Rhône varieties – home and away

Following last month’s highly successful tasting on Bordeaux grape varieties around the world, this month’s fine wine supper focused on the Rhône varieties.  In fact this turned out to be too big a subject matter, but we had such great wines from the northern Rhône that it became a matter of ‘home and away’.  The other big difference is that Rhône varieties are all stars grapes in their home territories. Unlike Bordeaux there are no varieties which are minor at home and have become stars in another place.  Syrah and Viognier strut their stuff at home, Marsanne and Roussanne do well too and the key grapes of the south are originally from Spain anyway and have hit the world stage from an adopted home: Grenache and Mourvèdre, originally Garnacha and Montastrell/Mataro.  Cinsaut and the minor whites are not really stars anywhere unless you think of the former’s role in the best rosés of Provence and, anyway, according to Jancis & co, it is likely to be from Languedoc anyway.  So perhaps ‘home and away’ is the correct theme.  On to the wines!

The aperitif for the evening was provided by the southern Rhône.  The south of France is famous for its rosés, whether elegantly pale or full bodied and structured. ‘La Dame Rousse’, Domaine de la Mordorée,Tavel AC, 2010, 14.5% is certainly in the latter camp with 14.5% alcohol by volume: cherry, boiled sweets and marzipan on the nose, still very fresh with a fine, substantial palate of red fruits, medium to high acidity and weight in the mouth. Would go brilliant with food too. 

Our first ‘home and away’ pair featured the now well travelled Viognier, famously rescued from near extinction by Georges Vernay (see the penultimate red wine below)  in the then tinyPichon's Condrieu and Churton Viognier appellation of Condrieu after the second world war.  Our pair showed how differently it can turn out.  Domaine Christophe Pichon, Condrieu AC, 2009 is really trying to be a big white Burgundy with its restrained, structured elegance and weight in the mouth, with buttery and candied fruit flavours.  Half the wine does time (nine months) being matured in barrels which are only 10% new but the effect is to tone down Viognier’s attractive fruitiness.  Meanwhile the outstanding fruit from a very unusual and tiny plot of Viognier in Marlborough, New Zealand is 50% fermented in oak.  Viognier, Churton, Marlborough, New Zealand, 2010, 14.8% does the obvious really excellently: powerful aromatics of new oak and luscious fruit with the quintessentially Viognier apricot and peach to the fore.  It was similar on the palate with the fruit heading in an even more exotic pineapple direction. Most people much preferred the Marlborough offering. 

The second ‘home and away’ pair focused on what has come to be known as GSM, Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre.  This trio are the work horses of the massive Côtes-du-Rhône appellation, France’s biggest wine export to the UK.  The winesCh. d'Aqueria and Sequillo red can be anything from mundane to marvellous and this is a very good example from Lirac which has an appellation of its own.  The mix for Château d’Acqeria, Lirac AC, 2009, 14% is 50% Grenache and 25% each Syrah and Mourvèdre and it was a bundle of berry fruit, spice and vanilla with a structure held together with fine tannins.  The style is a bit too modern (new oak) for me but there is no denying the quality and poise.  By contrast our ‘away’ wine was Red (that’s original!), Eben Sadie, Sequillo, WO Swartland, South Africa, 2009, 14.5%. This was a big, powerful, number with those berries again but this time balsam and cedar wood, a fruit-ripe sweetness on the palate, long and outstanding.  It was very young indeed but shows great promise.  From an unspecified blend of Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache accompanied by the southern French duo of Carignan and Cinsault. 

Three Syrahs marked the climax of the evening, two from the northern Rhône’s top two appellations and one from the Barossa Valley which has developed a world-beating style of its own.  The hill of Hermitage, rising above the left bank of the great southern river, produces what was the greatest French red wine in the world in the eighteenth century, long before Bordeaux was classified. It produces dark, intense Syrah which can age for decades. Our example was very young but impressive: 

Ferraton's HermitageRockford's ShirazVernay's Cote Rotie

Les Miaux, Ferraton Père et fils, Hermitage AC, 2007, 14%. Farmed biodynamically, this spends no less than four weeks macerating on the skins to extract all that colour and the tannins for the long haul.   It was already showing red berry, pepper, smoke and meat notes with great concentration and length … and it has barely begun to develop.  The second Rhône example had some of that bottle age: Maison Rouge, Côte Rôtie AC, Domaine Georges Vernay (of Condrieu fame), 1997, 12.5%. There was a marked contrast here between the fully mature nose of balsam, cedar, mushroom and red fruit and the remarkably young, super sweet fruit palate with its long, supple tannins.  And it was not a big alcoholic number – note that 12.5% alcohol. 

The final wine of the evening was big – but big, complex and satisfying.  Powerful dried figs and caramel to start with, then black fresh and dried fruit, excellent acidity to shore it all up, mouth filling and balanced.  Basket Press Shiraz, Rockford, Barossa Valley, South Australia 2003, 15% is a tribute to the monumental Shiraz of dry farmed Barossa – but had all the complexity and depth of a great wine just getting into its stride after a decade or so.  The producer tells you nothing about how it is made but that the fruit comes from very old vines – between 60 years and staggering 136 years.  It is one of the ironies of the so-called new world that most of the oldest vines still in production are to be found there. 

This was a great evening marked by the outstanding quality of the wines.  We may not have had time for the Marsanne/Roussanne duo or the minor southern blending varieties but there was no shortage of quality, nor contrasts in styles – whether the Rhône grape varieties were home or away. 

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