Special Report on the Rhône Valley

Energetic Environmentalism, Lesser-Known Gems and a Continuum of Top-Quality Vintages

By Sara d’Amato with notes from Michael Godel, David Lawrason and John Szabo M.S.

The Rhône is facing a surge of new energy as of late in the realms of environmental control, agro-tourism and overall unity. On the heels of several low-yielding but high-quality vintages, the wines that make up the Rhône Valley have made a united push to spread consumer awareness about their top tier Crus and Village appellations and are reminding consumers of the significant value they can find in more basic AOCs such as Côtes du Rhône. I’ve had the opportunity to spend the last month in the region and have done so every summer for the past 35 years. I am happy to report that, although sluggish for some time, the tides of change are now being felt in the Rhône Valley.

Unifying the Rhône Valley

Avignon, Cité des Papes, home to a new education center uniting the appellations of the north and southern Rhône

Avignon, Cité des Papes, home to a new education center uniting the appellations of the north and southern Rhône

Foremostly, the interprofessional association, known as Inter-Rhône, has made several strides for unity, which is key when pushing environmental and consumer awareness agendas. All appellations (and this is a considerable feat given French bureaucracy and the impossible number of “syndicats” of which to appeal) with the exception of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, have banded together to present a unified front to an increasingly savvy and expansive export market. Newly recognized “Villages” and some upgraded to top-tier “Crus” are the result of an upward shift in quality in the region. The most recently named Cru, recognized by the INAO in 2016 (France’s governmental board that certifies and protects uniquely qualitative products), is that of Cairanne in the southern Rhône. Although Cairanne received its village status back in the late 60’s, it has long been thought of as a top wine producing region of the likes of Vacqueyras, Rasteau and Lirac. In order to receive “Cru” status, a region must prove itself to be historically significant, consistently qualitative and produce a unique style of wine deserving of recognition and protection. In addition, it must present a unified front as to its geographic delimitation, stringent yield control and qualitative standards. All of this can take decades and then another half of dozen years to be approved by the INAO – no small feat! For a taste of the valley’s newest Cru, look out for: Grosset Création Cairanne Côtes Du Rhône Villages 2016 ($17.95) and Domaine Alary La Jean De Verde Cairanne 2015 ($24.25) currently available through VINTAGES.

The most recent application to be put forth for the top tier “Cru” status is from the Village of Laudun which will be big news in about 5 years from now. This southern region on the right bank of the Rhône Valley was set to achieve this high-ranking status decades ago when the INAO first recognized the prestigious regions of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Tavel. In fact, Châteauneuf-du-Pape was initially conceived as the top Rhône region for red, Tavel for rosé and Laudun for white. Disagreement from producers in Laudun about the prospect of producing solely white wine in a hot, dry climate, meant that Cru status was postponed. Finally producers have agreed that both red and white wine wines should receive the Laudun Cru designation. For a taste of what’s coming, check out: Bord Elegance Laudun Côtes Du Rhône Villages 2017 ($16.95) currently available through VINTAGES.

Grosset Création Cairanne Côtes Du Rhône Villages 2016  Domaine Alary La Jean De Verde Cairanne 2015  Bord Elegance Laudun Côtes Du Rhône Villages 2017

Environmental Strides

Organic Vineyards in Visan

Organic Vineyards in Visan

I am relieved to report that the Rhône Valley has come in to the 21st century in terms of environmental legislation. France is one of Europe’s most heavy pesticide users, battling it out with Italy and Spain for top place. The worst offenders to date in France are Bordeaux and Champagne, due to their wet conditions, which instigates more profuse rot and mold. An updated Rhône Valley charter formulated in 2018 requires all AOC (named appellation) wine to adhere to restrictive use of chemical pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. Only 50% of parcels can receive chemical treatment or risk losing their designation as of 2020. Because of the region’s hot, dry, windy conditions, this should be a relatively easy transition. Organics are also on the rise. As of 2018, 9% of the region’s vineyards were certified organic. This trend is expected to show exponential growth. The “HVE” designation, which recognizes environmental stewardship, given by France’s Ministry of Agriculture, has now been awarded to 40 wineries in the Rhône Valley. We can expect the region to be leaders in reducing environmental impact in France in the years to come.

The Satellites

Those who love the wines of the Rhône Valley tend to separate the region into the “north” and “south” and appreciate that the northern region emphasizes grapes such as: syrah (red) and viognier (white) and to a lesser extent the blender whites of marsanne and roussanne on its steep, granitic slopes. The southern regions are defined by the widening of the Rhône close to the village of Valence with soils that are sandy, peppered with rounded stones of the rushing Rhône river combined with clay and limestone. The southern wines are hearty blends with the grenache grape reigning supreme. The wines must be blended, even if they are a result of a field blend that includes one syrah vine in a sea of grenache. What we often forget are the satellite regions – those that do not produce “Côtes du Rhône” as do the north and the south but are associated with the valley due to their geographic proximity and similarities in terroir. These regions choose to associate themselves with the Rhône but are independent of the Côtes du Rhône phenomenon and criteria. Instead, they choose to develop their own values and appellation controls. Among others, they include the well-known Luberon, Costières de Nîmes and Ventoux. In addition, there are many lesser known regional satellite appellations that are worth discovering if nothing more than for value. Among others:

• Duché d’Uzès – The village of Uzès is located just northeast of Nîmes and was the intended recipient of the Roman aqueduct known as the Pont du Gard, one of the “Wonders of the World”. The wines received their AOC status in 2012 and include wines of red, white and rosé colours with an emphasis on the grapes of grenache, syrah, carignan and mourvèdre. In whites, viognier and grenache produce elegant and elevated examples The red wines show a notable black licorice flavour and tend to be rather intense and concentrated with an underlying freshness.

• Grignan-les-Adhémar – This northern appellation of the southern Rhône in the Drôme is surrounded by “garrigue” – wild herbs and lavender fields. The reds are primarily a blend of syrah and grenache, known for their seductive, beguiling intensity. They tend to be floral and spicy. The region produces quite a bit of rosé but few whites.

• Clairette de Bellegarde – This southern region at the border of the marshlands, the Camargue, produces only white wine from the clairette grape variety. Notes of blossom and almond are prolifically found in these wines of impressive complexity and quality.

What’s to Come?

Tasting through the Rhône at the Maison du Vin in Avignon

Tasting through the Rhône at the Maison du Vin in Avignon

Summer 2019 in the Rhône Valley has been a weird and wild one. Extreme temperatures that ranged from 45 °C + in many areas, at the beginning of the summer, to into the 20s by August, the region suffered highs and lows. The vintage has been anything but consistent. It is unlikely that anyone will tout this as a “classic” vintage given the conditions of the growing season.  Cooler temperatures post-veraison (when grapes change colour and high-paced sugar production begins) can often be better than the reverse as long as it doesn’t get too wet.

On the market now are the vintages of 2015-2017, which are a solid trio. Beginning with 2015, a highly-touted vintage that many producers are claiming as one of the top in the past century. This is a time to stock up on Rhône wines. The vintage of 2015 was hotter in the north than it was the south. Expect boisterous lushness in appellations such as Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu and Hermitage with great bang-for-the-buck in Crozes-Hermitage. In the south, Gigondas shines in 2015 along with the “V” appellations of Visan (village), Vinsobres (village) and Vacqueyras (cru) while Lirac gets ethereal and complex.

While 2015 exhibits more structure and power overall, 2016 has pure, upfront sensuality and a spirited vibrancy. Less hot than 2015 with average yields, the 2016 vintage is more “traditional” than the former. The overall temperature rose again in 2017 and with the heat came drought and loss of yield. “Coulure” (a deficiency that causes grapes to fail to develop after flowering) was a hot topic in 2017. Grenache, in particular, took a hit in 2017 and thus was found in reduced percentages in the blends of the south. Despite the challenges of 2017, the wines are upbeat, concentrated and quite fine overall. One could argue that this was a year where the north and the south “evened the score” showing more similarities than vintages before.

Vintages New Releases

Les Vignerons du Castelas 2017, Côtes du Rhône, Rhône, France ($15.95)
Michael Godel – Perfectly reasoned, seasoned and expressed white wine from the Rhône with white flower, beeswax and yellow plum fruit notes followed by mildly tangy and more plum flavour. With a great chill it will surely aid and abet to keep summer alive.

Domaine du Grapillon d’Or 2016, Gigondas, Rhône, France ($34.95)
Sara d’Amato – Domaine Grapillon is run by the father and daughter team, Bernard and Céline Chauvet, and is set at the base of the imposing Dentelles de Montmirail with 15 hectares of hillside vines. Low yielding grenache of up to 40-years old makes up this cuvée issued from a concentrated vintage. Powerful, generous and well-proportioned, this lush Gigondas offers notable complexity and plenty of staying power.
David Lawrason – Nice sense of aromatic purity, in a quite full bodied, lush yet elegant style. A big warm-hearted, correct and delicious Gigondas. Excellent length.
John Szabo – A big, chewy mouthful, designed to impress, and impress it does. It’s at the level of many Chateauneuf-du-Papes at 1/3 higher price. Tasted August 2019.
Michael Godel – Truly the commercial leader in gifting Gigiondas to the world and here with the most getable vintage there ever was. Fully lush, plush and ripe it’s fully believable in every respect and coming from and celebrating its Rhône origins. Just getting things right is a big deal these days.

Rhonea Roaix 2016 Côtes Du Rhône Villages, Rhône, France ($17.95)
Michael Godel – Nice aromatic touches help to elevate the game in this equitable, amenable and reasonable CdR of ripe red fruit and a lean mineral streak running straight on through. Love the acids and meaty chew in what may not be everyone’s lush Rhône cup of tea but the restraint here is to be much admired.
David Lawrason – This very good value scores on purity and charm. It has a pretty and bright nose of red plum, fragrant peony and pepper. It is lovely, fresh rounded and balanced.

Les Vignerons Du Castelas Côtes Du Rhône 2017  Domaine Du Grapillon D'or Gigondas 2016  Rhonea Roaix Côtes Du Rhône Villages 2016

Consignment and Private Order Picks

Comtesse Madeleine 2016 Château de Montfaucon Blanc, Lirac, Rhône, France ($29.95, Nicholas Pearce, Private Order)
Sara d’Amato – This substantial estate is located just across from the vineyards of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and run by Rodolphe de Pins, a UC Davis grad and former winemaker at Vieux-Telegraphe and Henschke in Barossa. List lightly oaked blend of Marsanne (40%), Clairette(35%), Grenache Blanc (20%) and Picpoul (5%) offers a crisp, crunchy texture with a voluminous mouthfeel. An upbeat and unsurprisingly complex experience with memorable length.

Lionel Faury 2017 Condrieu, Rhône, France ($100, Barrel Select, Private Order)
Sara d’Amato – Lionel with his son Phillipe run this highly-regarded estate that has now expanded to over 11 hectares. They tend to have an aversion to new oak, focusing on fruit and texture as is exemplified in this 2017. Unfined and unfiltered, there is a notable purity here and no shortage of complexity. Aged 11 months on the lees gives the wine a great deal of mouthfeel. Sustainably produced.

Les Six 2016 Domaine Boutinot, Cairanne, Rhône, France ($25, Noble Estates, Private Order)
Sara d’Amato – As the name suggest, there are six varieties present in this blend although it is dominated by grenache (50%), syrah (10%) and mourvedre (10%) with the remainder cinsault, counoise and carignan. The aim was to include other varieties than the main 3 of the southern Rhône as of a reminder of their significance. Offering a great deal of complexity, the varieties in the blend are co-fermented with natural yeast in large oak vats. Upbeat, aromatic and punchy, this highly satisfying red also exhibits great length.

« Les Meysonniers » 2017 M. Chapoutier, Crozes Hermitage, Rhône, France ($21.75, Phillippe Dandurand, Private Order)
Sara d’Amato – This organically produced blend from the excellent vintage of 2017 was hard-harvested and vinified in concrete with only 15% aged in barrel. A mid-weight syrah with a notable vein of freshness. Exhibiting a very typical nose that is peppery and floral with a hint of anise. Lightly salty with a satisfying degree of plum and black currant on the palate. Very good length.

Laurus 2016 Gabriel Meffre Côtes du Rhône Villages, Rhône, France ($17.95, Trajectory Beverage Partners, Private Order)
Sara d’Amato – Gabriel Meffre works with sustainable partner growers and is known for his consistency in quality. Laurus is a latin reference to “laurel”, the Roman symbol of excellency. This Côtes du Rhône Village is a classic blend of grenache (65%), syrah (30%) and mourvedre (5%) from a solid vintage in which producers favoured higher syrah content. This example shows a notable freshness despite the richness of fruit. Wildflower and cassis are emphatic on the nose and linger on the finish.

Comtesse Madeleine Chateau De Montfaucon White 2016  Lionel Faury 2017, Condrieu   Domaine Boutinot Les Six 2016  M Chapoutier Les Meysonniers 2017 Gabriel Meffre Laurus Côtes Du Rhône Villages 2016

Stay tuned next week for picks from the upcoming VINTAGES release!