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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 terroiris 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)


Rosé Season is Here!

Enjoying rosé wine on a summer afternoon.

There is no better way to welcome the warm weather and the summer ahead than by opening the season’s first bottle of crisp, refreshing berry-scented rosé.  As Memorial Day approaches, thoughts of lazy summer afternoons, balmy evenings and plenty of well-chilled rosé are filling my head. I couldn’t be more excited that rosé season is finally here!

Defending Rosé’s Reputation

This charming pink-hued wine has had to overcome a somewhat sullied reputation.  Sadly, its resemblance to cringe-worthy “White Zinfandel” has caused many to disregard this delicious, elegant wine.  A side note on White Zin – This rosé imposter became popular in California and the U.S. during the 1970s and 80s, at a time when white wine was more fashionable than red.  Producers like Sutter Home capitalized on the fad, crafting pale colored wines from red grapes.  Sutter Home’s first batch of semi-sweet White Zin was actually a fermentation gone-awry where the yeast died out before consuming all of the sugar.  Enough about White Zin though, we’re talking about rosé!


Colors & Styles

Coming in a range of colors, from the very palest of pinks to darker ruby-purple toned shades, rosé is one of the most aesthetically pleasing wines to behold.  Some have hints of orange, while others display vibrant tones of iridescent magenta.

Rosé is made from just about every red grape you can think of, but the most common are the varietals of France’s Southern Rhône Valley – Grenache, Syrah, Carignan, Cinsaut and Mourvedre.  Rosés made in the south of France are most often dry and can range from delicate, pale pink, lighter styles to more full, robust, darker pigmented examples, depending on the combination of grapes used as well as the winemaking process.  One of the Southern Rhône’s most notable rosé appellations is Tavel, producing dry wines that are fuller bodied and well-structured.  Within the Loire Valley, the Anjou region is well known for Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Grolleau based rosés, which are produced with varying levels of sweetness.

The pink wines of Spain are called rosado and are usually made from the Garnacha grape (the Spanish equivalent of France’s Grenache).  Spanish rosados are usually made in a darker, fuller-bodied and more robust style than their Provencal counterparts.  In Italy, rosé translates to rosato, and are there made with an array of Italian grape varietals, depending on the region, such as Nebbiolo in Piedmont, Sangiovese in Tuscany and Negro Amaro in Southern Italy.  The majority of Italian rosatos are darker colored and more full-bodied.  California has followed the example of Southern France, making some delightful rosés from the Southern Rhône varietals, among others.  Pink wines are made in every wine producing region of the world, so there are many to explore and enjoy!

Rosé Wine Pairings

Rosé is incredibly food friendly.  Here the brisk acidity and refreshing quality of a white wine come together with the body and structure of a red wine, making it compatible with a range of dishes.  To quote Julia Child, “Rosés can be served with anything.”  Far too often, this versatile wine gets pigeon-holed as an aperitif or salad course wine, when in actuality, it pairs marvelously with more substantial main course dishes, like grilled pork, roasted chicken and stewed fish.  Some sublime rosé pairings that are not to be missed include cured meats, fish that has been fried, grilled or stewed, grilled pork and grilled shrimp.

The food and wine pairing possibilities don’t stop here though…this remarkable wine works well with barbecue flavors, sausage, hamburgers, Mexican food, egg dishes and pâté.  Rosés that have a touch of residual sugar are perfect for spicy cuisines, like Szechuan and Thai food.  And of course, just about any salad gets along well with this cool, crisp rosy wine!  Salad Niçoise is the classic pairing in this category and one of my personal favorites for hot summer weather.

How It’s Made

Rosé usually starts its vinification journey as if it were going to be made into red wine.  There are effectively three methods used for making rosé wine.  The most widely used method, and the way that rosés have traditionally been produced in Europe, is by shortening the amount of time the grape skins and juice stay in contact after the grapes are crushed.  During this maceration period, the skins are left to sit on the juice for one to three days, imparting some of their color.  Once just enough color has been extracted, the pale juice is then drained or run off the skins and fermented the same way that white wine is almost always fermented, in stainless steel tanks.

The second method, most often used for Grenache grapes, is called saignée.  Here the grapes are destalked and lightly crushed, then allowed to sit on their skins for eight to 12 hours.  The pale colored juice is then run off from the skins and continues on to fermentation.

In the third method, red grapes are pressed and the juice is immediately run off the skins for fermentation, so there is no maceration period.  This is the process used for making the wine that is called vin gris (literally ‘grey wine’) in France.

In the EU, it is illegal to make quality rosé by blending red and white wine together.  The only exception here is in Champagne, where blending is sanctioned.  Rosé Champagne is made by blending white wine from Chardonnay with red wine from Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier.

Rosés to Try Now

If you’re looking for the perfect summertime quaff, the 2010 Bieler Pere et Fils Sabine Rosé Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence is wonderful, showing aromas and flavors of raspberry, cherry and wild strawberry, along with racy minerality and bright acidity.  You’ll want to drink this rosé every chance you get this summer.

The 2010 Domaine Saint Ser Cotes de Provence Saint Victoire Rosé Prestige is an elegant summer wine, offering delightful aromas of wild red berries, hints of watermelon and lemon zest. This is a great wine with salmon dishes, and ideal for traditional Provencal meals such as Bouillabaisse.

The 2010 Prieure de Montezargues Tavel Rosé is an exceptional wine from the Southern Rhône’s Tavel appellation.  This rosé has enticing style and finesse, showcasing raspberry and strawberry notes, along with subtle peach aromas.  On the palate, red berry flavors mingle with Provencal herbs and spices, resounding in the full-body, freshness and length of this gorgeous wine.

From the renowned Guigal estate, the 2010 E. Guigal Cotes du Rhone Rosé is a blend of native Rhone varietals – 50% Grenache, 40% Cinsault, 5% Mourvèdre and 5% Syrah. On the nose, fresh, expressive aromas of raspberry, redcurrant and citrus leap from the glass. On the palate, this wine offers pure flavors, ripe fruit, great balance and plenty of finesse.

Finally, traveling to Italy, the 2010 Antichi Vigneti di Cantalupo Il Mimo Nebbiolo Rosato is a fabulous, food friendly Northern Italian rosato made from the Nebbiolo grape.  This delightful rosé is very true to Nebbiolo’s character, offering red fruit, handfuls of raspberries and red currants, along with beautiful floral notes.  The 2009 Il Mimo is lovely, crisp and refreshing with plenty of backbone, firm tannins and a mineral-laden finish.  This is an excellent wine for food pairing and will complement everything from fish to heartier meat dishes.

To browse all of our delicious rosés and to stock up on this excellent summer wine, CLICK HERE.