The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Collecting French Wine – Part II (Rhône and Champagne) ~ Saturday, May 26th, 2012
Collectors and top regions of France: For most French wine collectors, the most prestigious winegrowing regions of France are Bordeaux and Burgundy. What follows is more open to debate. Some would say the Rhône Valley takes the bronze medal, others Champagne.
Of the two, which is better is difficult to say, the wines of each region are so different stylistically. The Rhône, divided between north and south, plays host to some of the greatest full-bodied red wines of France, complimented by an increasing smattering of fine whites. Champagne, on the other hand, while coming across as a one-trick pony, is anything but. The world’s undisputed mecca for premium sparklers and one of the most addictive types of wine in existence, to understand and appreciate the many nuances between one great champagne and another is one of life’s noble pleasures.
And yet, it’s probably a safe bet that most French collectors have far more Rhône wine in their cellars than champagne, especially when considering the heightened price of a standard bottle of bubbly. Sheer selection is another factor. There are far more Rhône wines of different type than those in Champagne. On this score, the Rhône even has vague similarities to Bordeaux.
In the Northern Rhône, where Syrah is the only permitted red grape, there are four appellations of critical worth. Closest to Lyon are the steep slopes of the celebrated Côte-Rôtie, where Syrah may be blended with up to 20% Viognier—in reality most producers use much less. Combining ruggedness with finesse and long-term aging potential, the most lauded examples tend to hail from the Côte Blonde and Côte Brune, of which the three single-vineyard labels of Marcel Guigal are must-haves: La Mouline, La Landonne, and La Turque. Aside from Guigal, other outstanding domaines/négociants include Gerin, René Rostaing, Chapoutier, Joseph Jamet, and Bernard Burgaud. Other respected operations include Ogier, Jean-Michel Stephan, Clusel-Roch, Château de St-Cosme (Gigondas-based), Tardieu-Laurent, and Gilles Barge.
South of Côte-Rôtie is Condrieu. On the verge of extinction fifty years ago, the speciality here is Viognier, a grape which has practically exploded in popularity over the past fifteen years. Though nowadays planted in just about every major winegrowing nation on Earth, few would dispute that those of Condrieu are best, particularly those sourced from single vineyards. Top producers, many of which also make excellent wines from neighbouring Côte-Rôtie, are Georges Vernay, Guigal, René Rostaing, Pierre Gaillard, Yves Cuilleron, and François Villard. There are at least several others, along with Château Grillet, a single-estate AOC located within Condrieu.
Further south, skipping St-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage for the moment, we come to Hermitage. Crafted to 100% Syrah, for both collectors and enthusiasts red Hermitage is one of the most esteemed wines in France. Covering a mere 134ha and comprising just over 12 different vineyards (or climats), Hermitage is to Syrah what Chambertin is to Pinot Noir: the Old World-wide benchmark for practically every other wine of similarity. With more depth, concentration, structure, vitality, and durability than most other wines, great Hermitage is a force to be reckoned with.
Even the whites are monumental. Crafted from Roussanne and Marsanne, the best examples can keep just as long as the reds, in some cases longer. Top producers of red and white versions include Jean-Louis Chave, Chapoutier, Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Marc Sorrel, Guigal, Tardieu-Laurent, and Ferraton. Other producers worth noting are Domaine du Colombier, Caves de Tain-l’Hermitage, plus a few others.
Similar to Hermitage are the reds of Cornas. Connected to the southernmost boundaries of St-Joseph on the left bank of the Rhône, only red wines crafted to 100% Syrah are produced here. Like Hermitage, these are powerful, immensely ageworthy wines, crafted from steep slopes and differentiated primarily by their heightened ruggedness and slightly less sophisticated disposition. Oftentimes reasonably priced, top names, many with plots in other appellations, include Thierry Allemand, Auguste Clape, Jean-Luc Colombo, Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Tardieu-Laurent, Vincent Paris (formerly Robert Michel), and Courbis.
While these are the Northern Rhône’s four most prestigious appellations, the best of Crozes-Hermitage and St-Joseph should not be overlooked. In both cases, Syrah is the only permitted red grape, though a small percentage of Marsanne and/or Roussanne may be added. A small amount of white wine from these two grapes is also made. In all, the best examples make for sturdy, increasingly exceptional wines. Once again, top producers/négociants often have plots in other appellations: Pierre Gaillard, Yves Cuilleron, François Villard, Domaine Combier, Courbis, Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Chapoutier, Guigal, Tardieu-Laurent, Gilles Robin, and Pierre et Jérôme Coursodon.
Compared to the Northern Rhône, the Southern Rhône is far larger, more diverse, and offers just as many collectables. Here, Châteauneuf-du-Pape leads the way, where thirteen grape varietals are permitted: Grenache (plus Grenache Blanc), Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Vaccarèse, Counoise, Muscardin, Terret Noir, Roussanne, Picpoul (plus Picpoul Blanc), Clairette, Bourboulenc, and Picardin. For the most part however, the classic blend is Grenache (predominant), Syrah, and Mourvèdre.
Along with Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, Châteauneuf is the most lauded appellation in the Rhône Valley, its top reds among the most absorbing, most powerful offerings in France. Even the whites can be excellent. Top producers, some with holdings in other appellations, include Clos des Papes, Château de Beaucastel, Château Rayas, Château de la Nerthe, Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe, Henri Bonneau, Domaine de la Janasse, Domaine Grand Veneur, and Domaine Bois de Boursan. Others to watch out for are Chapoutier, Tardieu-Laurent, Clos du Mont Olivet, Domaine Chante-Cigale, Domaine Clos du Caillou, Domaine de la Vieille Julienne, Domaine de Sénéchaux, and a whole host of others.
After Châteauneuf, Gigondas has spent the last forty years carving out a remarkable reputation for itself. Like its more illustrious neighbour, the blend is a classic combination of Grenache (max. 80%) accompanied by a minimum of 15% Syrah and Mourvèdre, plus other grapes. Indeed, the best wines nowadays give top Châteauneufs a run for their money. The list for top producers, many with plots in other appellations, is growing: Domaine de Santa Duc, Château de St-Cosme, Domaine Raspail-Ay, Domaine du Cayron, and Domaine St-Gayan. Other producers/négociants of note include Perrin & Fils (Château Beaucastel), Tardieu-Laurent, Domaine du Pesquier, Guigal, and Domaine Brusset.
Rounding out the trio of top Southern Rhône appellations is Vacqueyras. Granted AOC status in 1990, Vacqueyras has become something of a hotbed for both collectors and general enthusiasts in search of great value wines with very good concentration and aging potential. The blend is similar to Gigondas: Grenache (predominant) paired with Syrah, Mourvèdre, and sometimes Cinsault. Several producers, both local and from other communes, to look up are Perrin & Fils, Tardieu-Laurent, Clos des Cazaux, and Domaine de la Monadière.
After these appellations, premium choices for collectors become sparser; yet there are several other appellations on the rise with increasing numbers of serious producers. In most places, the GSM-blend is largely the same. In Rasteau (granted full AOC status in 2010), producers like Domaine Gourt de Mautens, Château La Soumade, and Domaine des Escaravailles are turning heads. The appellation is also known for its excellent Vin Doux Naturels, fortified wines crafted entirely from Grenache. Other appellations collectors may want to explore are Vinsobres, Beaumes de Venise (most famously known for its Muscat-based fortifieds), and the best Côtes du Rhône-Villages, such as Cairanne (also known for great Vin Doux Naturels), Plan de Dieu, and Massif d’Uchaux.
But then there’s Champagne, unique among French winegrowing regions in that there is but one speciality: sparkling wine. Were it to end there, Champagne would probably be lost in a sea of more diverse regions in other parts of France.
But Champagne is special. The wine is special, and the reason relates to overall quality. While many other places in France and around the world make sparkling wine, the yardstick for effervescent supremacy is set by the best bottlings of champagne. Combined with its status as the drink of choice for celebration, there is simply no other sparkling wine that enjoys the same pre-eminence and esteem.
At the top of the pyramid, champagnes known as ‘vintage cuvée prestige’ are the priciest. Aged for at least 36 months on the lees (oftentimes many times longer), these are the top bottlings produced by the best houses, the most famous versions synonymous with luxury, indulgence, and affluence. The most renowned of these include Dom Pérignon (Moët & Chandon), Cristal (Louis Roederer), La Grande Dame (Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin), Sir Winston Churchill (Pol Roger), Belle Epoque (Perrier-Jouët), and Comte de Champagne (Taittinger). Other equally esteemed, sometimes pricier, items include Clos de Mesnil and Clos d’Ambonnay (Krug), RD and Vieilles Vignes Françaises (Bollinger), Dom Ruinart (Ruinart), Grand Siècle (Laurent-Perrier), Blanc de Millénaire (Charles Heidsieck), Cuvée William Deutz (Deutz), and Cuvée Paradis (Alfred Gratien). While there are others, these are widely considered the crème de la crème, capable of lasting at least several decades, sometimes much longer.
Yet vintage champagne often represents better value for money. Produced by the same houses with the same minimum time on the lees (again typically a great deal longer), there is a growing tendency to overlook vintage champagne in favour of either ‘house’ wines (more on this in a moment) and vintage cuvée prestige. Personally, I can think of no greater sacrilege, as the best vintage champagnes are often just as compelling as their pricier, more illustrious counterparts. In addition to those already mentioned, great houses to seek out are Jacquesson, Billecart-Salmon, Jacques Selosse, Gosset, Drappier, Henriot, Joseph Perrier, Bruno Paillard, and Lanson. And let’s not forget Salon (owned by Laurent-Perrier), one of the most luxurious, priciest champagnes of them all. Not surprisingly, wines of this calibre can keep for at least a decade, sometimes two or three times as long.
Then come the ‘house’ wines, non-vintage bottlings that represent the vast majority of all champagne produced, aged at least 15 months on the lees. Normally popped open shortly after purchase, the choice of producers is enormous. With a growing number of small growers nowadays bottling their own wine instead of selling their grapes to the large houses, selection has never been greater, not just non-vintage versions but single-year wines and even vintage cuvée prestige labels. In addition to the major houses, alternate operations and smaller-scale growers to seek out are Ayala, Larmandier-Bernier, Pierre Gimonnet & Fils, Philipponnat, Egly-Ouriet, Alain Thiénot, Serge Mathieu, Vilmart, and Tarlant. There are many hundreds of others.
But the choices hardly end here. Not to be discounted are the styles found within the three categories, two of which pertain to the type(s) of grapes used. One of these is Blanc de Blancs, champagne made only from Chardonnay. Sourced mainly from the Côte de Blancs south of Épernay, this is my favourite type of champagne—stylish, refined, and texturally brilliant. Another type is Blanc de Noirs, made only from Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier. Sourced at its very best from grapes grown throughout the Montagne de Reims and the Vallée de la Marne, Blanc de Noirs are usually rounder and fruitier, the best examples just as extraordinary as their counterparts. Then there is rosé champagne, made one of two ways. One is to craft a blend of still white wine (predominant) with a small quantity of still red wine. The other way is the saignée method, whereby the clear juice of red grapes is left to macerate on its skins for a short time—this is more expensive and difficult to correctly accomplish. Either way, rosé champagne is oftentimes more expensive than the white versions, and on occasion just as magnificent. However, most champagne is crafted from both red grapes and white grapes, via varying proportions of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.
Within these categories are levels of sweetness, the amount of sweetening agent, or liqueur d’expédition, added during the dosage stage of production—this occurs right before the wine is corked and ready for release. Most champagne is crafted in the brut style, or to near-full dryness (3-15g/l of sugar). However, over the past dozen years there has been a growing demand for champagne crafted with no liqueur d’expédition in it whatsoever. Such wines may contain one of five names on the label: brut zero, brut nature, brut sauvage, ultra brut, or extra brut (the very latter may contain 0-6g/l of sugar). Another popular style in certain parts of the world is demi-sec, champagne containing up to 8% sugar (or 33-50g/l). Though there are other levels of sweetness, these three are nowadays the most prevalent.
Such are the most important qualitative levels and stylistic differences to understand in Champagne, plus the best producers to seek out. Which brings us back to our original question: for collectors, what is the most prestigious winegrowing region of France after Bordeaux and Burgundy? Is it the Rhône Valley or Champagne?
Indeed, the Rhône offers more types of wine. However, from a position of quality, an average bottle of NV champagne is much more expensive than a standard bottle of Côtes du Rhône (though the former is much more expensive to produce). Even so, most would agree that overall quality in Champagne is higher than in the Rhône. But as collectors, we’re not dealing with average bottles, are we? We’re dealing with benchmarks, not with benchwarmers.
And in so doing, a stalemate is reached. For who would contend that a bottle of Salon is any less grand than a bottle of Guigal La Turque? Not I, and certainly not any self-respecting French wine collector.