introduction to wine: rhone

A Millennial’s Introduction to Wine: Southern Rhone

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Southern France, and particularly that area of myth that is the Rhone Valley, has a magical hold over the British. The landscapes of Cezanne, etc. The holiday homes in the lavender scented hillsides etc. The markets on Sunday with their baskets of fresh produce etc. All of that doubtless populated with a pleasing cast of rustics that speak the part of Shakespeare’s Rude Mechanicals in heavily accented French, or even Occitan. And of course that pastoral idyll is well served by a plentiful flow of Bacchus’ own draught.

Ever since the Romans turned up, the infamous Gaius Verres among their number, the fertile plains and hillsides of the Rhone have been planted with vines. The long hot summers under an intense sky all but bake the vines which can be light or full, playful or brooding, boozy or refreshing.

The Grapes:

The vast majority of plantings are Grenache, a grape that is astoundingly versatile. It thrives in the dry, hot conditions of the Southern Rhone where it can be happy as a pig in muck on its own, perhaps producing simpler, lighter and more fruity wines, but is perhaps at its greatest when blended, most often with Syrah and Mouvedre. Here it can produce wines that burst like a ripe blackberry or even sometimes like a black olive. They can have a peppery sting and hum with a distinctive herbal, sometimes almost medicinal, funk. They can make you stay up all night and argue or put you to bed in the afternoon.

Syrah can produce wines of incredible depth and intensity, with brambles and blackcurrants lifted by an ever present spicy edge. It can produce some wines of incredible power and finesse, and is often the wine expert’s favourite. Mouvedre is rather rougher stuff altogether. It is rustic, it adds body, if not complexity. Together they create a harmonious blend, often shortened to GSM, that has been repeated across the globe in hot winemaking regions.

Wine to drink by the bucket:

A basic Cotes du Rhone is made by the bucketload mostly with fruity Grenache. It comes from the low lying flats, and perhaps the less inspiring hills, and can be quite rough. It’s normally not too heavy, nor too light. It’s made as a cheerful easy drinking wine, with plenty of fruit, maybe a bit of spice if there’s some Syrah included: the stuff to slosh back.

As we’ve seen elsewhere, there’s a hierarchy of quality based around geography and terroir. The label of Cotes du Rhone Villages can be used by many of the communes, and some of those are entitled to use their own name. Amongst those Seguret, voted the prettiest town in all of la belle France is a cute above the rest.

And to sip:

Above that you have the Crus, villages of higher standing yet still and are mostly in protected valleys, where the worst of the Mistral can be avoided. Rasteau and Cairanne are the youngest of the set and produce reliable wines of a consistently surprising standard. Gigondas and Vaqueras produce increasingly excellent wines at an increasing price.

It was a Rasteau from Domaine de la Soumade which was one of the wines which have set me on my Bacchanal odyssey, and which I am revisiting now in this bleak time. There is all the usual warm fruit, the brambles and hedgerows but a brooding intensity. A deep focused colour and pure pleasure in every sip.

These wines are, for some wine drinkers, but a prelude to the greatest wine of the region, Chateauneuf-du-Pape. When the Avignon Papacy was suffering its Babylonian captivity, they planted great swathes of vines here beneath the walls of their castle, producing wines evidently fit for the Pope. In many ways a Chateauneuf is typical of a Rhone wine, the vast majority are GSM, even an inferior one should dance the dance of blackberries into olives into Garrigue herbs into pepper. The better ones do this more nimbly than others. They helped in achieving a rare depth by the incredible stony soils composed of the vast flat disc like palattes that the Rhone deposited aeons ago. These radiate warmth and help ripening long into the night. It’s worth knowing that this soil is also shared by the less favoured appellation of Lirac over the river.

Other producers explore the possibilities of blending, where many other local grapes can add a zig to the zag of the wine. As in Bordeaux the finer growers exploit the possibilities of minor grapes to add interest into the mix.

The top properties, Vieux Telegraph, Beaucastle, and Rayas, are less collectable than they might be, and while prices re creeping up there and in Vacqueras and Gigondas that is reflective of an increase in quality.

These are some of the most cheering wines, perfectly capable of being serious but also of being fun. Perhaps the warmth that naturally exudes from these wines does not suit the palates of the more refined.  That suits me just fine.

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