Monday, 20 October 2008

The Rhône - wines from the warm south

We need to face facts: it’s over, done, finished. The good times are well and truly over – the summer I mean, not anything else that might be playing on your mind…

We might get an optimistically sunny day from now on, but there’s no getting away from it: nights are drawing in, the Halloween tat has an aisle to itself in the supermarkets and those money-grabbing marketeers at Disneyland Paris are advertising Christmas already.

The place to turn for wines to match the season has to be the Rhône Valley, especially the southern Rhône. These warming wines are just made for longer, darker evenings – if you are looking for a wine to go with roasted chestnuts, bonfire night bangers or just a rib-sticking stew, then the Rhône should be your destination.

In the northern Rhône red wines are all syrah (or shiraz, as it’s also known) based. In the southern part of the valley this grape is joined by a pair of other varieties: grenache and mourvèdre. Syrah is undoubtedly a noble grape, giving long-lived, muscular and meaty wines. Grenache adds a lighter touch of red fruit and a distinct white pepper kick, making the wines of the south approachable for early drinking. Mourvèdre acts as a kind of seasoning, providing backbone, spice and dense blueberry fruit to provide depth to the flavours. Southern Rhône wines are, for me, some of the most easy to drink wines around, with plenty of spicy red and black fruit to flesh out the tannic structure and a warming, alcoholic finish.

Where to start?
Côtes du Rhône is the most widely available and cheapest way to get started on these wines. In general, any wine in the region comes under this umbrella designation and gives you a cheap and cheerful taste of what the region can do. That’s what you might call entry level – the next step up is Côtes du Rhône Villages, meaning the wine comes from areas judged to make better wine than the norm. Somewhat confusingly (but hey, this is France, they don’t like to make things easy for you) the best villages in this area are also allowed to put their village name alongside Côtes du Rhône on the label. So you might see, for example, Côtes du Rhône Villages on its own, or Côtes du Rhône Villages Séguret, or any of a number of other village names. Either way, these Côtes du Rhône Villages wines give you a chance to see what the fuss is about, representing an area under vine around 1/8th the size of the straight Côtes du Rhône area.

Still with me? At the top of the southern Rhône tree are villages who have been deemed to make such noteworthy wines that they no longer use the label Côtes du Rhône at all: such as Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Vinsobres. Each has its own style and character, so have some fun searching out bottles to try.

The jewel in the crown of the southern Rhône is, without doubt, Châteauneuf du Pape. The name is one of the most recognizable in the world of wine, its fame based on full-bodied expressions of the blend of up to 13 grape varieties permitted here. This is not unexplored territory – Châteauneuf du Pape 2005 Clos des Papes was voted “Best Wine in the World” by US-based Wine Spectator magazine this year. And if you need to ask the price, well, I think you know what I’m going to say. About a hundred quid a bottle if you must know.

There are, for sure, cheaper Châteauneufs to be had – but the trouble is, the region is so well known, some producers are able to sell rather mediocre wine purely on the strength of the name, so finding a good one can be problematic.

For the value-conscious wine consumer (and aren’t we all now?) it pays to search out pastures new; those areas that have yet to win fame with wine pundits. My hot tip would be to search out wines from the Côtes du Ventoux. Technically part of the wider Côtes du Rhône area, it was for many years a kind of Bart Simpson region: underachiever and proud of it. My first taste of its wines, ten years ago or so, didn’t win me over: mean fruit, excessive tannin and just no fun.

Now however, as the wine-making cliché goes, a new generation of young, ambitious winemakers are keen to show just what they can do. Based on the same trio of grapes (syrah, grenache and mourvèdre) as you find elsewhere, the best producers are now making wines to rival the best of the southern Rhône villages. Producers to look out for are Domaine des Anges and Domaine de Fondrèche. Cadman Fine Wines ( stock the outstanding 2005 Fondrèche Fayard for £7.99 a bottle; offers a case of the 2005 Domaine des Anges for around £8.50 a bottle. Not quite the same quality level, but more easily available is La Vieille Ferme Côtes du Ventoux, £5.69 at Waitrose, made by the owners of renowned Châteauneuf du Pape producers, Château de Beaucastel.

Exploring the southern Rhône
The southern Rhône is one of the most attractive wine regions of France to explore – and there’s nothing like actually visiting a region to really get to grips with its wines.
Other than soaking up the wine and the scenery, a trip to the region’s studenty, relaxed capital, Avignon is not to be missed. The famous bridge is something of a non-event (it doesn’t even cross the river – call me old fashioned, but I thought that was the point of a bridge - and you have to pay to go on it), but the Palais des Papes is well worth a look. The palace was the result of some papal bust up in the 14th century, when the Pope decamped from Rome to Avignon – and apparently built a new holiday home in what is now Châteauneuf du Pape, hence its name: “the Pope’s new castle”.
If you’d like to combine learning about wine, including visits to wineries, with a relaxing break within view of cycling mecca Mont Ventoux, then have a look at A friendly and knowledegable English couple run wine weekends there throughout the year.

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