WINE & SPIRITS
JUICY BOTTLES ARISE FROM A MYSTERIOUS FRENCH WINE REGION
Before I travel to a new wine region I often have a good idea of the geography that awaits me. Even before stepping off the plane, I knew, for instance, that Bordeaux was split along the Garonne River into right and left banks. Alsace I could picture as the fairytale land it turned out to be. But the Côtes du Rhône in the south of France remained a great mystery until I traveled there recently and saw the place for myself.
This vastly under-hyped French wine district—home to the Chateauneuf du Pape, Crozes Hermitages and Condrieu appellations—runs, like Bordeaux, along a meandering river. But the river in this case does not split the region. It's divided instead along a distinct north-south axis. Southern Rhône, covering a good chunk of Provence, is an aromatic wine region—with fresh herbs, lavender and cypress trees—cooled by the mighty Mistral blowing in from the north. Home to many small vintners, the area produces mainly inexpensive, juicy, food-friendly red blends—along with a handful of intriguing whites and top-shelf rosés. The northern Côtes, land of sloping hills and thick brittle forests, is where the region's big players—E. Guigal, Paul Jaboulet, M. Chapoutier—produce their best wines. These are mostly big, brawny syrahs with lots of aging potential. While Guigal, one of the biggest producers up north, turns out 9,000 bottles per hour, some small southern producers barely reach that number in their annual output.
The north-south dichotomy is about much more than wine. Though the south may be responsible for few collectible bottles, its medieval villages—Vaison la Romaine, Seguret, Sablet—are among the most charming in France. This is the area made famous in Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence—a land of Roman ruins and petanques games and lazy afternoons nursing an icy Pastis. The north may encompass the fabulous city of Lyon, but its villages are far more humdrum. The vineyards there are often so steep that they must be worked by hand because no tractors can navigate them.
During an illuminating week this summer I hit nearly two-dozen wineries in the north and south (the Rhône is home to some 7,000 of them). I traveled from Avignon up to Lyon, stopping at top cru villages along the way—Gigondas, Beaume de Venise and Saint-Joseph among them.
My greatest discoveries on my Rhône wine tour were the lesser known gems I tasted down south. At Château d'Or Et de Gueules, the red blends, featuring grenache, syrah and carignan, were beautifully concentrated with intense, gamey plum flavors. Les Galets Rouges from Château Mourgues du Gres, one of the top estates in the Costières de Nimes appellation, were spicy herbal reds with notes of currant, blackberry and sage. Their Les Galets Dores, a white blend featuring roussanne, rolle and white grenache, was aromatic with hints of pineapple and peach. The perfumey deep-plum Cairanne was the standout red at Domaine de L'Ameillaud, a property flanked by lavender gardens and chestnut trees.
I fell head over heels for the barrel-aged Burgundy-style whites I tasted at Domaine de Piauguer in the village of Sablet at the foot of the Dentelles of Montmirail, imposing, craggy mountains. Their blends, featuring five white varietals (including marsanne and roussanne), are naturally fermented with no yeasts at all. The award-winning Domaine de Cabasse, also in the region—overlooking the hills of the 12th-century village of Seguret—produces an exceptional rosé, Le Rosé de Marie-Antoinette, with a beautiful rococo label.
In the northern Rhône, at Suze La Rousse, I was enchanted by the lush grounds and 18th-century stone castle at Château La Boie, where I tasted some fine good-value reds. My first stop in top cru territory, ground zero for the most acclaimed syrah AOCs (Hermitage, Saint-Joseph, Côte-Rotie), was a wine cellar—dug out of a quarry—that's owned by the Jaboulet family. There, I tasted my first iconic reds, Domaine de Thalbert Crozes Hermitage and La Chapelle de L'Hermitage. In the 300-year-old cellars of E. Guigal I tasted from even more legendary bottles: Château D'Ampuis and Côte Rotie La Turque (a rare gem produced in limited editions of just 60,000 bottles).
More mind-blowing wine flowed on through dinner, as we drained our glasses of Les Becasses Cote Rotie from M. Chapoutier, a lovely feminine syrah with velvety tannins. Chapoutier owns one of the largest biodynamic vineyards in Europe. Just when I thought the wine couldn't get better our trip ended on another high note—with intoxicating sweet whites in the tiny northern appellation of Condrieu. The area, an island in a sea of syrah, is famed for its Viognier whites. At Domaine Yves Cuilleron I found ambrosia in a glass, the 2007 Les Challet, perfumed with lavender, honeysuckle and apricot—a perfectly sweet finish to an awfully savory trip.