Winter was upon us! Bliss. Collapsing into a bucket chair on a terrace in the mountains wondering whether lunch will be followed by more skiing or perhaps just a nap before the evening’s activities kick off.
With this truly life defining question in mind, I made a preseason trip up to the Trois Vallées to stock a cellar ahead of the festive attack. Resisting the urge to put the foot to the floor, I took in the stunning scenery of the southern Rhône. Vineyards spill off on either side, as they have since Roman times when the highway was the river.
The Rhône flows from Switzerland through much of the vineyard territory of eastern France. It was the natural route for the arrival of the vines that spread from the Bouche du Rhône all the way through Lyon, Dijon and even up to Champagne. At Valence, where I turned off to Grenoble and the mountains, the weather on the river turns cooler, the climate wetter and the Syrah-dominated wines generally harder, most certainly the subject for a further discussion in partnership with a more detailed exploration of the delights of the cuisine of Lyon! South of Valence the vineyards are definitely under the influence of the Med.
The narrow, dramatically cliff-lined funnel that typifies the Rhône north of Valence gives way to a broader plain that spills into the sea. This plain is home to the vast appellation of the Côtes-du-Rhône, a production that almost rivals the total production of Bordeaux. Yet islands of more hallowed terroir poke from the plain.
The heart of the southern Rhône is Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which literally rises on the eastern banks of the river just a stone’s throw from the A7, south of Orange. The appellation laws, honed mid-last century by the Baron de Roy, stipulate the highest minimum alcohol content of any French appellation – prescribing a blockbuster of a wine. A generous total of 13 different grape varieties can be included in the final blend although Château de Beaucastel was the last to use them all and stopped in the 2009 vintage. (For a taste of that original blend, we have a stock from the sun-kissed 2003 vintage, see contact details below).
The wonderfully individual Louis Reynaud makes what is probably the ultimate Châteauneuf-du-Pape at Château Rayas. He combines cuvées from separate sites under the beautifully evocative names Heart, Sunrise and Sunset. This Holy Trinity combines delicacy with power, lightness with force and elegance with generosity. In short, he is a master chef growing the best ingredients to pull together in one wonderfully focused, multilayered treat. And if he likes the cut of your jib, you can have some. A final example comes from the latest incumbent of the great négociant house of Chapoutier. Michel Chapoutier’s organic offering, currently from 2009, is surprisingly developed and rustic.
Set a step above the general Côtes-du-Rhône appellation, individual villages that produce higher quality fruit and wines have been allowed to use the slightly cumbersome Côtes-du-Rhône Villages appellation. The quality difference can be telling but to be absolutely certain of finding something out of the ordinary, look for those that have been given their own appellation. A string of villages – Gigondas, Vacqueryras and Rasteau – lie perched above the plain on the eastern foothills of the Alps. Two producers of special mention that showcase the best of Rasteau and Gigondas. It was a bright and gloriously sunny summer’s day when I first met André Roméro of the Domaine la Soumade in Rasteau, a stocky mini dynamo of a man resplendent in his oeuvrier’s blue overalls. He makes intense grenache, deep purple and unapologetically full of flavour. His three Rasteau Cuvées blend Grenache with a spicing of Syrah and Mourvedre and varying wood ageing. They are overwhelmingly attractive in their youth but blossom with age – which unfortunately needs to be in your cellar – another topic to be followed up on. A man who doesn’t believe in white wine, his Viognier goes into a Côtes-du-Rhône Cuvée Anthea.
A more traditional modernist is Louis Barruol of Château Saint Cosme in Gigondas. He too has various Grenache-based Cuvées. An elegant edge belies the power of these wines, deceptively approachable in youth but do hold on to a few and watch them evolve. His Côtes-du-Rhône is a benchmark for all that can be achieved in this vast appellation and really is an approachable mini version of his top Cuvées.