The Rhone Valley has quickly become an area of interest of mine, and the more I dig into this region full of rich and hearty reds with all their savory spice and animal tones, the more I like them.
My tastes in wine tend more toward muscular and mature reds, especially Italian wines that display earthiness and brisk acidity; wild wines that often require food yet tend to take decades to reach the sweet spot that I love. However, there are very few Italian wines that I’ve tasted in their youth and didn’t want to put away in the cellar for five or more years. This exercise becomes tiresome as I wait for my Italian cellar to mature. And so, in an attempt to find wines that appeal to my taste but didn’t require the patience of a Shaolin monk, I found the Rhone.
Some people find this odd, because many associate the Rhone Valley with big, overripe Grenache. This is no surprise, as critics like Robert Parker hand out 100+ point scores to a slew of over-the-top, prestige bottles that are created to cater to his palate. However, there’s a lot more to the Rhone than just intense dark fruit with sappy textures. This is a vast region with a more continental climate in the north and Mediterranean in the south. What’s more, you’ll find numerous soil types, elevations, and a list of 20 or more grape varieties (although it’s really Grenache to the south and Syrah to the north that make up the lion’s share). The Rhone Valley is home to smoky, earthy, pepper, herb and mineral-laden reds with intense fruit and juicy textures. When you say it like that, you start to see how a lover of Italian wine could find a second home here.
The first thing to understand is that it’s not all about Chateauneuf du Pape (although there are still some great affordable bottles to be found). The true values in the south can be found in the AOC designations of Cotes du Rhone, Cotes du Rhone villages (such as Cairanne), Rasteau, Vacqueyras, Lirac and Gigondas. Many of these wines, while unique in their own way, are like baby Chateauneuf du Pape for less than half the price. Saint Joseph, a designation in the north that is starting to gain serious momentum, is ideal for anyone seeking smoky, earthy wines redolent of olive and blackberry fruit.
As for the whites, they are some of the most unique you’re sure to find. Viognier, Marsanne and Roussane are the primary grapes here and show such unique characteristics that they are sure to peak your interests. Viognier is one of my favorites due to its intense spicy, floral characteristics, which translate right from the nose to the palate. What’s more, Viognier, made in a richer style with its weighty texture, is an excellent pairing partner for spicy foods such as Indian and Thai cuisine.
In the end, for the fan of hearty, big reds which swing to the savory and spicy side, there’s a lot to like about the southern Rhone. Below, you’ll find some of my favorites that were tasted over the last few months. Each one is worth your attention, a great way to explore the region, and represents great relative value in world-class wine.
The Southern Rhone
2009 Domaine Gourt de Mautens (Jérôme Bressy) Rasteau – The 2009 Gourt de Mautens revealed a bouquet of blackberry and spice, along with moist earth, animal musk, dark florals and brown sugar. It was more finessed on the palate, yet deceptively so, as blackberry and cherry fruit gave way to pepper, spice, dark herbal tones and crushed stone with slick and enduring textures which lasted into the close. This finish was simply gorgeous with black fruits and spice contrasted by a hint of sweet herbs and lingering tannin. (E. Guido, 95 points) Morrell
2012 Bosquet des Papes Châteauneuf-du-Pape Chante Le Merle Vieilles Vignes – The nose was, at first, restrained, yet opened with time in the glass to show deep layers of tart cherry, wild herbs, dried twigs, graphite, orange zest and a hint of animal musk and black pepper. On the palate, velvety textures set the stage for a mélange of rich dark-red fruit, plum, dark chocolate, and herbs. Long and tense on the finish with tart berry saturating the senses, offset by gorgeous inner floral notes. This was so beautiful, with a perfect integration of herbs and dried twigs from the whole cluster fermentation. Be warned, however; at this young age, it can take an hour or two in decanter before showing its true potential. (E. Guido, 94 points) Morrell
2012 Domaine du Cayron Gigondas – The nose showed a rich mix of sweet and savory with blueberry and blackberry fruit, seared meat, exotic spice, pastry crust, pepper and grounding notes of mineral and animal musk. On the palate, soft textures caressed the senses, ushering in flavors of wild berry, spice, grilled herbs and dried cocoa; all carried by vibrant, mouthwatering acidity. The finish resonated on the palate with crushed blackberry, dried cocoa and a hint of bitter herbs. (E. Guido, 93 points) Morrell
2012 Domaine la Barroche Châteauneuf-du-Pape Signature – The nose was remarkably fresh for all the concentration in the glass, literally the best of both worlds. On the nose, I found crushed, ripe red fruits with hints of confectionary spice and gorgeous, lifting floral tones. On the palate, this showed depths of dark red fruits, which were concentrated yet balanced perfectly to result in silky, cool textures. It finished pretty with a grip of fine tannin, spice and tart berry. (E. Guido, 93 points) Morrell
The Northern Rhone
2012 Pierre Jean Villa Côte-Rôtie Carmina – The nose was rich and layered yet wonderfully floral all the same, showing black fruit with ginger-spice, violet floral tones, dark earth and black pepper. On the palate, waves of mineral-drenched black fruit washed across the senses with herbal tones, showing remarkable balance and poise. The long saturating finish was floral with berry tones and spice. The 2012 Pierre Jean Villa Côte-Rôtie Carmina is incredibly youthful today with serious upside potential, yet it’s so hard to resist now. (E. Guido, 94 points) Morrell
2011 Michel & Stéphane Ogier Coteaux de Seyssuel L’ame Soeur – The l’Ame Soeur takes things to another level from the second you put your nose to the glass. The bouquet was a mix of crushed stone, blackberry, and dark soil tones, yet with time in the glass it took on a much dark persona, as the fruit turned to crushed black raspberry, grilled herbs and charred meat. On the palate, the ripe character of 2011 mixed perfectly with the austere nature of terroir, as dark fruits with hints of citrus, herbs and balsamic tones flowed across the senses with brooding weight. The finish seemed to go on and on, leaving saturating notes of black fruits and mineral-stone. This is just beautifully balanced and really pulls you in. (E. Guido, 94 points)
2012 Domaine Monier St. Joseph Terre Blanche – A truly floral and exotic perfume reached up from the glass with notes of yellow flowers and rosemary, along with bright, tart cherry and spice. On the palate, it entered silky with fleshy textures only to reveal more acid-driven tension as it traveled across the senses. Finessed dark fruits and floral tones lent a feminine persona with the addition of grainy slate and minerals, which lasted long into the finish. (E. Guido, 93 points) Morrell
2010 Paul Jaboulet Aîné Cornas Domaine de Saint Pierre – The nose was diffuse, showing blackberry and herbs with hints of cocoa powder, spice and dark soil. On the palate, it was medium-bodied with intense tart black fruits and hints of pepper. Gripping tannin matched with a good acid balance assures this will last an easy decade in the cellar. Herbal tones, dark fruits and hints of citrus lingered through the finish. (E. Guido, 93 points)
2011 Domaine Jean-Louis Chave St. Joseph – The nose was dark, earthy and intense, showing blackberry, blueberry skins, herbs and bacon fat, with woodland tones of dark soil, dried leaves and hints of animal musk. On the palate, it was remarkably smooth with silky textures verging on velvet, as dark fruits, blueberry, spice and crushed violets lasted well into the finish with lingering minerality. There’s plenty of concentration and a balance here to warrant an easy decade in the cellar, yet with a good decant, it’s so good now. (E. Guido, 92 points) Morrell
2012 Michel & Stéphane Ogier Condrieu La Combe de Malleval – The nose was rich and intense, showing notes of peach, which turned sweeter with air, spicy floral tones and dried apricot. On the palate, it was broad and weighty with balancing acidity, showing tart grapefruit with a sprinkle of sugar, then more tropical and gaining richness. Spicy floral tones lingered on the finish with fading topical notes. This is a big wine, but the balance is impeccable. (E. Guido, 93 points)
A Southern White
2011 Daniel et Denis Alary Cairanne Blanc La Font d’Estevenas – This was a very pleasant southern Rhone white, showing a nose full of apricot and peach skins, with a slight springtime herbal and lemon zest component. On the palate it showed rich, oily textures with ripe white fruit, inner floral notes and a hint of bitter citrus. The finish was long and satisfying, showing apricot and a note best described as flower petals, which lingered long on the senses. (E. Guido, 90 points)
Article and Tasting Notes by: Eric Guido