With the superb 1998 vintage now mostly in the market, there is no better time to enjoy the delicious red wines of the breathtaking southern Rhône Valley—and don’t overlook the whites and rosés.
The southern Rhône vineyards are some of the most important in France for fans of character-packed wines. From a region of great beauty, littered with ancient ruins and bathed in sunshine for much of the year, the wines, with their exotic aromas and soft, ripe fruit, appeal instantly to lovers of rich reds and weighty whites.
The calling card for the area is the dry northern Mistral winds, which blow for at least 200 days a year. For the grape growers, this wind—known to drive men and dogs mad—is a blessing. Through it, nature offers a way to keep the grapes dry and healthy, without forcing growers to resort to much in the way of agricultural chemicals.
For visitors, there’s something exhilarating about coming south to the Rhône. At an almost definable moment, somewhere south of Valence, the milky light of northern France gives way to the piercing luminescence of the Mediterranean. For years, I used to watch for an evocative road sign that announced simply, “Vous êtes en Provence.” Today, that sign has been replaced by an announcement that you have entered the region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, which is somewhat more bureaucratic, but carries the same welcoming meaning.
South of that sign, the narrow Rhône Valley widens out. To the east, it is bounded by a strangely shaped ridge of rocks, called Les Dentelles de Montmirail. I used to think that the jagged outline of the Dentelles was being likened to teeth, until some helpful Frenchman told me the word actually meant the pins on a lace-making board. I’ll always think of them as teeth, though.
This ridge shelters the eastern vineyards of the Côtes-du-Rhône. Standing on the ridge of Montmirail and looking west, a low hill in the distance marks Châteauneuf-du-Pape. To the far south, the massive battlements on a hill are those of the papal palace in Avignon. Through it all, the Rhône River flows slowly and majestically to the Mediterranean.
Everything in the region is situated relatively close together. And between the landmarks lie vines, lots of vines. The southern Rhône is the second-largest wine area in France, after Bordeaux. Nearly 10,000 growers cultivate 100,000 acres of vineyards. Virtually every street corner in every small town reveals another wine cellar, urging you to stop and buy (direct sales are as important in the Rhône Valley as they are in Napa, even though the sales techniques are much more haphazard and relaxed; tastings are normally free). And it seems as though every village of any size is dominated by the stainless-steel tanks of the local cooperative, where most growers still take their grapes.
The most famous appellation of the southern Rhône is undoubtedly Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It is here that the blueprints were laid for the French system of appellation contrôlée regulations, which delimit growing areas, authorize grape varieties, and more. Châteauneuf is also where the finest wines of the region are crafted, from as many as 13 different red and white grape varieties. (In order of prominence: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Clairette Blanc, Bourboulenc, Roussanne, Picpoul, Counoise, Terret Noir, Vaccarèse, Muscardin and Picardan.)
At some point in every wine-loving traveler’s life, a visit to Châteauneuf is essential. Every house seems to belong to a vigneron. The town and its castle surmount a small hill, and below the town—on a plateau—are the gnarled bush vines that grow out of a thick layer of large round cobbles that overlay the soil. These stones, called galets, are the secret behind the power and weight of Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines, as they reflect the heat of the summer sun back on to the ripening grapes.
As would stand to reason, the best wines are estate-bottled, rather than produced
by négociants. Wines bottled within Châteauneuf carry the papal crest of the crossed keys of Saint Peter, which gives a guarantee of authenticity, even if it doesn’t guarantee quality.
Château de Beaucastel is perhaps the best-known of all Châteauneuf producers, and one of the few to continue cultivating all of the permitted varieties. At the other extreme, Château Rayas produces an often-stunning Châteauneuf made entirely from Grenache. Most Châteauneuf estates, however, make blended wines that fall somewhere between these two examples, with the main components most often being Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault and Mourvèdre.
In high-quality years, like 1998, these are big wines with alcohol levels between 13.5 and 15 percent. But good producers like Le Vieux Télégraphe or Château La Nerthe are able to extract fine, rich fruit to balance the alcohol. Warm, herb-laden, spicy tastes are characteristic of the best wines of the region. Despite their warmth and forwardness, these wines can often age well; Châteauneufs that improve for ten or more years are not uncommon.
After one of the weaker vintages in recent memory (1997), Châteauneuf’s producers rebounded in 1998. In tasting an array of ’98 Châteauneufs, our tasting panel in New York walked away convinced that the current releases are of high quality across the board. While the red ’98s from the aforementioned Beaucastel, La Nerthe, and Rayas were not available for tasting in time to be included in this arti-cle, our editors sampled a number of Châteauneuf wines and came away extremely fond of three in particular: Domaine Font de Michelle’s reserve-level Cuvée Etienne Gonnet, a soft yet dark wine of immense character; the Les Cèdres bottling from the esteemed house of Jaboulet; and Lucien Barrot et Fils’ Châteauneuf.
Gigondas is the other top commune of the region, but its wines, with a higher percentage of Grenache, tend to be less complex than those of its more illustrious neighbor. Still, offerings from the likes of Domaine du Cayron, Domaine Les Goubert, Domaine Saint-Gayan and Domaine Santa Duc can often be seriously beefy reds. Wines from here can age well, sometimes requiring five to ten years from vintage before reaching maturity.
Brusset is another Gigondas property to keep an eye out for. Its immensely deep 1998 Les Hauts de Montmirail is so full of dark fruit and coffee flavors that it almost requires a fork and knife. It is one of the woodiest Rhône wines you are likely to encounter, yet the depth and quality of fruit handles the heavy dose of oak. Still another Gigondas that has been wowing the critics is Château de Saint Cosme from Louis Barruol. The aroma of this wine, resplendent with Asian spices and fine tobacco, is magnificent, and the soft texture begs you to indulge until the bottle is empty.
The village of Vacqueyras, just south of Gigondas, was granted its own AOC in 1990 (its wines were formerly labeled as Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages). Maybe it’s just growing pains, but in general these wines have yet to equal those of nearby Gigondas or Châteauneuf. On the plus side, they’re less expensive.
Clustered around Gigondas and Vacqueyras are several of the 16 villages whose wines carry the Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages appellation. These are often smaller-scaled versions of Châteauneuf or Gigondas, with some producers’ increasing use of Syrah and Mourvèdre adding an elegance and complexity that is lacking in some of the heavily Grenache wines.
Most of the wines that appear in the United States are blends labeled simply as Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages, but if you are visiting the area you should aim to stop in at least Cairanne, Rasteau, Séguret, Sablet and Beaumes-de-Venise, the last if only to sample the delectably sweet Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise. These villages face each other across the side valley of the Ouvèze River as it flows southwest into the Rhône from Vaison-la-Romaine.
The rest of the Côtes-du-Rhône appellation is located on the western banks of the Rhône. It begins outside Avignon and spreads north up to where the Ardeche tributary enters the Rhône River. Along the way it encompasses two individual appellations: Tavel and Lirac.
Tavel producers claim to make the greatest rosé in France; until recently that was a claim made more upon the past than the present. But now these Grenache-based wines, a perfect example of which is Château d’Aqueria, are looking up. As with all good rosés, freshness is paramount, but character is not sacrificed. Some consumers have a hard time accepting that rosés can be taken seriously. But those from Tavel are rosés that are crying out to be reds. They have weight, fruit, richness and considerable complexity. They should be drunk within two years of harvest, and drunk chilled. But they can age. I recently had an eight-year-old Tavel and it was still in peak condition.
Meanwhile, Lirac producers have moved away from rosé production in favor of red wines, and the best combine a rich plummy character with spice notes.
Rounding things out are the wines labeled simply Côtes-du-Rhône. These country-style wines rarely cost more than $11 or $12 a bottle, but in good vintages they offer substantial amounts of jammy fruit and a suppleness that makes them just right with food. Perrin, Guigal, Chapoutier, Jaboulet and Delas Frères are among the big names making good Côtes-du-Rhône, and their ’98s are particularly sturdy and satisfying.