An afternoon reflecting on the Rhone Valley

One of the things I miss from my time living in London is travelling to the continent for a weekend and casually enjoying trips that previously would have taken a year's planning from Australia, with jetlag in play on both sides.  The equivalent journey in Australia sees one getting somewhere perhaps different climatically, aesthetically or even possibly culturally, but the similarities generally far outweigh the differences.  So I viewed this tasting, hosted by a friend of mine as something of a success, as it made me think about the wines of the Rhone Valley, and for a moment, the region and my various passes over the years through it.

The wines on tasting were many, which is mostly a positive, because it reinforced the styles of wine produced, and nuances were more easily spotted with repetition.  The other positive, which is perhaps a negative depending upon how one thinks about these matters, is that it made me reflect on the Australian versions of the Rhone grape varieties - not on tasting on this occasion.  My thought was that the benchmarking that is often seen in sometimes misguided deference (or is it just respect?) to certain of France's historically pre-eminent wine regions (i.e. Bordeaux, Champagne and Burgundy) is somewhat redundant in the case of the Rhone varieties.  Particularly in the case of shiraz, this tasting reinforced my view that the Australian versions are in fact the benchmark with Australia's long history with the grape and its old vines mostly still standing on vinifera roots.  And they tend to be cheaper too.  Nonetheless, this Rhone tasting was a very interesting exercise in wine and place, including a number of white Rhone wines from "red" appellations which are not perhaps thought about so much in Australia.

The whites

The first wine was the Chapoutier Belleruche Cotes du Rhone (blanc) 2009 (84-85 points), a blend of grenache blanc (60%), clairette (20%) and bourboulenc (20%).  Pale in colour, an aroma of straw, lemon, lime and citrus.  On the palate, straw again, medium length and acid, kernels, almonds, alcohol burn.  Pleasant.  We then moved to the Chateau Mont-Redon Abeille-Fabre Cotes du Rhone (blanc) 2009 (79-80 points), a blend of grenache blanc (50%), roussanne (30%), bourboulenc (10%) and viognier (10%), which proved to be a lesser wine from the same year.  An aroma of peach, grapefruit and straw.  On the palate, lacking in acidity, plain, with kernels and almonds, tasting flat and uninteresting.  The Guigal Cotes du Rhone (blanc) 2009 (84 points), was more like the Chapoutier wine despite its quite different blend: viognier (55%), roussanne (20%), marsanne (10%), clairette (5%), bourboulenc (5%) and grenache blanc (5%) (and, yes, this does remarkably add up to 100%).  Straw, wheat meal and citrus aroma.  Medium length and acid, kernels and citrus on the palate.  Overall, two out of three ain't bad, though there was nothing here that I felt strongly about.

The next set commenced with the Tardieu Laurent Vieilles Vignes Chateauneuf du Pape (blanc) 2008 (88 points), a blend of 50% roussanne and 50% grenache blanc.  Oak was welcomed to the tasting at this point.  Oak and citrus on the nose.  Medium to long length, citrus, almonds and a certain oilyness on the palate.  The best wine so far.  Next was the Delas St Joseph Les Challeys (blanc) 2007 (87 points), a blend of 80% marsanne and 20% roussanne.  An unexpected aroma of burnt sugar and honey, followed by kernels, minerals, stone and straw.  On the palate, kernel like, almonds and medium length.  An interesting wine although I couldn't help thinking that the burnt sugar and honey aroma was not deliberate.  Then followed the Domaine Belle Les Terres Blanches Crozes Hermitage (blanc) 2009 (90 points), a blend of 70% marsanne and 30% roussanne.  This proved to be a very good wine.  Straw, kernels and minerals by way of aroma.  On the palate, nice balance, with medium to long length and a touch of spice.  The set concluded with the Tardieu Laurent Hermitage (blanc) 2006 (95 points), a blend of 85% marsanne and 15% roussanne.  This wine was the best of the set, and indeed, the day's tasting.  Aromas of citrus, peach and oak.  Long length, citrus, oak, almonds and butter on the palate.  An outstanding wine that I do highly recommend.

The final two whites were a Condrieu and a modest vin de pays, both viogniers put together perhaps unfairly.   But as it turned out the latter was far from shamed.  The first wine was the Guigal Condrieu 2002 (90 points) had a distinctive aroma of apricot kernels.  On the palate, apricots, medium length, good body and minerals.  A very good wine to be consumed now.  Its companion was the Michel et Stephane Ogier La Rosine Viognier Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes 2006 (87 points), which presented in a new world style, if not new world branding.  A simple aroma of raisins.  On the palate, apricot flowers and medium length.  A good wine that could easily have been from Australia.

My overall inclusion was that there were some very good whites here, though the grenache blanc, roussanne and marsanne blends perhaps do not have mass appeal.  And it did make me think that the almost painfully cheap marsanne produced by Tahbilk in Central Victoria really measures up rather well.

The reds

The reds were more of a mixed bunch.  We started with the Domaine Grand Veneur Clos de Sixte Lirac 2007 (84-85 points), a blend of 50% grenache, 35% syrah and 15% mourvedre.   Cherries, candy, plum, smoke, herbs and an animal note by way of aroma.  On the palate, medium length and rustic.  Next followed the Domaine de Cassan Gigondas 2005 (85 points), a straight grenache.  A seemingly bretty aroma, lavender and animal.  Edgy fruit with medium tannins and lavender on the palate.  Balanced, pleasant, yet only that.  The third in this set was the Chapoutier La Bernardine Chateauneuf du Pape 1999 (84-85 points), which had orange around the rim and was a blend of 65% grenache, 15% syrah and the rest made up of mourvedre, cinsault, picpoul and bourboulenc.  An aroma of raisins and lavender.  The palate was a raisin feast, possessing a fortified wine like taste of sultanas accompanied by medium length.  I was left hoping for more (from the wine, that is, not the wine itself).

The next set commenced with the Delas Marquise de la Tourette Hermitage 2006 (87 points).  This wine while good, never really hit its stride, as might be expected from an appellation as prestigious as Hermitage.  Aromas of lavender, spice, plums in a medium to pronounced intensity expression.  On the palate, medium length, medium to high tannins, lavender and herbs.  The Delas Sainte Epine St Joseph 2006 (85 points) took us down a gear, with its aroma of pepper, plums and more of what appeared to be bretty/animal aromas.  On the palate, plums and medium length.  Pleasant, but perhaps unremarkable.  This was then followed by the wine of the red set, the Tardieu Laurent Vieilles Vignes Cornas 2001 (89 points), with its aroma of plums, spice, animals (brett again?) and stalks.  On the palate, plums, medium length and lavender.  The reds then concluded with the Delas Freres Seigneur de Maugiron Cote Rotie 1997 (82 points), a disappointing wine.  Disappointing because while its aroma of plums and apricots was pleasant, on the palate, it had a burnt character, that was almost smoke like.  Now "cote rotie" does of course mean "roasted".  But rotie ain't brulee either.  A second bottle revealed the same character.  Frustratingly, underneath this character, you could tell it was a very good wine indeed.  Perhaps the wine will evolve past this.  Perhaps it won't.

So I was left with a somewhat mixed feeling about this bracket of wines, something I have experienced before with northern Rhone reds in particular.  In a word, that sometimes awkward commendation comes to mind: the reds were interesting.  My suggestion here is to tread carefully, one bottle at a time.  The gems are not always obvious, something which is mostly not the case with Australian shiraz or grenache for that matter.
Chateauneuf du Pape
December 29, 2011

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