Monday, November 30, 2009

What I learned this year...Part 2: The Rhone Valley

How close to perfection can one particular wine region get?

Look at the Rhone Valley, and you'll see.

Earlier this year I launched into a pretty intensive updating on the Rhone Valley, following by an equally intense week in the region itself, courtesy of the French Wine Academy and the exceptional folks at Inter-Rhone.

Cornas and its rugged slopes.

Having spent a great deal of time in the region over many years, both professionally and en vacance in gites (which, by the way, is one of the finest ways to have a vacation you can imagine), I have always loved everything about this part of Europe. But after a concentrated week of trundling in and out of wine caves, cellars, and tank rooms with some of the finest and most dedicated winemakers in the world---interspersed with capacious lunches and convivial dinners, of course; this is France, after all---I am firmly of the belief that the Rhone is in the lead for the title of best all-around wine region.

First: when it comes to as-good-as-it-gets red wine across all price levels, is there any region better than the Rhone? From the humble Cotes-du-Rhone AOC to the often-stunning Cotes-du-Rhone Villages, stepping up to the Named Villages, Vacqueyras, Rasteau, Gigondas, and the exquisite voluptuousness of Chateauneuf-du-Pape---and realizing you're still in the southern portion only, and haven't even gotten to the north yet, where you can reel off the magical names of Cornas, St.-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage and Cote Rotie'. Throw in the less exalted but damned satisfying sub-regions of the Costieres des Nimes and the Luberon and Ventoux, and the even less well known Vivarais and Tricastin and you've got a red wine behemoth!

While the north produces it's exalted Syrah wines, the south puts out the finest blended reds you could want, utilizing the palette of varieties, both indigenous and imported, including Grenache, Mourvedre, Carignane, Cinsault and others. Lots of others.


Second, the whites: while not as overwhelming as the reds, the whites include the smallest AOC (Chateau-Grillet) along with the not-much-larger Condrieu, as the epitome of Viognier; the Marsanne of St-Peray AOC, both still and sparkling; and the honey-tinged blends of Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier and other varieties (Hermitage Blanc, Chateauneuf-du-Pape and countless Village wines).

Third: let us now praise the lovely rose' wines of the Rhone, justly renowned as they are...and not only the Lirac and Tavel, but the humble little village roses as well. Anywhere you go in the Rhone you find these lovely and satisfying and oh-so-food-friendly dry pink wines. One of my favorite pastimes when in the Rhone---much to the dismay of my wife---is to turn in every time I see a "Degustation Vente" sign and pick up a bottle of rose'. I'm almost never disappointed, either in finding the rose' or guzzling it when I get back to the gite.

Fourth: you've even got the sweet red category covered, with the Vin Doux Naturels (Rasteau, anyone?) and the sweetie whites with the luscious and irresistible Beaumes de Venise. You'e even got the curious, and curiously charming, lightly sparkling wines of the Dioise in Clairette de Die.

Okay, okay, the Rhone, for all its glories, doesn't have a lot of Cabernet. Fine, I can live without that if I have to, and Cornas fills that need anyway. But how about Pinot Noir, you ask? Well, look on the map: the Rhone is just close enough to get up to Burgundy to score those little jewels, with plenty of time to stop in Lyon on the way back and sample some of the finest food in France. So, problem solved.
Just imagine yourself kicking back of an evening, a lip-smacking rose' in your hand, fresh roasting meat on the grill, a little asparagus beside it, a bottle of Cornas waiting on the sideboard, and Mt. Ventoux looming on the horizon.

Yep. I think I'm on pretty firm ground here.

Gigondas Vineyard, with the Dentelles de Montmirail looming in the background


  1. "And lo, they came unto the Valley of the Rhone and the people did rejoice as they drank the wine of the country."

    2nd psalm of St. Hoke