Wines of southern Rhone, June 18, 2019

Richard Delaney

This coming Tuesday, June 18, 2019, we will present a selection of southern Cotes du Rhone wines, a rose and four reds.  A $25 tasting, all the wines are rated 90 points and above.
With Bordeaux and Burgundy, the Rhone is considered one of France’s three greatest wine regions.  One famed wine modern writer-connoisseur esteems that, among the world’s greatest red wines today, the Rhones are the most “untamed: uninhibited, fearless, almost savage, spicy, dark, the equivalent of a primal scream.”  The Rhone wine region follows the course of the Rhone River from south of Lyon for 250 miles until it washes into the Mediterranean, just west of Marseilles.  The valley is divided into two parts: the northern Rhone, smaller and a bit more prestigious, and the southern Rhone, larger and better known.  Conveniently, the two regions are separated by a gap of 25 miles between the towns of Valence and Montemilar where almost no vines are grown.  The northern and southern Rhone are so distinct and different that were it not for the river that connects them they would be considered separate wine regions.  Red wines predominate throughout the Rhone.  The most famous northern Rhone reds are Cote Rotie and Hermitage; the most famous southern red is Chateauneuf du Pape.  Syrah is the sole red grape in the north.  Southern Rhone reds are usually blends of many grapes, the most important of which are Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre (“GSM”).  Northern reds are the expression of one grape and southern Rhones the expression of many.   
The Rhone Valley is one of the oldest wine regions in France, reaching far back in distant time.  Wine was introduced to southern Gaul by the Etruscans around 500 BC.  By the time the Romans encountered their fierce and mysterious rival Gauls more than two thousand years ago, the inhabitants were drinking wine that the writer Pliny considered to be excellent.   
The popular value-priced  wines known as Cotes du Rhone can come from either part of the valley, but most come from vineyards in the south.  Unlike northern single varietal wines, southern Rhone wines are a rainbow combination of flavors of different varieties.  The reason is climate.  Where the climate in the northern Rhone is continental with hard, cold and wet winters, the climate in the south is Mediterranean.  In the hot dry climate of the south, such classic grapes as Syrah lose their focus and intensity.  Less noble grapes adapt well to the heat but rarely possess enough character on their own to produce a satisfactory wine.  Thus blending is a way of creating a whole wine that is more than the sum of its parts.  Grenache is the leading grape of the southern Rhone with elegant and raspberry flavors.  Mourvedre is a major blending grape that gives structure, acidity and leather and game flavors.  Both Mourvedre (Monastrell) and Grenache (Garnacha) originated in Spain.  Syrah gives bold and spicy flavors.   The major wine regions of the south are Chateauneuf, Gigondas, and Vacqueras, followed by southern France’s self-styled capital of rose, Tavel. 
Tavel is one of France’s most famous roses.  Most are rugged with robust, spicy, berry flavors . They are bone dry with a rough edge that is perfect for washing down southern French dishes laden with garlic, olive oil and and fresh, wild herbs.  Tavel roses are made in the tiny, sleepy village of the same name, less than 10 miles southwest and across the river from Chateauneuf du Pape.  Grenache like most reds is the leading grape in the rose blend. 
The Cotes du Rhone and Cotes du Rhone Villages appellations are where value reds can be found.  Amazingly 70 percent of all Rhone wines are Cotes du Rhone and Cotes du Rhone Villages.  Wines with this designation usually do not come from a single place but are made from grapes grown on vast non-contiguous tracts of less prestigious vineyards.  Quality ranges all over the board from unremarkable to sensational, juicy, spicy wines with real character.  Cotes du Rhone is the basic appellation.  Cotes du Rhone is theoretically a step up in quality.  Generally this is true, but several of the very best wines are simply Cotes du Rhone, so no hard and fast rules can be made.  Fewer than twenty of the Cotes du Rhone Villages are considered superior.  In recognition of that fact these few are allowed to append their name to the appellation.
I will have more to say about our specific highly rated Cotes du Rhone wines in my next email.  So stay tuned.
A bientot.
R. Delaney