Monday, 5 January 2015

Digging for gold in the Rhône

There’s a golden rule when buying internationally renowned wines: one third is good, one third is just ok and a third is pretty dire. The trouble is, it’s not necessarily obvious from the price, which of these three you might be faced with.

Wines which fall into this category include Rioja, Sancerre and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Anyone who’s ever spent twenty quid or more on a lacklustre Meursault from Burgundy has fallen foul of this golden rule. Its corollary is that, on restaurant wine lists, such wines are almost never good value.

The trouble is that such a recognizable name on the label enables lacklustre wines to sell at a price which far outstrips the quality of what’s actually in the bottle.

There are two ways to deal with this situation: one is to keep on buying the big names until you strike gold in the search for quality to match the price you’re paying – a long and possibly expensive process – though not unpleasant. The other is to do a bit of digging and experimentation and find the over achievers who live in the shadows of their more famous neighbours, but over deliver in terms of quality.

Actually there is a third way, which is just to carry on buying the big names, spending big bucks, but not worrying about it because you’re absolutely loaded. But somehow I don’t think you’d be reading this column if this is you – but hey, if you are, please get in touch, I’d love to come round and help you get through your extensive and well-stocked wine cellar.

But back to the more creative approach – how do you get to know who are the star Championship teams who could give many a Premiership side a run for their money?

Let’s take Châteauneuf-du-Pape as an example. At their best, these Grenache-based blends produce wonderfully weighty, intense wines of silky power – but at a price. In order to find value it pays to know a bit about how the French appellation system in the Rhône works. Look, It might be yawnworthy, but it could save you money…

There is a hierarchy of wines in the southern Rhône, a bit like a pyramid. At the bottom layer are wines labelled Côtes du Rhône, which can be made anywhere within the designated vineyard area. These are mostly fairly simple, easy drinking wines.

The next level up is Côtes du Rhône Villages, made from selected areas deemed to make higher quality wines. Often there is quite a step up in quality in such wines – an extra couple of quid will get you plenty more wine for your money.

After this come wines where specific villages are allowed to append their names to the Villages appellation, eg Côtes du Rhône Villages Sablet. There are currently 18 such villages and they generally represent a sweet spot in terms of value for money, with ambitious and high quality producers making wine under such labels.

At the very top of the quality pyramid are the individual villages which have the right to use their name alone on the label. Châteauneuf is of course the most famous, but there are 15 more of these across the entire Rhône valley, 7 of them in the southern Rhône: Rasteau, Vinsobres, Lirac, Tavel (for rosé only), Beaumes de Venise, Gigondas and Vacqueyras.

Now I’m not saying that all the wines from all of these villages are every bit as good as Châteauneuf, or are even necessarily made in the same style. I don’t know about you, but I am innately suspicious of wine merchants who talk about wines made from grapes a “mere stone’s throw” from a more famous neighbour, implying that you can get Châteauneuf quality at Côtes du Rhône prices.

Gigondas is probably the best known village after Châteauneuf  and quality has been rising here for some years. Grenache Noir can make up up to 80% of the blend, with a minimum of 15% of Syrah and/or Mourvèdre.

In Châteauneuf, there are famously 13 different permitted varieties; though most wines are Grenache-dominated blends, with Syrah and/or Mourvèdre in support, but also frequently with Cinsault, which is light in colour but adds lift and perfume.

On paper these two villages make broadly similar wine, but if you were to visit the area (and I strongly recommend you do) you would see a dramatic difference in the terroir. Châteauneuf is broadly a flattish plateau close to the river Rhône, characterised by “galets roulés” or pudding stones; large, rounded stones formed by the action of rivers. 

Gigondas, meanwhile, hugs the side of the Dentelles de Montmirail, jagged outcrops of limestone which loom above the village, like the plates along the spine of a vast stegosaurus. Altitude and aspect clearly have a vital role in determining the style of wines made here. If Châteauneuf is all about suave power, Gigondas is more defined by density of fruit and a definite freshness.

Recommended southern Rhône wines

Domaine Maby, La Fermade, Lirac 2012 - £9.95 from The Wine Society
Unbeatable value for money, from a conscientious producer in a village across the Rhône from Châteauneuf. It conveys warmth and ripeness combined with refreshment.
Domaine Martin 2013, Rasteau - £13.49 from Laithwaite’s
Rasteau was elevated to village/cru status only in 2010, so now is a good time to find wines whose quality is on an upward trajectory, but where the lower profile means prices reflect good value for money. Full, rich and savoury.
Domaine du Grapillon d’Or 2012 Gigondas - £19.99 from Waitrose
A rich mix of Quink and black fruit, with good freshness, even at 14.5% alcohol.
Domaine Richaud 2013 Côtes du Rhône Cairanne – £22.99 from The Wine Reserve in Cobham

The highest price wine here is, in theory, a lower quality level than the others. Purity of fruit, intensity of flavour and elegant structure make this worth the price tag.

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