The Rhône Valley is producing better wines than ever before, but the wine-growers aren’t resting on the laurels, as I discovered when I was invited to the region’s biennial trade fair last month.
The Rhône is France’s second largest quality wine region (after Bordeaux). It has two parts, the north, which makes just 5% of all Rhone wines and which is the homeland of Syrah (alias Shiraz), and the south where Grenache is the dominant variety, but always as the main element in a blend.
Red wine has been order of the day as long as anyone can remember at 79% of the total production, but rosé is selling as fast as it can be bottled and sales of dry white wines are booming too.
The success of white wines can largely be put down to huge improvements in the region’s wineries over the last ten years says Michel Chapoutier, the President of Inter-Rhône, the body that represents the local wine growers. His own Luberon, ‘La Ciboise’ is a case in point.
On the face of it, a none-too exciting blend of White Grenache, Vermentino, the deadly dull Ugnoi Blanc and just a dash of more perfumed Roussanne, the 2103 is a great success, scented with stone fruits and spring flowers, juicy enough to be refreshing, but fat enough to give it a bit of weight, it’s a terrific unoaked white, excellent value at £9.99 from The Wine Chambers – the source of all my recommendations.
In the right hands, Roussanne is capable of even greater things, as is shown by Château Mont-Redon’s 2013 Côtes du Rhône, made another of the valley’s finest estates.
It includes 10% of the even more perfumed Viognier in the blend. It has a tantalisingly fresh, floral bouquet, with just as much juicy acidity as Chapoutier’s Luberon, but a richer, more lingering flavour. It too is fine value at £13.99.
All the 2013 whites I tasted impressed me, but the few 2014 already in bottle or samples drawn from a range of barrels and tanks promise even greater delights.
The 2013 red are pretty good too, but the yields of the all-important Grenache were hit by poor weather during flowering. Many of the wines therefore have a slightly greater proportion of Syrah and Mourvèdre than usual and though often wonderfully fruity, are also a wee bit more tannic than the soft, almost sweet 2012s. Even the classic 2012 Syrahs of the North are already drinking well.
Chapoutier’s 2102 Crozes-Hermitage, ‘Petite Ruche’, the most approachable of Chapoutier’s stellar range of wines is a case in point: juicy, almost red cherry fruit, with just enough tannin to give it a bit of bite (£15.99). The excellent 2013 needs a couple of years more in bottle.
The Rhône producers are quite keen, in fact, to demonstrate that their wines mature well, as they showed with a series of ‘vertical’ tastings’. Lest you imagine otherwise, I need to say quickly that this simply means that they show the same wine over a spread of vintages. Spitting is strictly order of the day.
Back in Tynemouth I discovered a wine that a well-balanced Rhône red can develop more nuances of flavour if you can bare to stash a bottle or two under the stairs for a few years, but Ben Chambers has done this for us in the shape of Domaine Clavel 2006, a fine, perfumed red, in which the more vivid fruity flavours of its youth have evolved to a richly satisfying, almost gamey mix of liquorice, truffles, coffee and wild herbs.
With silky tannins, but no lack of body, it would taste pretty amazing with Easter lamb.
I shall be hosting two Rhone-wine tastings at Carruthers & Kent in Gosforth this month: Wines from the North on, April 7 at 7.30pm and wines from the South the following night. Tickets, £20 each or £35 for both nights) are available from the shop: 0191 213 1818.