This was a delightful evaluation exercise, enough of the wines showing a complexity of fruit aromas and flavours augmented by the evocative and food-friendly aromatic 'garrigue' character to make them exciting. The wines fell rather naturally into two halves, six of them finer in texture and mouthfeel, more sophisticated, the other six tending plainer, more sturdy than subtle. In comparison with some tending-similar reds from Portugal recently, however, all these wines were wonderfully dry. Some tasters commented adversely on the highish alcohols that are now regrettably almost the norm in the Southern Rhone Valley district, though the grenache-dominant wines concealed their alcohol remarkably well.
Half the wines in the tasting were perfectly pleasant food-friendly examples of their appellation, which it would be a pleasure to grab from the cellar when one suddenly wants an affordable red which will please most people, and doesn't need to be thought about too much. From the left: 2016 Delas Freres Cotes du Rhone Saint-Esprit, clearly syrah-dominant, 17 +; 2013 Maison Guigal Cotes du Rhone, more mellow from both age and old-oak elevation, 17.5; 2016 Domaine Ogier Cotes du Rhone Heritages, textbook young Cotes du Rhone, and affordable, 17.5 +; 2014 Domaine des Espiers Gigondas, the most beautiful wine in the tasting, though not the richest, 18; 2015 Domaine Les Aphillanthes Rasteau 1921, all the beauty of fine grenache, in a cellar-worthy wine of Chateauneuf-du-Pape quality, 18 +; 2014 Domaine Les Grands Bois Cotes du Rhone-Villages Cairanne Cuvée Maximilien, understated now but wonderfully rich, real cellar potential, 18.5
The essential Southern Rhone garrigue aroma / complexity factor:
What is this characteristic aroma that people talk about in the wines of the Southern Rhone Valley ? The term 'garrigue' refers to the low shrubby vegetation of the hills and forelands of the peri-Mediterranean district. Many of the component plants of this scrub have essential oils, which are volatile in hot weather. The vegetation type is known as maquis or garrigue. It is analogous to manuka and kanuka short scrub in North Auckland, in that it spreads over areas formerly forested. When you push through it, there is this wonderful essential oil smell. The Mediterranean zone being drier than New Zealand, however, the vegetation type is now semi-permanent there. Characteristic plants contributing to the fragrant garrigue aroma are:
rosemary: Rosmarinus officinalis
lavender: Lavandula stoechas
sage: Salvia officinalis + other species of salvia
thyme: Thymus vulgaris
oregano: Origanum vulgare
myrtle: Myrtus communis
juniper: several species of Juniperus
fennel: Foeniculum vulgare
rockrose: Cistus monspeliensis
pinks: several species of Dianthus
As the Australians used to say, before they became more aware of of the wines of the world beyond their shores, in a warmer climate, vintage does not matter so much. It is still important, though, and the quality of the season may very much determine which wines best suit your personal taste. For example, the hot years can be too ripe, the wines lacking florality, subtlety, and complexity. To a degree, the years regarded as less successful can sometimes be more rewarding, if your preference in red Cotes du Rhone inclines to a lighter, more floral and fragrant, burgundian style. The Espiers Gigondas in the tasting illustrated this concept to perfection.
Recent Southern Rhone Vintages, compiled from Parker and Wine Spectator.
For the Parker rating, E = Early, T = Tannic.
for the year
|Nett impression for the year:|
|2012:||small crop ... but ripe flavours, well-balanced, cellar-worthy|
|2013||cool year, better for Sy and Mv than Gr, selection needed|
|2014||damp year, reduced crop, least year since 2008, selection needed|
|2015||Sy lesser, rich ripe Gr and Mv wines in the style of 2009, cellar|
|2016|| marked diurnal range, aromatic wines in the style of 2010, cellar.|
Robinson assesses 2016 as: 'one of the great vintages'.
Time to run another 'Worth Cellaring' tasting, on the warm red grenache-based wines of the Southern Rhone Valley. At best these can be the most food-friendly and best-value red wines on Earth. They can have all the soft charm and appeal of pinot noir, yet just be that little bit more substantial. In general, one has to pay quite a lot to achieve substantial pinot noirs. This is where the Southern Rhone wines come into their own.
But selection is the key. Because many of them are matured more in large vats, even concrete, than smaller barrels, we have to be on the lookout for heavy dull wines showing some reduction. Most winewriters will never tell you about that aspect of wines. Hence the appeal of having our own evaluation tasting, to decide for ourselves which are in truth worth buying.
Good Cotes du Rhone will cellar for years, ageing very gracefully. The layout for the tasting will therefore be: to taste the Guigal wine first as a yardstick – any wine better than this will be worth buying; then a 10-year-old wine to demonstrate that the good ones cellar well; then a sampling of both Cotes du Rhone, and some of the named villages formerly in the Cotes du Rhone-Villages appellation. They cost a a little more. This approach should give us a good feel for the wines of the district, and what price level to buy.
By and large Cotes du Rhone is based on grenache, with varying amounts of syrah. Cheaper ones have carignan and cinsaut in them, and don't keep so well, whereas the best cellar wines have more mourvedre. Many are raised in concrete, some in stainless, some better ones in big old wood, and a few modern ones have a touch of new oak. We have 12 wines, ranging from the simplest Cotes du Rhone around $20, to representatives of the elite villages formerly in Cotes du Rhone-Villages, but some now with their own AOC, such as Vacqueyras and Rasteau, now in the $40s. The whole idea is to find more affordable Cotes du Rhone-related wines with some of the quality, flavour and weight of Gigondas or Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but at maybe half the price.
The wines will be tasted blind, on this occasion 25 ml samples were used, then a vote on which is best (still blind), before discussion of each sample, to sort out why it is good, bad or indifferent.
www.jancisrobinson.com = Jancis Robinson MW & Julia Harding MW mainly (subscription needed)
www.robertparker.com = [ Robert Parker ] Jeb Dunnuck and Joe Czerwinski for this article (subscription needed)
www.winespectator.com = James Molesworth mainly (subscription needed)
THE WINES REVIEWED:
# In the admin (italicised) section of each review, the price given is present retail (approx), in New Zealand.
Sitting down to the glasses, some were clearly a lighter red, as in glasses 2, 9 and 11. These turned out to be the grenache-led wines, particularly 11, the Aphillanthes, 90% grenache. Two of the wines were unusually dark. For 10, the Cairanne Cuvée Maximilien, this correlated with an unusually high percentage of mourvedre, not the fact it was a great wine. Like burgundy, depth of colour is no index of quality, in Southern Rhone wines. For example, by far the most-liked wine of the tasting, wine 9, is also the lightest in the set.
This is sensational wine, the colour dense ruby, carmine and velvet, clearly the deepest wine on the table. This depth of colour reflects the unusually high percentage of mourvedre in the cepage, 35%. Bouquet is deep, dark and mysterious, not the most evocative in the set, but showing a dusky florality on darkest red fruits, with a hint of best prunes, perfectly moist and ripe, totally pure. There are undertones of garrigue aromatics enlivening the bouquet. Palate is wonderfully rich yet fine-grained, showing superb tannins from the mourvedre, and a smoothness suggesting some big wood elevation, though none is admitted to. It is a little tannic now, but give it five years. This wine is a great example of excellence from the Southern Rhone Valley in a cooler year. In a hotter year it could easily have become too burly. One first place, one second. A wine to buy by the case, and cellar for 5 20 years. It is not however the most attractive of the wines today: it demands cellaring. GK 04/18
Ruby, a beautiful limpid colour, below midway being so grenache dominant. Bouquet epitomises fine quality grenache at its most sophisticated, nearly roses floral, supple red fruits lightly cedary, as if some oak somewhere in the elevation, total purity. Palate is soft, warm and exciting, a wine to gladden any pinot noir fan though being grenache, it is a little more tannic. The flavours show red fruits and cinnamon, totally varietal. This is to all intents of Chateauneuf-du-Pape style and quality, though not as rich as some. Five first places, a wine to buy. Cellar 5 20 years. GK 04/18
The lightest wine, ruby, reflecting the high percentage of grenache in the cepage. Bouquet here was thrilling, capturing exactly what makes the better wines of the southern Rhône Valley so beautiful, and so matchable with food. This is floral, savoury, aromatic, with delightful garrigue complexity which makes the wine cry out for coq au vin complete with bouquet garni. Like the Aphillanthes, it is all red fruits, beautiful cedary oaking, wonderful depth. Palate captures all these elements effortlessly, a beautiful drinking wine, though perhaps not the perfect richness of a better year. Nonetheless, tasters declared: this is the style I want, six first places, five second. At $38 this is affordable for Gigondas, now that it is the second-most-favoured address in the southern Rhône Valley. A wine to buy by the case, and cellar 5 15 years. GK 04/18
Rich ruby, carmine and velvet, a near-perfect young Cotes du Rhône colour, midway in depth. Another wine with a lovely complex southern Rhône bouquet, enticing the taster to taste it, and think of savoury main courses. There are ripe red and darker plummy fruits, beautiful essential oil aromatics, the sweetness of character suggesting big old oak elevation. Palate is ripe, long and satisfying, not as complex as the top wines, less oak influence, but remarkably good at the Cotes du Rhône level. Another wine to buy by the case, and hold for 5 15 years. Three people had this as the top wine, four their second, which at the price is a great result. GK 04/18
One of the deeper wines, the colour reflecting the highish percentage of syrah. Bouquet is a little different from the others in the set, a mellow quality suggesting a high percentage of the wine is raised in large old wood. This vaguely cedary / more roasted chestnut character is matched by red and darker plummy fruit, maybe a hint of pepper and certainly a little garrigue aromatics. Palate shows a good level of fruit, again the old oak complexity not quite cedary, but complexing the wine. This wine was placed first in the blind line-up, and introduced to the group with the words: any wine better than # 1 will be worth cellaring. At the price it is nowadays, commonly $20, it remains the benchmark Cotes du Rhône. Cellar 5 15 years. GK 04/18
The third deepest wine, again reflecting its high percentage of syrah. This label has been around for decades, so one tends to think of Delas Cotes du Rhône as the challenger to Guigal's supremacy in this market-leading $20 price slot. This example is a dramatically good edition of Saint-Esprit, highly varietal, the syrah nearly dianthus floral, suggestions of white and black pepper, lovely garrigue aromatics, clear dark berry fruit of nearly cassis quality, great purity. Palate is not quite as mellow as the Guigal, less sign of oak complexity, but equally good fruit richness, and greater purity. This is the best Saint-Esprit I can recall, a wine to cellar 5 15 years. Two first places, three second, a good result for its affordable price. This wine and the Guigal closed off the clearly superior six wines of the tasting. GK 04/18
Ruby, carmine and velvet, deep and dense, the second deepest wine but a little lurid alongside the Maximilien. Bouquet confirms the lurid thought, a huge but unsophisticated blackberry bouquet, very clean, tending one-dimensional, only a hint of garrigue complexity. Palate is rich, again one-dimensional on blackberry fruit, no sign of cooperage. The whole winestyle is reminiscent of $10 Australian supermarket shiraz, but much drier to the finish. Alongside such a wine, The Three Sisters would probably seem more complex than I am giving it credit for, the concentration of fruit being impressive. Two rated this the top wine, two their second. Cellar 5 15 years. GK 04/18
Ruby, the third to lightest, reflecting the high percentage of grenache. This wine opened reductive: it needed jug to jug aeration five times or so. It responded well to that treatment, but retained a darker fruit character than grenache at the given level usually suggests. An aromatic undertone gradually emerged. Palate is more aromatic than the bouquet, suggesting that after five years in cellar this wine should rate more highly. There is a good concentration of raspberry red fruit, and some darker, plus suggestions of older oak, like the Guigal. Cellar 5 15 years, to improve, though the finish is very dry. Two first places, three second, but also four leasts. GK 04/18
Ruby, some carmine and velvet, midway in depth. Cepage is not known for this wine, but it smells of bright red fruits, raspberry and the like, suggesting that grenache is much higher than the available sources imply. There is a hint of aromatic lift, but little sign of oak. Palate follows perfectly, a lighter simpler wine but clean and pure, representative of satisfactory grocers / epicerie Cotes du Rhone. Cellar 3 8 years. GK 04/18
Ruby, some garnet and velvet, clearly older, just below midway in depth. This was one of those wines of the southern Rhone Valley which divided the room, some loving it, others vehemently hating it. That means only one thing in this district: quite a high level of Brettanomyces chemistry, the wine smelling of nutmeg and venison casserole, savoury to those who like it, horse-barn and worse to those who don't. Allocating a score therefore has to be arbitrary ... the above indicates I am tolerant of brett, thinking of how well the wine would go with food. Beneath these characters, there is still good browning fruit, and the wine smells otherwise clean and complex. Palate still retains good fruit, lovely oak elevation complexity, and great length on gentle tannins. For those who like it, a great food wine now. At the rate the brett has developed, however, not a wine to keep much longer. My goal of illustrating that Cotes du Rhone wines cellar perfectly well, far beyond the 2 3 years of consumerist American winewriters, was somewhat compromised by the level of brett in this bottle, but most agreed the wine otherwise showed good balance, and was not prematurely aged. Three top places, two second, but nine least. [ A second bottle, opened two days later to check, was dramatically less bretty, and clearly denser and fresher in colour, aroma, and taste. It would score markedly higher. This kind of bottle-to-bottle variation is normal in brett-affected wines.] GK 04/18
Ruby, the second lightest wine. Bouquet is simple raspberries, but complexed attractively with garrigue aromatics. Palate could scarcely be more definitive raspberry grenache, with an intriguing tannin backbone giving surprising length to the light flavour. Big old wood is so much more benign than big old concrete. In its purity of grenache flavours, there are reminders of Peter Lehmann grenache too, but the Cotes du Rhone version has more complexity. Cellar 3 10 years. Two tasters rated this their second-favourite wine. GK 04/18
Ruby, carmine and velvet, in the middle for depth. Initially opened, this wine was reductive to an unacceptable degree, requiring jug to jug splashy decanting 10 or more times. Even so it remained a bit sulky. The next day it was communicating better, showing both raspberry and blackberry fruits, but no aromatics. Palate is quite berry-rich and long, but entrained sulphides give a metallic streak to the finish. Due to the reduction, the joy of southern Rhône winestyles is lost in this example. Not worth cellaring, but if you did, will be improved after eight years. Cellar 8 15 years. The only wine to have no first or second votes. GK 04/18