Red Cotes du Rhone is … one of the best-value appellations in the world ...
Jancis Robinson, 2012
[ Text amended 7 May, 2021 ]
Conclusions from the tasting:
This was a tasting that immediately appealed to people … how could a 38-year-old Cotes du Rhone possibly be offered in a serious wine tasting … with the result that it sold out in less than two hours. Intriguing. And a good waiting list built up, too.
The wines did not disappoint the group. One wine was initially a bit locked up / musty, but the palate remained remarkable, and a second showed more brett than acute tasters liked. A third lacked sparkle for some – a warmer-year wine with a softer acid balance than some tasters preferred.
Conversely, the best of them were remarkable. In terms of nett pleasure at table, in particular the 1983 Guigal was sensational. The nett impact of the wine was clearly burgundian, yet one would have to spend 20 times as much, and at Grand Cru level I venture to say, to have a 1983 Burgundy looking as food-friendly, complex, and simply delightfully winey as 1983 Guigal Cotes du Rhone does today, at 38 years of age.
For most people, any of the 12 Cotes du Rhones presented would be pretty acceptable in a dinner context. But the top 6 offered particular delights, and no points of detail to quibble over. From the left, the 2016 Charvin Cotes-du-Rhone, a very typical example of the Charvin understated no-oak Cotes du Rhone style, just ripe enough, but falling well short of the exceptional (for Charvin) 2010 wine, 17.5; then the most popular wine on the night, the 1985 Guigal Cotes du Rhone, fragrant and well-balanced, showing surprising freshness as well as aged characters, 17.5 +; next the 2007 Guigal Cotes du Rhone, a big wine surprising for its balance and charm, in a year which produced many too ripe and too big wines in the Southern Rhone Valley, 18; the first of the majestic 2010 wines, Charvin Cotes-du-Rhone, perfect ripeness and completeness unusual in this label, 18; then the Guigal 2010 Cotes du Rhone, our bottle slightly muffled on the night, but still revealing on palate a perfectly balanced and rich wine of unusual stature for the appellation, 18 +. Had it been a perfect bottle, it would undoubtedly have been the top wine. And finally, the top wine for me, and top or second-favourite for eight tasters, the supremely fragrant and winey 1983 Guigal Cotes du Rhone, a wine showing near-burgundian complexity and majesty, still at the height of its powers (when from a temperate-climate cellar), 18.5. Font>
And that is the point of offering Cotes du Rhone tastings. With careful selection, the best Cotes du Rhones (and naturally, Cotes du Rhone-Villages) red wines offer a cellar potential exceeding by orders of magnitude the two- to three-, maybe five-year recommendations of blinkered, obsessed-by-'consuming', American wine-writers. And the best wines are just so wonderfully fragrant, soft and supple, and food-friendly, when properly mature. In fact the best Cotes du Rhone wines will cellar for 30 and even 40 years.
So what is needed to successfully cellar these wines, to achieve such longevity and potential magic in superb mature bottles, for Cotes du Rhone ? It is quite simple really, but requires a little analytical tasting of the young wines, at the time of selection. The key factors are:
# sufficient dry extract to stay the course, and provide palate satisfaction many years later. Essentially this means a cropping rate around / not much exceeding 38.5 hl/ha = 5 t/ha = 2 t/ac, preferably less;
# critically, the fruit must not be too ripe, so that the essential fruit aromas and flavours retain freshness and hints of aromatic berry flavours, marked by appropriate acid balance;
# but conversely, there must be sufficient ripeness, so the berries show good physiological maturity. Stalky thoughts on bouquet and / or palate detract from ultimate wine enjoyment;
# where oak is used, it must complement the potentially burgundian style of the wine, and always be in the background, never dominating;
# grenache-dominant wines are more likely to successfully cellar for decades than syrah-dominant (and a good percentage of mourvedre helps too);
# and finally, the wines must not be reductive. This is a particular hazard to be watched for, in cellaring Cotes du Rhone, with so many wines being raised in concrete.
A vintage chart for the southern Rhone Valley in recent years can be found here, scroll down.
Cotes du Rhone: a comparison of two wine-styles:
Guigal: syrah-dominant since 1998, c.50%, grenache and significant mourvedre, some minor vars, a significant part of the wine around 40% raised in foudre, the balance stainless steel. Grapes mostly de-stemmed.
Charvin: grenache-dominant c.80%, syrah and minor varieties, all the wine raised in concrete, as is still typical of many Cotes du Rhone. Significant use of whole-bunches.
Guigal’s Cotes du Rhone (after vacillating for a while, they have settled on the non-hyphenated form) has long had extended elevation – at 18 months minimum longer than virtually all other producers. Virtually all the raw materials are bought in, some fruit but mostly wine. Details of cuvaison are therefore vague, but thought to be quite long. Unlike many examples of the wine-style, a clearly large (40% according to Livingstone-Learmonth) part of the wine is raised in 5,000-litre foudres, with the balance (latterly) in stainless steel. The wine is at least three years in the company cellars. Because the volumes made are now so large, requiring multiple bottlings, extreme attention is paid to blending and re-blending to achieve total consistency in the final bottled wine throughout the vintage. Volume is not fixed, the Guigals being such master-tasters and buying only on taste, that if in a given year the material offered is not up to standard, the volume of Cotes du Rhone is less, even half. But over the years the trend-line has been from less than 70,000 x 9-litre cases in the earliest 1990s through to c.333,300 cases (4 million bottles) for the great 2016 vintage. 375,000 cases were made in 2017. The wine is not fined, but is filtered … again contrasting with the Charvin.
In the 1980s the wine was grenache-dominant. Those wines cellared remarkably well. In the 1990s the percentage of syrah increased, and from 1998 on, syrah has been the dominant variety. The blend varies in detail, but typically now is syrah 50 – 55%, grenache c. 35 – 40%, the balance mourvedre (unusually high, relative to most Cotes du Rhone). Sometimes there are minor blending varieties too. Average vine age is 35 years or so, and the average cropping rate over the years is 40 hl/ha = 5.2 t/ha = 2.1 t/ac. Most years the fruit is de-stemmed, little or no whole-bunches. It is noteworthy that the price of Guigal Cotes du Rhone has barely changed in the New Zealand market in 20 years … perhaps another reason for moving to syrah-dominance. One intriguing aspect of this tasting will be to ascertain if the syrah-dominant blends cellar as well as the earlier grenache-dominant ones.
In contrast Charvin’s Cotes-du-Rhone, labelled Le Poutet in some markets, has a cuvaison of 15 – 20 days, and is raised in concrete only for 16 – 18 months. Volumes here are much smaller, varying round 3,000 cases, rarely 4,000. Apart from the recently-leased mourvedre, the fruit is all from home-vineyards. Livingstone-Learmonth records that since 2010 the blend has been 81% grenache average age 45 years, 7.5 syrah, 7.5 mourvedre, the balance carignan, all old-vine. Earlier vintages averaged grenache 85%, syrah 10, carignan 5. A significant to dominant proportion of whole-bunches are used, also contrasting with Guigal. The wine is fined as needed, but not filtered.
Let’s start the Library Tasting year off on a frivolous and affordable note. To all but the most inveterate wine-snob, Guigal’s Cotes-du-Rhone can be said to be one of the best wines in the world … in the sense it can be found in all civilised places on Earth (but not Lower Hutt ...), it is invariably a good to very good exemplar of its appellation, with a little age it is unbelievably winey and attractive for its price-point, and it is a delight with any food one would normally have red wine with. Plus it is affordable, and cellars well … not that you’d think so, from the blinkered views of the great majority of wine-writers, who think all Cotes-du-Rhones should be drunk within a year or two of vintage. Interestingly, wine-searcher takes no notice of them, older vintages of Guigal Cotes-du-Rhone having quite a following.
The modern Guigal wine-enterprise is one of the great successes of the post-war wine world. Etienne Guigal set up his own winery in 1946, with son Marcel taking over in 1961. Yet it was many years before the winery’s profile crept over the horizon. They were still substantially unknown by the 1970s … yet in the 1980s suddenly they became a firm that could not be ignored. There were two reasons for this: their singular (for the Rhone Valley) adoption of long oak-maturation and new oak for their premium reds, and the emphasis they placed on making their everyday wine show a hint of the style of their top wines … via oak. Thus at a time when virtually all Cotes-du-Rhone were raised in concrete, Guigal from the late 1970s (and perhaps earlier) matured a significant proportion of his Cotes-du-Rhone in big wood … the famous foudres. And not all the oak was old. Thus their Cotes-du-Rhone became famous for its bouquet and vinosity, at a time when too many Cotes-du-Rhone were tending dark and heavy … and rather many outright reductive.
The style of the wine has changed over the years. The Guigals advise that the present-day Cotes du Rhone label essentially dates back to 1961, when Marcel took over. Through the 1960s and 1970s, and into the early 1980s, it was clearly a grenache-dominant wine, as is typical in the Southern Rhone Valley. Coming from the Northern Rhone Valley, however, the Guigals wanted a little more aromatics in the wine, and the proportion of syrah increased. Plus the wine had always had mourvedre, unusual in cheaper Southern Rhone reds. Syrah became more prominent in the blend in the 1990s, finally becoming the dominant variety from the 1998 vintage, and subsequently. Cépage now varies around a reference-point of Sy 50%, Gr 40, Mv 10.
To counterpoint the Guigal approach, we will include another famous Cotes du Rhone, the Charvin. It is clearly grenache-dominant, and essentially raised in concrete. The tasting will be structured to try and compare and contrast these two winestyles.
The Guigals will be selected from: 1983, 1984, 1985, 1995, 1998, 2003, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2016, all but the 1984 good years, and the Charvins from 2005, 2010, and 2016, the latter two absolutely outstanding years.
I particularly appreciate Philippe Guigal advising details of dates and changes in winery practice.
Livingstone-Learmonth, John, 2005: The Wines of the Northern Rhone. University of California Press, 704 p.
Parker, Robert, 1987: Wines of the Rhone Valley and Provence. Simon & Schuster, 456 p.
Parker, Robert, 1997: Wines of the Rhone Valley. Simon & Schuster, 685 p.
www.drinkrhone.com = John Livingstone-Learmonth NB: J.L-L marks out of SIX stars (subscription needed for reviews)
www.guigal.com Guigal winery website, better info than many wineries
www.jancisrobinson.com = Jancis Robinson MW and Julia Harding MW, subscription needed for reviews
www.robertparker.com = Robert Parker and Joe Czerwinski, vintage chart, subscription needed for reviews
www.wineanorak.com = Jamie Goode, UK
www.winespectator.com vintage chart, subscription needed for reviews
THE WINES REVIEWED:
The first price given is the current wine-searcher value, but note that wine-searcher has to reflect the myopic American wine-establishment view of the world, that Cotes-du-Rhone cannot be taken seriously after a few years. Their pricing is therefore indicative only for many years. An approximate reflection of the purchase price is in the text following. All wines have been cellared in Wellington since original purchase.
For a winestyle that so many wine-writers say must be drunk within 3 to 5 years, the first thing to say about this tasting is, that this set of 12 Cotes du Rhones spanning 34 vintages from 2016 back to 1983 looked totally magical, from youngest to oldest, and smelt even better. The set smelt winey, inviting … even mouth-watering, aromatic, and alive. Smelling and tasting the 12 glasses, there were just so many variations on a Southern Rhone blend theme. And while some smelt mature, none of them smelt too old in any way ... unless your sensory horizons are limited to current-vintage supermarket ‘wines’. For the sequencing of the wines, the idea was that the first wine 2005 Charvin Cotes-du-Rhone, would show the conventional style of a Cotes du Rhone: grenache-dominant, elevation in concrete, whereas the second wine, 2007 Guigal Cotes du Rhone, shows the distinctive Guigal approach, now syrah-dominant, and always with significant wood elevation. These first two wines are showing some signs of maturity, and introduced the theme of the tasting well. By and large, I like to present wines from youngest to oldest, so the next two were the highly regarded 2016 wines, the Charvin again lighter than the Guigal, both a little disappointing given the reputation of the 2016 vintage. Then came the truly stellar 2010 pair, the darker Guigal first this time to exactly contrast the quality of the 2010 Guigal Cotes du Rhone by having it alongside the more average 2016, then the Charvin in position six. For both makers, these 2010 wines may qualify as the greatest Cotes du Rhones they have made. And so to the back row. Number 7, the 2009 Guigal, the deepest-coloured wine, logically through the vintages back to the 1983 in position 12. Note the glowing ruby and garnet colour of #12, totally alive. And for the doubters, wines #11 the 1985 Guigal and #12 the 1983 between them won 22 first- or second-place votes. Not bad, considering there were 21 tasters. Thus the tasting demonstrated and confirmed that you do not need to be wealthy / able to buy expensive wine, to have glorious mature food-friendly wines in your cellar – a great result. But the wines must be carefully selected, at the outset. More detail on this aspect in the text. Font>
Glowing ruby and garnet, immediately attractive, the lightest colour. Bouquet is simply astonishing for the wine-class, epitomising vinosity and complexity, red fruits browning now, nearly pink roses, an aromatic hint of bouquet garni, all soft and enticing, tending burgundian in style like a mature Cote de Nuits wine of some standing. Palate matches, still surprising fruit balanced against harmonious soft tannins, thoughts of browning raspberries and red plums, beautiful acid balance, subtlest oak, long in flavour. Cotes du Rhone does not get much better than this. Top wine for four tasters, and second favourite for another four. In a cool cellar (in the southern two-thirds of the country), will easily hold for its 40th birthday. GK 03/21
Good ruby and velvet, the third richest wine, lovely. On the night the wine was muffled / obscured on bouquet by light TCA, noted by only five tasters. The instant you tasted it however, the astonishing fresh aromatic complexity of the berry, with nearly cassisy depths, was a revelation. This wine shows a high-syrah Cotes du Rhone at perfect ripeness, neither over-ripe with boysenberry / Australian notes, nor a bit pinched with a hint of stalks bespeaking under-ripeness. Balance of berry to oak is a delight, with wonderful concentration, and good acid balance too. This is the perfect example of a young Guigal Cotes du Rhone to cellar for decades, even if, with the syrah dominant, it never quite matches the 1983. No top rankings due to impairment (on the night): I had the advantage of seeing it well-breathed. A perfect bottle would score higher. Cellar 10 – 25 years. GK 03/21
Ruby, not quite the vigour and depth of the 2010 Guigal, but above midway in depth. Here is that rare thing, Charvin Cotes-du-Rhone ripened to pinpoint perfection. There are nearly lilac florals, a hint of garrigue complexity, and a depth of berryfruit hinting at raspberry, certain red plums, and blueberry. On bouquet, you would never accuse it of the simplicity so many concrete Cotes du Rhone wines can show. Palate continues the harmony of berry ripeness, perfect acid balance, noticeable furry-tannins as yet in youth, yet the tannins short, not quite the softening and lengthening that oak elevage bestows on the Guigal wines. This is about as good as Charvin Cotes-du-Rhone can be. One top ranking, three second favourites. What a wonderful year 2010 is, in the Rhone Valley. Cellar 10 – 20 years. GK 03/21
Ruby, a shadow of garnet creeping in, above midway in richness of colour. Bouquet is very pure on this wine, a suggestion of dusky red roses adding a quiet charm, on big berryfruit suggesting blackberries-in-the-sun and blueberry, plus some dark plum. Palate is supple, saturated with berryfruit, quite tanniny still in relative youth, the oak just a little noticeable but the fruit richness enough to carry it, the acid balance good. This is a surprisingly well-balanced wine for the (in general) rather warm and tending over-ripe 2007 vintage in the Southern Rhone Valley. In particular the syrah component does not show the over-ripeness of the 2009 and 2016. One second favourite ranking. Cellar 10 – 20 years. GK 03/21
Ruby and garnet, beautifully mature, the second-lightest wine. Bouquet is not as wondrously winey as the 1983, all a notch cooler and therefore not quite so enchanting and burgundian. There is almost a red currants suggestion, browning now, and a hint of marjoram / garrigue, plus a vanilla-wafer note. Palate is a little leaner than the 1983, acid balance a little firmer (which appealed to some tasters), again red fruits reflecting the grenache dominance of the era, the whole wine surprisingly refreshing for its age. On the night this was much the favourite wine, eight first places, and three second. Fully mature now, at risk of drying. GK 03/21
Ruby, markedly less depth than the 2010 Charvin, below midway in depth. Bouquet is very fresh, and almost simple: the lack of an oak elevage component showing up dramatically on this wine. On bouquet you wonder if the fruit is quite ripe enough, redcurrant and red raspberry dominating, even a thought of pomegranate. This is wine you therefore need to taste / assess carefully, if you were wondering if to cellar it. Palate is reassuring, no stalky hints, just enough ripeness, good acid balance, a very fresh style of Cotes du Rhone, not the depth and power of the 2010, but good wine shrieking of grenache, light cinnamon tannins to the finish. Some of the extravagant statements about the quality of this 2016 Charvin Cotes-du-Rhone wine on the Net and in auction catalogues recently, would however seem overblown. No first or second places, but four least. Cellar 10 – 20 years. GK 03/21
Ruby and garnet, alongside the 2007 the garnet here creeping up to equality, midway in depth. Bouquet is appealingly soft, sweet and ripe, nearly a hint of best moist sultanas. Even though 2003 was a warm year in the Southern Rhone Valley, the bouquet is not let down by boysenberry / Australian over-ripe notes. And naturally, the palate is not harshened by acid-addition. The nett result is a lovely warm-year supple wine, a gentle acid balance but not quite as soft as the 1998, good fruit length with browning raspberry and cinnamon suggestions … as if grenache dominant this year. Attractive wine maturing faster than most vintages. One second-place vote. Cellar 5 – 10 years. GK 03/21
Ruby and garnet, a little younger than the 2003, midway in depth. Bouquet shows lovely winey harmony, with just a little moist-sultana complexity suggesting a warm year. It is very integrated, no varieties showing. Palate shows the warm year a little more, browning red fruits, supple but with a subtle suggestion of caramel, the acid balance softer than the 2003, soft furry tannins. This wine achieved the distinction of no votes for first, second, or least places, but most agreed they would be happy to take it out for a meal. Some thought it too soft in acid. Cellar 5 – 10 years. GK 03/21
Ruby and garnet, older and lighter than the 2007 Guigal, below midway in depth. Bouquet is real grenache, red fruits and cinnamon, an aromatic hint from faint herbes de Provence, attractive, but not the depth of the magical 2010. Palate suggests the tannins are not quite perfectly ripe, the wine all a little cooler again than the 2016, with attractive fresh acid balance and reasonable red fruits browning a little now. The tannins substitute perfectly for the lack of oak in the elevation. One first place, but two least. Cellar 5 – 10 years. GK 03/21
Ruby and velvet, the deepest / richest wine. Bouquet is ripe to very ripe, but beautifully clean, berry dominant over oak. Dark fruits dominate, with very ripe syrah showing some Australian / boysenberry notes as well as dark plum and blueberry. Palate is supple and rich, shaping oak a little more noticeable than on bouquet, the acid balance fresher than expected, as if maybe a little tartaric added. This is a big ripe wine which will please many, particularly those from warmer climates, but it lacks the poise and complex aromatics to be a great Cotes du Rhone. Three people rated it their top wine, and two their second-favourite. Cellar 10 – 20 years. GK 03/21
Fresh ruby and velvet, much the youngest wine in appearance, and the second deepest. Bouquet shows big fruit and berry, but the syrah component tending over-ripened (always a peril in the South), so there are boysenberry / Australian notes in the wine. It is rich though, and berry dominates oak. Palate is rich for the wine style, still carrying a lot of tannin, more oak showing now, a wine for the long haul … with just enough acid. The flavour is a little broad and clumsy alongside the magical 2010. A relative disappointment, considering the magical vintage. Three people had this as their second-favourite wine. Cellar 15 – 30 years. GK 03/21
Ruby and garnet, a lovely colour, below midway in depth. Bouquet is complex, with savoury / leathery venison casserole thoughts, plus piquant and savoury nearly medicinal notes bespeaking brett, and still surprisingly good mature berry. For those who like this kind of wine complexity, it is very attractive indeed. For a few tasters however, brett-derived bouquet complexity is unacceptable, even though Brettanomyces is a natural fermentation yeast. Palate holds good mature berryfruit and a beautiful fruit / oak balance, the wine long and very savoury. The scoring pattern reflected exactly how people fall dramatically into two camps over this wine style: four first places, four second places, and six least places. Noteworthy that the secondary market is completely unconcerned about those who object to brett. Such wines are wonderful with complex casseroles, for those who like the style. Best not cellared for too much longer. Conversely, send it to auction if you can't stand brett, so others can enjoy it (noting that each bottle will be different, now). GK 03/21