The Rhône Valley is the second largest wine producing region in France (Bordeaux holds the #1 spot), with Syrah taking the dominant role in production in the Northern Rhône and Grenache taking the major role in the south. As in all wine regions, most of the wine produced here is table wine, but in the five regions most wine collectors focus on - Côte Rôtie, Cornas, Hermitage, St. Joseph, Châteauneuf-du-Pape – this is not the case.
Since many of us are not travelling the globe right now, we wanted to take a virtual tour of some of these major appellations and of the wines GRW focuses on sourcing.
This region was in decline after the Second World War, but a young Guigal worked tirelessly to revitalize this land and introduce the world to his three spectacular single vineyard wines. The wines known today as the “La Las”: La Mouline introduced in 1966, La Landonne in 1978 and La Turque in 1985, were produced using new oak and in a more modern style that differentiated them from the more rustic wines Côte Rôtie had previously produced. The “La Las” brought this region into the limelight and proved that Côte Rôtie could produce wines of the caliber of any other great wine region.
An equally great house, one associated with a more traditional approach to winemaking in Côte Rôtie, is that of Domaine Jamet. For decades, Jamet‘s Côte Rôties embodied the savory, elegance that sommeliers and wine afficionados sought out with gusto. In 2013, the two Jamet brothers Jean-Luc and Jean-Paul split up the family's domaine of 25 plots spread across 17 lieux-dits. Jean-Luc, who was previously in the vineyards only, now is responsible for his own brand. While his wine is darker and more brooding in style, it maintains the classic olives, white pepper, and earthy notes of classic Northern Rhône Syrah. More importantly for the consumers, for the time being this wine is available for a fraction of the price.
Moving southwards, we come to the tiny appellation of Hermitage. At only 140 hectares large, Hermitage rises impressively from the Rhône River and is comprised of different vineyard sites known as climats planted with Syrah or Marsanne and Roussanne.
Perhaps the greatest proponent of blending across climats is Jean-Louis Chave (14.5ha). His wines are always blends, but with a strong backbone of Syrah coming from Le Bessards where he has strong holdings. Wines from Les Bessards display structure, power, intensity and a core of minerality. Many believe the longest ageing red Hermitages will have a percentage of wines from these soils.
Moving to the southern part of the valley, we encounter the esteemed land of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In 1936, Châteauneuf-du-Pape became the first AOC of France, with several onerous regulations to go along with this classification (vineyard land must be so dry that both lavender and thyme could grow, wines must have minimum 12.5% alcohol, 10 grapes allowed in the blend later amended to 13, etc. etc. etc.).
While up to 13 grapes are allowed in the blend making Châteauneuf-du-Pape, increasingly producers rely on Grenache for their final product. Pegau’s prized Cuvee da Capo for example is around 70% old vines Grenache today. The vines are nearly 100 years old, and the grapes are not destemmed prior to vinification in large cement vats.
Another example is the highly regarded Clos Saint Jean’ Deus ex Machina, made with 60% Grenache and 40% Mourvedre. The old vine Grenache is aged in vat and the Mourvedre is aged in 100% new and used French oak barrels. The production is limited to 500 cases per year. While this house has a long history in the region, it gained worldwide recognition only over the last 20 years.
It is overly simplistic to divide up any wine region into the traditionalist and the modernist camps, but in our opinion the juxtaposition still has value as it addresses the underlying intent of the winemaker for the finished product and the story each house wants shared with their consumers. In that vein, it is important to mention the classic, family-run Château de Beaucastel as one of the greatest sources of more traditional Châteauneuf-du-Pape. At Beaucastel, all 13 grapes are consistently used in their final blend, but with a high proportion of Mourvedre, a distinguishing characteristic of these wines. The ethereal Hommage à Jacques Perrin is made in only the best years and is a testament to the heights that Châteauneuf-du-Pape can reach.