source: Vins de Vienne Facebook page)
Winemaker Igor Chudzikiewicz from Domaine des Amouriers (image source: Domaine des Amouriers website)
Caroline Frey, winemaker at Paul Jaboulet Aîné (photo credit: Julie Rey)

White

89 Domaine Courbis Saint Joseph 2014 ($35)

This white is a blend of 97% Marsanne and 3% Roussanne. It exudes banana, peach, sweet apple, vanilla, honey, spice and cream. Rich on the palate, there is moderate acidity and a soft finale. A real charmer.

88 Paul Jaboulet Aîné Saint-Joseph Le Grand Pompée 2014 ($35)

Made from 100% Marsanne, this wine was partially aged in new oak. Crisp, green apple, citrus, honey, quince and hints of vanilla carry long. Ready to drink with seared scallops or pickerel.

 

 

Recent Rhône Vintages

2015 – Vignerons are very excited about this vintage. Barrel tastings showed ripe wines in both the North and South.

2014 – A winemaker’s vintage. Careful work in the vineyard yielded good wines.

2013 – All around a difficult vintage, especially in the Southern Rhône, where the Grenache vines suffered from frost damage, creating a small crop. Pick and choose carefully.

2012 – A balanced vintage throughout the Rhône Valley. Alcohols are in check creating nicely rounded and ready-to-drink wines.

2011 – A good vintage with many successes which are drinking beautifully right now.

2010 – A warm growing season created powerful and age-worthy wines.