Southern Rhône wines are packed full of the ripe fruit and the rich, spicy flavors that can so easily elude producers in Bordeaux’s cooler climate. In the past decade, the region has been blessed with a string of magnificent vintages: 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001, the last two of which are still on the market. This lucky streak came to an abrupt halt in 2002, when Châteauneuf-du-Pape and its environs got 14 inches of rain in a 48-hour period in September. The flood decimated the grape crop.
But 2003 has brought the Rhône back to top form, with a summer that could have been Californian in its dryness and its heat. The cellars are full of a smaller-than-usual crop of powerful, fruity wines.
The Rhône is, in fact, two worlds, north and south. In the north, vineyards of Syrah and Viognier produce tiny quantities of handcrafted, expensive wines from appellations such as Hermitage and Côte Rôtie. Further south, the Rhône Valley opens out into a wide plain, edged by hills to the west and mountains to the east. Grenache and Cinsault are the local grapes, joined more recently by Syrah from the Northern Rhône and Mourvèdre from the Mediterranean coast.
The 7,900-acre vineyard of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, on its stony hill dominated by the papal summer palace, is at the center of the Southern Rhône. The wines are powerful and alcoholic, and are getting increasingly more expensive. From their hill, producers in Châteauneuf can look east across the flat valley floor of the Rhône River toward the neighboring appellations of Gigondas and Vacqueyras, where there are vineyards planted right against the mountains. Gigondas wines are dominated by Grenache, and have the same power and dark fruit as the Châteauneufs, but the tannins are softer and more open, and the wines are more perfumed. They tend to mature fairly quickly.
The wines of Vacqueyras, on the other hand, are lighter in body; though Grenache-based, they usually contain a fairly high percentage of Cinsault. Prices of good wines from both appellations can be about $20. The Côtes du Rhône villages of Cairanne, Rasteau, Séguret and Beaumes-de-Venise are also producing very good wines, at prices of only about $15.
In the Southern Rhône there is little attention to fancy tasting rooms and cellar stage lighting. Every bit of energy and attention goes to the vines. The region is embracing the French biodynamic method of growing grapes—no chemicals, only organic treatments, and attention applied according to phases of the moon and the vibrations of the earth. It’s a system pioneered for the Rhône by Château de Beaucastel, the greatest estate of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Much of the Rhône wines that arrive stateside are from large estates such as Beaucastel, which is owned by Perrin, and mammoth négociant firms such as Delas Frères, Gabriel Meffre, Chapoutier and Barton & Guestier. Now, a new, university-educated generation of growers is coming on to the scene, and is making wines that could not have been conceived a generation ago. Each producer lends his or her own personality to the final product—some wines are therefore elegant, some are big and brawny, others sensuous. France always likes to claim the market on the techniques of terroir. These five people are reclaiming the integrity that this intangible mixture of soil, climate and location really means, and are showing France—and the rest of the world—just how generous and majestic Grenache can be.
Sophie and Catherine Armenier
Domaine de Marcoux · Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Sophie Armenier, 38, is tall, serious and an obvious perfectionist. She and her sister, Catherine, run the 50-acre Domaine de Marcoux in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Sophie’s domain is the cellar; Catherine, the quiet one, tends to the vines. Together they have made this family-owned estate, which has been in the Armenier family since the 17th century, one of Châteauneuf’s best.
Marcoux’s cellars are within sight of Château de Beaucastel, but its vineyards, laughs Sophie Armenier, are “all over the place.” Ninety percent of the vineyards are planted to Grenache, which she believes “reflects Châteauneuf better than any other grape variety.” And as befits a winery dedicated to biodynamic viticulture, Armenier does as little as possible to the harvested grapes.
“We have been biodynamic since 1991,” the winemaker says. “We interfere with the vinification as little as possible. We don’t do any pigeage to get color, because we just don’t want to get in the way of the fruit.”
Domaine de Marcoux makes a 100-percent Marsanne, which is aged for one year in wood. Oily and powerful, it has richness and flavors of white peaches. But the winery is better known for its two red Châteauneuf-du-Papes: a Cuvée Classique and, in better years, a Vieilles Vignes. There will be no 2002 Vieilles Vignes, because they lost half of their crop to the storms, but the 2000 and the 2001 vintages are both standouts, finely structured, with intense fruit and tannins.
But this level of quality is precisely what you would expect from such Grenache aficionados. The grape “is what [Châteauneuf] is all about,” Armenier says.
91 Domaine de Marcoux 2000 Vieilles Vignes (Châteauneuf-du-Pape); $71. This is a finely structured wine, blending red and black fruits, firm tannins and rich, sweet flavors. There is certainly power here, but the essence of this wine is the pure intensity of the fruit and tannins.
88 Domaine de Marcoux 2001 Arcane (Châteauneuf-du-Pape); $60. A 100% Marsanne wine, which was vinified and aged in wood for one year. Although the wood is certainly present, the oily, fat fruit gives richness and flavors of white peaches.
Domaine de la Janasse · Châteauneuf-du-Pape
The cellars of the Domaine de la Janasse, sandwiched between a railroad track and a freeway, are hardly in the most propitious position. But then this is the Rhône Valley, and land is at a premium. The Sabon family’s winery, on the edge of the village of Courthezon, looks toward the hill and vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Though 30 acres of the family’s vines are situated near the winery, the other 100 or so acres are divided among 50 different parcels.
Christophe Sabon, who is still just in his 30s, is a self-proclaimed “great defender of Grenache.” He is part of the move toward elegance in Châteauneuf-du-Papes—away from the traditional blockbuster wines, toward wines that are just a little lighter, with greater finesse. The weather, however, doesn’t always cooperate.
“2001 was a hot year,” says Sabon. “At the beginning of September, the grapes were bursting with sugar, but still weren’t ready to pick. Then rain came, and by harvest we had well-balanced fruit. Here it wasn’t as big as 2000, but it is certainly better balanced.”
Sabon probably makes too many wines—a tasting of one vintage of Domaine de la Janasse turns up three Côtes du Rhônes (two reds and one white) and five Châteauneufs (three reds and two whites). He also makes Vin de Table and Vin de Pays botttlings. The winemaker says that he makes so many different wines because it is important to express his parcels’ individual characteristics. In 2001, he made three cuvées of red Châteauneuf for this very reason: The Tradition is a blend of parcels. The Chaupin is from 60-year-old vines planted in sandy soils, and the Vieilles Vignes is from a hot vineyard, with soil that contains Châteauneuf’s characteristic gallette stones—the ones the you see in all the photos.
94 Domaine de la Janasse 2001 Vieilles Vignes (Châteauneuf-du-Pape); $110. Here is a red wine that shows the serious side of Châteauneuf. While the fruit is certainly huge, what is equally apparent is its restrained power and rich, concentrated tannins. This is a style of wine that will appeal to Zinfandel lovers.
88 Domaine de la Janasse 2002 Châteauneuf-du-Pape; $18. A blend of Grenache Blanc, Clairette and Rousanne that was fermented in wood. The result is a complete fruit salad of flavors—apricots, quince, white peaches, deceptively powerful and intensely aromatic.
Eric and Christine Saurel
Domaine de Montirius · Vacqueyras and Gigondas
The husband-and-wife team of Christine and Eric Saurel is committed to biodynamism. As I sit down at the small table in their modern tasting room (in reality, just a room in their house) I get an earful—everything I ever wanted to know, and more—about biodynamic techniques.
Eric Saurel’s father, Max, stopped using chemicals in his vineyards back in 1980. “He saw what it was doing to the soil,” says Saurel. “He could see that he was spreading chemicals without any benefit.” Max retired in 1986, and Eric and Christine took over.
In 1996, the 133-acre estate was completely converted to biodynamism, and was registered as such in 1999. A brand-new cellar, built to be in harmony with the earth’s vibrations (by the use of copper wiring on the pillars as earthing) was ready for the 2002 harvest.
It’s hard work, this biodynamism. “We spend an immense amount of time in the vineyard,” says Christine Saurel. “So it is important that we justify the effort by getting the best possible grapes, and giving the vines the time to produce their best.”
Their work paid off in 2002, when, despite the rain, the Saurels were able to harvest much more of their crop than their neighbors were. “A cousin of ours had to abandon his crop completely,” Christine explains. “He was astonished when he saw how much we were able to harvest.”
The bulk of the Saurels’ estate is in Vacqueyras, where the wines are blends of Grenache and Syrah. Their Vacqueyras bottlings include Cadet de Montirius, which contains a small percentage of Cinsault; Vacqueyras, a Grenach-Syrah blend from 40-year-old vines; and Vacqueyras “Clos Montirius,” a luxury cuvée from an isolated 21-acre vineyard on a plateau. They have vineyards, too, in Gigondas; the Grenache-Mourvèdre blends from these parcels produce huge, long-lasting wines. The 2000 will not even be drinkable for 10 years.
91 Domaine de Montirius 2000 Gigondas; $28. A hugely rich wine from a biodynamic vineyard, this wine will be immensely long-lived. Its sweet fruit contrasts with brooding tannins and intense herbal essences. Drink 2014+.
Domaine de la Bouïssière · Gigondas
With 31 acres of vines in Gigondas and Vacqueyras, and a small parcel of vin de table vines, Domaine de la Bouïssière is hardly large, even by Rhône Valley standards. The cellar is difficult to find, tucked high up in the village of Gigondas, in the shadow of the Dentelles de Montmirail, a rock face that rises up from the valley.
Thierry Maravel has his best vines in the rocky soil of the valleys that pierce the Dentelles. “The way the mountains shade our vines means that we harvest later than people in the plain,” he says. “And that’s good for the slow ripening of the grapes.” He is an intense, rather shy young man who works with his brother, Gilles. Their father, Antonin, started the domaine in 1978. Gilles and Thierry named their top wine, La Font de Tonin, after their father.
Their cellar is simple—it’s just a couple of rows of fermentation tanks, barrels, and a small corner for tasting. The modest facility is what you’d expect from a vigneron who thinks that “90 percent of the wine is made in the vineyard. In the cellar, all we do is respect the grapes.”
Domaine de la Bouïssière’s wines are modern in style, dominated when young by the flavor of new wood barrels. The concentration and power of Font de Tonin would put most Californian Rhône wines to shame. (You have to respect them, even if you can’t finish them). Maravel says that he “wants to make wines that make you go ‘wow.'” I think he has succeeded, even in challenging vintages.
The “2002 [vintage] was the toughest year since the terrible 1992,” says Maravel. “But we had learned a lot in those 10 years, and so 2002 is much better than 1992. The color was closer to Pinot Noir than the normal dark colors of Syrah and Grenache. Instead of our usual two wines (a classic and a reserve), we put all our grapes into the one wine.”
By contrast, 2001 was a “great year, powerful and aromatic. It’s great to drink now, but it will age. It is one of those wines that will be good at any stage.”
92 Domaine de la Bouïssière 2001 La Font de Tonin (Gigondas); $35. This wine is powered by wood at this stage in its life. But under the new wood tastes, there is powerful, dense fruit that will come through and dominate with its rich, licorice and tar flavors.
Domaine de Trapadis · Rasteau
Helen Durand’s cellar is a mess, but his vineyard is in perfect condition. Speaking to the owner of the 59-acre Domaine de Trapadis in the Côtes du Rhône village of Rasteau, it is even more obvious that the vineyards’ importance outweigh that of the condition of his cellar.
“I work the soil with care,” he says. “I want to create an ecosystem between the insects and the plant. If the vine is well fed and well balanced, it will resist diseases better.”
Durand, a burly young man, works with his mother in the family-owned domaine. Like so many of his generation, he was educated at enology school in nearby Orange. He then worked at Château de Beaucastel before coming back to the family estate.
The vineyards are planted to Grenache, Carignan, Syrah and Mourvèdre, a standard mix for Côtes du Rhône. “I adore the Mourvèdre,” he says, “but we are at the northern limits for its success here. I much prefer it to Syrah, which can be too one-dimensional. And Grenache is very capricious—it is susceptible to rot, it gets every disease possible, and you can get good and bad wines from the same parcel, with vines treated the same way.”
Back in Domaine de Trapadis’s cellar, cement tanks are everywhere, reached by way of a wooden stair that is hardly designed to carry any weight. Low ceilings make the work difficult. It’s certainly not a place where you would expect to taste extraordinary wines.
But the Trapadis wines are extraordinary, especially Durand’s Rasteau Les Adres. It is powerful, hugely concentrated, and bursting with fresh fruit. Durand doesn’t like wood, especially new wood; he doesn’t want anything to come between the fruit and the final wine. “I am looking for finesse, not extraction,” he says. “Once I thought I should make wines with tannins, like Bordeaux. But now I believe wines should be sensuous, so I have turned to Burgundy.”
89 Domaine du Trapadis 2001 Rasteau Les Adres (Côtes-du-Rhône Villages); $28. Even for a cru Côtes du Rhône this is a very powerful wine. It has great fruit, ripe tannins and firm black cherry flavors. Still young, there is a touch of barnyard that will certainly blow away, and give the wine great aging potential.