By Richard Household
I recently enjoyed a ‘work’ trip to the southern Rhône Valley. It was a wonderful excuse to escape the miserable British weather and fly into the beautiful early spring warmth of the south of France. It proved to be a successful visit, recharging my batteries and reinvigorating my love of Rhône wines.
I started travelling to this part of France more than 25 years ago and it never fails to leave a huge impression on me, from the steep slopes and impossible vineyards of the northern Rhône to the wide expanses and heat of the southern Rhône. The stunning wines reflect the garrigue (that unmistakable smell of wild herbs and spices), some tapenade and sweet warmth in the fruit. Sweet and savoury wines at their very best – what’s not to love!
I flew into Marseilles and drove a little over an hour to reach the majestic and historic village of Gigondas. For any wine lovers out there, this has to be on your list of ‘must do’ places to visit. I mean it … you have to tick that box. The views are spectacular, with the striking Dentelles de Montmirails behind you and the valley plain in front of you. The vista across the valley is just about the best way to see the hills of Rasteau and Cairanne to the south as the panoramic view expands out ahead. It helps to understand why topography is so important to the wines produced. With increasing global temperatures and the resulting really hot Mediterranean summers, the wines can sometimes struggle with alcohol and balance. Here you have to choose your wines with great care. With a little homework, however, and plenty of tasting, comes great reward.
The Rhône Valley produces wines at all levels from easy drinking Côtes du Rhône (mostly Grenache) through to the great Châteauneuf-du-Pape. More on that in a moment. The southern Rhône produces 95% of all Rhône wines and most of that is at the cheaper end. Here, the use of Syrah is a problem. In the heat of the valley floor Syrah becomes very jammy and ripe and will overpower the wine with high alcohol and huge tannins. Most of the wines are made from the blousy, sweet and generous Grenache grapes. The view from Gigondas will help you understand why the Villages wines of Rasteau and Cairanne are a clear level up in quality. The altitude, terroir (less clay and more limestone) make the resulting wines fresher, more elegant and more balanced. They are superb value as well. My personal favourites are wines produced by the Perrin family and a small domaine in Rasteau called Domaine Martin. Look out for their Sommets de Rasteau!
A huge excitement in my wine obsessed world was visiting a small vineyard in Gigondas called L’Argnée. Why you ask? Well, I’ll tell you … the vines on this plot are classed as vieilles vignes. Nothing odd in that term except that these vines are over 125 years old! They pre-date the viticultural catastrophe that was Phylloxera – the devastating aphid that wiped out the vineyards in Europe in the late 20th Century. It is impossible to exaggerate how bad this plague was to wine (and Cognac) producers. There is still no cure apart from grafting the European grape varieties (like Chardonnay, Cabernet, Syrah and so on) onto American rootstocks that are resistant to the curse. The larvae of the aphid are not fond of really sandy soil. As a result there are pockets in the south of France, Australia and so on where they can do no harm. These vineyards are extremely rare. This small vineyard in Gigondas is one such place. Standing in the vineyard, surrounded by the old vines and enjoying a glass of the 2012 vintage was a real treat!
Before moving on to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, I can’t leave Gigondas without mentioning a wonderful restaurant in the village called L’Oustalet. A day in the vineyards is followed by a wonderful meal and you can even stay in the guesthouse behind. There’s no excuse …
The most famous appellation in the southern Rhone is Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It is a fairly small area of 3,500 hectares with around 80 producers, the most famous of whom are Vieux Télégraphe, Château Rayas and Château de Beaucastel. The appellation system was invented here in the 1920s and the soil is full the famous galets – those pudding bowl stones. Here you will find some of my favourite wines! Very few of the producers use all 13 permitted grapes for the red wines but Château de Beaucastel does and I love their wines. They use a higher proportion of Mourvèdre in their blend and the result is a wine that ages magnificently and for a very, very long time. I tasted vintages going back to 1990 – WOW! It is a region to explore in depth from the blended reds to the extraordinary whites. I tasted old vine Roussanne that was magnificent, one of the best white wines I have tasted …ever.
As I hope you can tell, it is a region that I get very excited about and it is well worth exploring. There is also a financial reason for re-visiting these wines. With prices rocketing in Bordeaux and Burgundy, the Rhone Valley offers very good value to quality. Yes, wines like Château de Beaucastel are on the pricey side but not when you compare to the Crus of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Lower down the price tree, the wines are excellent value. Look out for wines from Cairanne and Rasteau and especially from Vinsobres, given its own Cru status in 2005. Vinsobres is to the north of the southern Rhone – a bridge between the northern and southern Rhone Vallies and the wines and fresher from higher slopes.
I haven’t even mentioned the delights of Vacqueyras, Beaumes de Venise and Tavel – so many delights here and just shows you that the southern Rhone will look after all tastes and almost every style