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Reveling in the Rhône Valley

Smooth stones covering a vineyard in Chateauneuf du Pape, Southern Rhone Valley

From the Northern Rhône’s long-lived, sweet-spiced Syrahs and exotic, perfumed Viogniers to the lush, layered Châteauneuf du Papes of the south, the Rhône Valley is home to some of the world’s most prestigious wines and encompasses an intriguing range of producers and wine styles.  Second only to Bordeaux, the Rhône Valley produces more quality wines of Appellation Contrôlée status than any other region.  The Northern Rhône’s steeply planted vineyards and legendary appellations, including Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage, give the great wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy a run for their money.  In the Southern Rhône, the Grenache blends of the historic Châteauneuf du Pape appellation have an allure that has entranced many a wine lover.

A Bit of History

Wine has been made in the Rhône Valley since ancient times, evidenced by wine vessels (amphorae) found in the area that date back to the 1st century BC.  Ancient Greek and Roman historians wrote of the vines and wines grown in the valley during that time.  From then on, the Rhône was an important trade route for the Greeks and Romans that resided in the region and speculations continue as to where the two main grape varietals, Syrah and Viognier, originated from.

During the middle ages, most of the wine consumed by the papal court came from the Rhône Valley.  The court was moved to Avignon in the Southern Rhône during the 14th Century, at which time the Pope’s summer residence was constructed to the north of the city.   This residence was known as ‘Châteauneuf du Pape’, literally the ‘Pope’s new castle’, the name that was later bestowed upon the famed appellation and its wines (but not until as recently as the 19th Century).  Legend has it that Pope Clement V come to Avignon in the early 1300s and commissioned the first of the papal vineyards, although his successor, John XXII, was given most of the credit.

The Rhône River Valley

One of the world’s most important wine rivers, the Rhône rises from the Alps in Switzerland and flows west through the vineyards of Valais and on to Lyon in France, where it turns south and makes its journey to the Mediterranean.  Although the Rhône courses through vineyards in Switzerland and Eastern France, the eminent area for wine production begins in Vienne and stretches south to the area of Avignon.  The region is separated into two very distinct sub-regions, the Northern Rhône and the Southern Rhône, by about 37 miles.  These two separate areas each have their own unique terrain and produce a range of grape varietals and wine styles.  The differences in topography between the north and the south profoundly affect the character of the wines from each region as well as the volumes that each produces.  Most prominently, the vines of the northern appellations are planted on steep, sloping inclines, while in the south, the river valley opens and the vineyards are planted on flat land and exposed to the infamous Mistral winds.

The Northern Rhône

The Northern Rhône produces a small fraction of the Rhône Valley’s wine and has a cult following among fine wine lovers.  This part of the valley is very narrow and marked by precipitous slopes planted with grapevines, namely those of Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne.  The steep slopes enhance sun exposure on the vineyards and protect them from the Rhône Valley’s chief environmental force, the Mistral, a cold northern wind that can potentially damage the vines.  The chilly wind has the redeeming affects of keeping the grapes disease-free, reducing their size and in turn, contributes to concentrated flavors in the finished wines.

Syrah reigns King of the Northern Rhône and is the only grape varietal permitted in red wines of the region.  The reigning white varietal of the region is lovely, aromatic Viognier, the Queen if you will.  Next in line are Marsanne and Roussanne, a dynamic duo that are often blended together and balance each other out.  Marsanne offers richness and body, while Roussanne imparts delicacy, fragrance and refreshing acidity.

From north to south, the seven appellations of the Northern Rhône are Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu, Château Grillet, Saint-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage and Cornas. Côte-Rôtie surrounds the town of Ampuis and translates to ‘roasted slope’, for the affect of the intense sun that beats down on the steeply terraced vines.  Only red wine is produced here, from Syrah of course, and the vineyards are so steeply planted that they can only be tended by hand.  Côte-Rôtie was the trendsetter for Australia’s Shiraz-Viognier blends, allowing small amounts of Viognier to be added to their incredibly elegant, yet powerful wines.

Condrieu is south of Côte-Rôtie and like its northern neighbor, located on the river’s west bank.  Here, only dry white wine from Viognier is produced, an exceptional floral, aromatic delight that’s best to drink in its youth.  Within Condrieu lies the single vineyard appellation Château Grillet, producing distinctive barrel-aged white wines, also from Viognier.

Saint-Joseph is the next vineyard along the Rhône River and also on the west bank.  This appellation is on flatter ground than the vineyards to its north and is known for lighter-bodied, red-berry scented Syrahs, along with white wines made from Marsanne and Roussanne.

Across the river from Saint-Joseph’s southern reaches lies Crozes-Hermitage and Hermitage.  As the only appellations on the river’s eastern bank, they are privileged with great exposure to the afternoon sunlight.  Crozes-Hermitage has a flatter terrain and produces the largest wine volume in the Northern Rhône.  The appellation’s red wines are made from Syrah, although small quantities of Marsanne and Roussanne are allowed, and the white wines are predominantly from Marsanne.

Perhaps the most sought after and prestigious wines of the Rhône Valley come from Hermitage, the smaller, steep hillside appellation that lies within the boundaries of Crozes-Hermitage.  The red wines from Hermitage are some of France’s most full-bodied and extremely age worthy.  White Hermitage is equally impressive, a blend dominated by Marsanne and incredibly long-lasting as well.

Cornas, the most southerly of the Northern Rhône appellations, is a sheltered area that is well-exposed to the sun, producing dark, full red wines made solely from Syrah.

The best-known producers in the Northern Rhône include Paul Jaboulet, E. Guigal, Chapoutier, Delas and Jean-Luc Colombo.  Here are some great wines to get you started on your exploration:

2007 Paul Jaboulet Aine Crozes Hermitage Domaine de Thalabert ($50, IWC – 92 pts)

2008 Paul Jaboulet Aine Crozes Hermitage Domaine de Roure ($54, IWC – 91 pts)

2004 Maison Chapoutier Ermitage Le Meal ($99, WA – 90+)

2004 Maison Chapoutier Côte Rôtie La Mordoree ($79, IWC – 91 pts)

2007 Maison Chapoutier Crozes Hermitage Les Varonnieres ($48, IWC – 90-93 pts)

2003 Domaine Delas Freres Côte Rôtie la Landonne ($167, WA – 96 pts)

2009 Delas Freres Cotes du Rhone St Esprit ($12, WA – 90 pts)

Jean-Luc Colombo is known for wines crafted from the small appellation of Cornas, where the sloping granite soils and the Mediterranean climate, impart a delightful, unique character to the wines.  His elegant, alluring Syrahs with lovely floral aromas and expressive black currant and licorice flavors are widely celebrated.

2008 Jean-Luc Colombo Terres Brulées Cornas Syrah ($48, WS – 91 pts)

One of the Rhône Valley’s finest producers, the Guigal family owns some of the very best vineyards in Condrieu and in the Côte-Rôtie, producing some of the most illustrious, sought-after wines of the region.

2009 E. Guigal Condrieu La Doriane ($99, WA – 95 pts)

2007 E. Guigal Crozes Hermitage Rouge ($22, WA – 88 pts)

2009 E. Guigal Condrieu ($45, WA – 92 pts)

2005 E. Guigal Côte Rôtie Chateau d’Ampuis pre-arrival ($150, WA – 94-96 pts)

The Southern Rhône

The vineyards of the Southern Rhône begin about 37 miles south of the northern appellation, near the village of Donzère, where the terrain of the valley is distinctly flatter, with sandy and rocky soils.  Much closer to the Mediterranean, the climate is more temperate with hot summers and mild winters, yet the vineyards are fully exposed to the Mistral winds.

The grape varietals and wine styles are more varied and abundant in the south, with Grenache taking the lead in the ubiquitous Côtes du Rhône red blends as well as the higher quality red wines.  All in all, 13 varietals are permitted in the wines of the Southern Rhône, however, in the red wine category, Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre dominate.  Cinsault, with its low tannins, bright fruit and high acidity makes its way into reds too, but its most important role is in rosés (especially those of Tavel).

For white wines, Clairette and Grenache Blanc are key players, along with Bourboulenc and the three Northern Rhône white varietals, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne.  The resulting wines are round, rich and full with high acidity.

Côtes du Rhône AC is the blanket appellation for the Rhône Valley and comes mostly from the Southern Rhône, making up more than 80% of its wine production.  These can be red, white or rosé and comprise many of the region’s best value wines.   Côtes du Rhône Villages AC is the next step up in quality and is governed by more regulations than the former.

Châteauneuf du Pape is the star appellation of the Southern Rhône and it will jump out at you in any wine shop.  These Grenache dominated red blends are almost always in heavy weight, dark bottles with a raised, embossed symbol of papal significance.  The labels too are hard to miss, beautifully scripted and flourished in many cases.  The wines inside the bottles are what really count, and they certainly live up to their adorned packaging.  At their best, red Châteauneufs are deliciously rich, lush and sweet fruited, with intriguing spiciness, savory qualities and the ability to age gracefully for years.  A small amount of white wine is also produced here and displays a rich, full-bodied character, with brilliant, complex aromatics including almond, anise, rose and honeysuckle.

Châteauneuf du Pape’s terroir is famous for its ‘galets roulés’, the smooth, round rocks that cover the clay soil below.  These rocks retain the heat from the sun during the day and release it throughout the night, causing the grapes to ripen more quickly than in other areas.  These smooth stones also help to protect the soil and retain moisture in the dry climate.  Although prevalent, the ‘galets’ are not present in every vineyard and the region is home to many soils, including sandy loams with no stones at all.

The neighboring appellations of Vacqueyras and Gigondas lie in the eastern part of the valley and produce high quality red wines, similar to those of Châteauneuf du Pape.  There are no white wines produced in either of these appellations.

On the western bank of the river, Lirac and Tavel lie adjacent to one another and are renowned for their sensational rosés, made mostly from Grenache and Cinsault grapes.

Here are our picks from the Southern Rhône:

2007 E. Guigal Gigondas ($27, WA – 92-94 pts)

2007 Domaine La Bouissiere Gigondas Font de Tonin ($40, IWC – 90-93 pts)

2007 Domaine du Cayron Gigondas ($27, IWC – 92-95 pts)

2008 Chateau de Saint Cosme Gigondas ($30, WS – 91 pts)

1998 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape ($125, WA – 96 pts)

2000 Domaine Pierre Usseglio Chateauneuf-du-Pape Cuvee de Mon Aieul ($85, WA – 95 pts)

2006 Domaine du Pegau Chateauneuf du Pape Cuvee Reservee ($60, IWC – 94 pts)

2009 Clos des Papes Châteauneuf du Pape ($118, WA – 92-95 pts)

2009 Le Vieux Donjon Châteauneuf du Pape ($62, IWC – 91-93 pts)

2009 Clos des Brusquieres Châteauneuf du Pape ($38, IWC – 91-93 pts)

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2010 Bordeaux Futures

First Growth Wines of Bordeaux

The old adage that great Bordeaux vintages come in pairs is ringing true for the 2010 vintage as it joins the ranks beside 2009.  The 2010 vintage is stacking up to be a beauty for Bordeaux and here at The Wine Cellarage, we are thrilled to present these exceptional wines for En Primeur purchase.

The 2010 Bordeaux Futures have been donned with bullish scores and exorbitant prices yet again with some of the top wines priced higher than ever.  The question is, how bullish are you feeling when it comes to 2010 Bordeaux Futures and why buy-in now?

Given the very recent turbulence in the market and the current economic uncertainty, you may be hesitant to diversify your portfolio with 2010 Bordeaux Futures at the moment, but investing in wine from a great vintage should be carefully considered nonetheless.  The main incentive for buying futures is to snag the wines up at a lower price before they are bottled, at which point the values have the potential to increase 20% to 30%.  The other payoff is, of course, guaranteeing that you get a piece of the pie, since these wines are produced in finite quantities. There is only so much wine to go around and there are plenty of consumers and investors out there who are thirsty, willing and able to lap it all up.  Wine is a very tangible commodity, another appealing aspect of the investment.

Here lies the conundrum.  The 2010 Bordeaux vintage first and second growths will cost you a pretty penny, causing a lot of seasoned Bordeaux buyers to respond bearishly, yet the quality of this Bordeaux vintage is so promising!  Robert Parker has anointed the 2010 Bordeaux vintage with fantastic scores, submitting that “it is an inescapable truth that 2010 has produced another year of compelling Bordeaux that will go down as a prodigious vintage alongside 2009. Take your pick – this news is either tragic or mythical, but I have tasted enough wines from 2005, 2009 and 2010 to realize that these may be the three greatest Bordeaux vintages I have tasted in my career.”

The 2010 Bordeaux growing season was warm and extremely dry, producing small, thick-skinned grapes with elevated sugar levels, a potentially cumbersome combo.  However, during August and September, cool nights swept into the Gironde maintaining the high acidity levels needed to balance the opulent, concentrated fruit and sugar.  These wines are thus infused with delightful freshness, giving them impeccable balance and ensuring astounding longevity.

There are several different approaches that you can take when investing in Bordeaux Futures.  Some experts advise scooping up only the first growths and highly regarded second growths, but this isn’t a realistic tactic for everyone.  Robert Parker recommends that those interested in buying 2010 Bordeaux Futures “forget about the first-growths, super-seconds and a handful of other limited production glamour wines as they will be beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest millionaires and billionaires” and advises choosing from the “many, many good values and great wines” that can be bought at much lower prices.  Mid-range under-the-radar wines, when given a favorable score, have been known to jump in value, making them a savvy choice.

The returns on your investment in 2010 Bordeaux could be really great, not to mention that you will always have the option to drink and enjoy the wine if nothing else.  These are my favorite kind of liquid assets!  Once you’ve done your homework and chosen the 2010 Bordeaux Futures that you’re going to buy, be sure to secure the best wine storage possible to keep your investment in pristine condition.

Below you will find a short guide to the 2010 Bordeaux Futures that we have to offer at The Wine Cellarage.  To view our entire collection available for En Primeur purchase, Click Here.

Red Wines of the Left Bank

First Growths

2010 Château Margaux, Margaux ($1,350; Wine Advocate: 96-98 pts)

2010 Château Lafite Rothschild, Pauillac ($1,850; Wine Advocate: 98-100 pts)

2010 Château Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac ($1,300; Wine Advocate: 97-100 pts)

2010 Château Haut Brion, Pessac-Leognan ($1,250; Wine Advocate: 98-100 pts)

Second Growths

2010 Château Léoville Las Cases, Saint Julien ($320; Wine Advocate: 95-98 pts)

2010 Château Pichon Longueville Baron, Pauillac ($238; Wine Advocate: 97-99+ pts)

2010 Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, Pauillac ($245; Wine Advocate: 92-95+ pts)

2010 Château Ducru Beaucaillou, Saint Julien ($260; Wine Advocate: 96-98+ pts)

2010 Château Cos d’Estournel, Saint Estèphe ($330; Wine Advocate: 95-97 pts)

2010 Château Montrose, Saint Estèphe ($235; Wine Advocate: 96-99+ pts)

2010 Château Lascombes, Margaux ($124)

Third Growth

2010 Château Lagrange, Saint Julien ($70; Wine Advocate: 89-92+ pts)

Forth Growth

2010 Château Branaire Ducru, Saint Julien ($82; Wine Advocate: 93-95 pts)

White Wines of the Left Bank

Superior First Growth

2010 Château d’Yquem, Sauternes ($720; Wine Advocate: 96-98 pts)

First Growths

2010 Château Climens, Barsac ($124; Wine Advocate: 94-96 pts)

2010 Château Rieussec, Sauternes ($82; Wine Advocate: 90-92 pts)

Right Bank Beauties

Saint Émilion

If right bank is more your style, choices include premier grand cru classés Châteaux such as 2010 Château Cheval Blanc, Saint Émilion ($1,450; Wine Advocate: 96-98+ pts), 2010 Château Angélus, Saint Émilion ($390; Wine Advocate: 94-96+ pts), 2010 Château Belair Monange, Saint Émilion ($330; Wine Advocate: 95-97+ pts) and 2010 Chateau Troplong Mondot, Saint Émilion ($165; Wine Advocate: 96-98+ pts).

Top-notch grand cru classés such as the 2010 Château Canon La Gaffelière, Saint Émilion ($100; Wine Advocate: 92-94 pts), which Parker has given a preliminary score of 92-94 points, represent excellent quality and value from Bordeaux that is available at a relatively approachable price.

Pomerol

The unclassified wines of Pomerol cannot be overlooked and represent some of the region’s finest quality and best values.  One of Pomerol’s preeminent producers, Château Trotanoy, is known for wines that epitomize the seductive quality and age-worthiness of great Bordeaux.  The nearby Château Latour à Pomerol is another excellent producer with an admirable track record.

2010 Château Trotanoy, Pomerol ($385; Wine Advocate: 93-95+ pts)

2010 Château Latour à Pomerol, Pomerol ($150; Wine Spectator: 95-98 pts)

2010 Château Rouget, Pomerol ($110; Wine Advocate: 91-93 pts)

2010 Château La Fleur de Gay, Pomerol ($105; Wine Spectator: 90-93 pts)

2010 Château Plince, Pomerol ($75; Wine Spectator: 91-94 pts)

Hidden Gems

Finally, when selecting your 2010 Bordeaux Futures, don’t forget to peruse the smaller, lesser-known estates.  Although these estates don’t have the prestige of Château Margaux or Petrus, certain Châteaux not only present exceptional quality for a fraction of the prices of the top-tier Premier Crus, they also hold a sentimental value with many of us wine lovers.  The words of Chris Kissack, a.k.a the Wine Doctor, strike a chord when he recalls “fond memories of bottles from small, backwater estates which [he] encountered early in [his] affair with wine.  Crisp, flavoursome whites from the Entre-deux-Mers, and rich, well-defined reds from the Côtes de Castillon, even generic Bordeaux from a good vintage such as 1990, these were early favourites…”

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