We are a wine shop that explores the best of both worlds with retail shopping and a walk-in tasting room open Tuesday through Sunday. Our tasting room selections change monthly and always focus on different regions. The ever-changing menu allows our guests to constantly explore and discover something new. This month we are exploring two flights from the Rhone Valley in France. While both are part of the same overall region, Northern and Southern Rhone are vastly different when it comes to the wines they produce. Order a flight of all four wines or simply stop by, shop, and enjoy a glass. It's up to you!
Just south of Lyon, running along the Rhône River sits the tiny ancient region of the Northern Rhône. Paling in overall size compared to its southern counterpart, the North is known for producing the best Syrah in the world. The top vineyard sites sit nestled along the granite cliffs overlooking the river in the smaller appellations of Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage, and Cornas. Slopes here are often so steep and narrow that the vineyards can only be cultivated by hand. Terraces are carved into the hills and stone walls are commonplace to ensure the vines and stones don’t slide down the hills as erosion is a real threat. Most vineyards face the south to capture optimal sunlight, and the moderate climate is also assisted by reflected sunlight and warmth from the river to ripen the grapes. Why go through all of this hardship for one red grape? Well, because it is just that good.
Northern Rhône Syrah has become famous throughout the world for its intense and complex white peppery, meaty, floral, blood and black fruit qualities. Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage, and Cornas represent the top communes for Syrah, but Saint-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage are also staple appellations that produce very good examples. While Syrah is king of the North, you will find some white wines as well. Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne are permitted white grapes in various appellations, with the most famous area of Condrieu known for some of the top examples of Viognier in the world. Known for its intense aromatics of peach, honeysuckle, tangerine, and fresh flowers, this dry white can also provide an oily texture on the palate along with a distinctive old world minerality.
Geographically the most northern appellation, vineyards in Côte-Rôtie cling to incredibly steep slopes (some at a 60 degree gradient) and are often planted only a couple dozen rows wide. Meaning "the roasted slope", the wines of Côte-Rôtie consistently show both power and finesse, and can even carry an elegance similar to the great red wines of Burgundy. A small amount of Viognier (up to 5%) is allowed in Côte-Rôtie Syrah. This well known aromatic white grape can add more complexity to the wines, but not all producers partake in the practice. Mostly small producers in Côte-Rôtie, the “Centurie de Probus” is a group of around 100 winemakers banded together to protect traditions and promote the region.
The hill of Hermitage is another prestigious appellation with sloped vineyards and a wine history that boasts being the favorite wine of former Russian Tsars and French royalty. The name, Hermitage, stems from the story of a knight returning from the crusades in the 13th century to live on a hill and become a hermit, literally. Hermitage produces around 65% red wine (again, Syrah), and the whites are focused on blends of Marsanne and Roussanne. Run mostly by the négociant houses now, these wines have become big and boisterous over the years with plenty of savory qualities.
South of Hermitage and on the west side of the river is the tiny appellation of Cornas. Meaning "burnt earth", the wines from Cornas are known to be inky, dark and rustic. Not easy to find, grab a bottle when you have the chance.
Crozes-Hermitage, is the largest appellation in the Northern Rhône. It surrounds the hill of Hermitage to the north and east and around to the south. The appellation is made up of flatter and easier to work land, and is known for more easy-drinking red and white wines with more approachable price points to match. The wines are typically good but don't carry the depth and prestige of other appellations. However, one of our producers in this month's flight is Alain Graillot, who is credited with bringing the wines from this region into the spotlight and elevating the overall appellation. We are also showing a white from the region this month. Built on 100% Marsanne, the Chapoutier Crozes-Hermitage Ley Meysonniere Blanc is 100% Marsanne, showcasing this grape in all of its glory. Scents of quince, peony and roasted almonds paired with a fresh and supple palate. This wine would pair beautifully with seafood, salads or even deeply seasoned and spicy asian dishes.
Though Northern Rhône is known much more for single varietal wines, there is a producer in the village of Saint-Julien-en-Saint-Alben at the southern edge of the northern Rhone, that produces Syrah along with blended wines, which are more typical of the southern Rhône. Eric Texier’s “Chat Fou”, Vin de France (table wine) is fresh and easy to drink blend of Grenache, Cinsault and Clariette takes full advantage of the looseness of the laws surrounding table wines in France. Winemakers are allowed to use grapes from different regions (in this case grapes of southern Rhône) to make a wine grown on the very south end of Northern Rhône.
Finally, we finish with a Syrah from the second largest commune, Saint-Joseph. Located on the left bank of the Rhône, this appellation is known mainly for powerful yet approachable reds as well as a small amount of whites built on Marsanne and Roussanne. Initially planted by the Greeks, vineyards were maintained by the Romans followed by the Jesuit monks who ended up renaming the area Saint-Joseph. The combination of continental and mediterranean climates along with the size of the region and diverse soils, make the wines of this area difficult to specifically peg. Our selection provides fresh dark fruits, cocoa and toast on the nose with silky tannins and plenty of spice. The wine makes a great pairing with braised meats and is perfect for the winter months.
Not long ago Northern Rhône producers from even the most prestigious appellations were struggling just to survive. Between the dangerously narrow hillside vineyards and fewer people wanting to traverse the terraced slopes, producers struggled to make ends meet. In fact, post WWII, Côte Rôtie was known more for tree fruits at one time than grapes! It was beginning to look a little bleak for the smaller vintners. But thanks to a global marketplace and the high quality of the wines, Syrah has seen a resurgence. Come by the shop this month to see exactly what we are talking about and taste wine with such depth that you will forget all about the negative temperatures outside.
Northern Rhône Flight
I vividly remember sitting at Café Benelux nine and a half years ago with my pregnant ex-wife drinking a glass of what was then, my favorite region of juice, Chateauneuf du Pape. Our second child was on the way and we were talking possible names. We did not know the sex of our future addition, so I took the challenge upon myself to find the perfect name no matter what the sex was. As I sat and swirled, it hit me. RHONE! As you can imagine, it was not initially welcomed with open arms, rather, a bit of a ponder. That was good enough for me. I stood my ground and now I say the name, RHONE KINGSLEY more times than I can count in any given 24-hour period. Ironically, the name fits perfectly for a kid who is as diverse as the wines coming out of my favorite region. From the boisterous, thought-provoking wines of popes and kings coming from Chateauneuf-du-Pape to the easy drinking every day chill wines labeled Côtes du Rhône, the range seems endless at times.
The Rhône Valley’s journey extends from Lyon in the North all the way down to the Mediterranean. This appellation has a long tradition of winemaking and has been producing wines for more than 2000 years. In the first century, the northern part of the Rhône Valley started wine growing, and soon this area became a competitive wine producer challenging other French wine regions such as Bordeaux. Some archaeological finds of old ceramic vessels confirm that the Rhône vineyards are some of the oldest in France. The Romans were the first who brought vines to the region and planted vineyards all over. However, after the collapse of the Roman empire, the development of the wine-producing industry slowed down. Fortunately, parts near the Mediterranean ports and the Southern Rhone continued with wine production.
Known for its warmer Mediterranean climate, wines of the Southern Rhône tend showcase luscious fruit, fiery spice and lots of earth. It is a region that produces wines that are simple and thought provoking, or complex and age-worthy. Truly the whole spectrum. Most importantly the wines tend to be just darn delicious. The Southern Rhône Valley is a much larger area than the North. In fact, close to 95% of all wines in the Rhône come from the Southern Rhône. To give you an idea of its true size, in an average vintage, more than 380 million bottles of wine are produced each year. Of course, with an area of that size, you can assume that there is a wide range of terroirs, microclimates, soils, wines, and wine styles produced.
As previously mentioned, the South has more of a Mediterranean climate with milder winters and hot summers. Drought can be a nagging, consistent problem which is why irrigation is permitted. The contrasting terroirs, combined with the rugged landscape, which partly protects the valleys from the Mistral winds thundering down from the north, produce microclimates which give way to a diversity of wines. Unlike the North, there are very few slopes to protect the vines from this type of weather. Many of the vineyards have stoney soils that absorb heat from the sun and warm the vineyards aiding and assuring the ripening of the grapes. Grenache, the most planted grape in the South, is bush trained low to the ground, thus protecting it from the wind. Syrah is easily damaged when the winds get out of control that even the custom trellising systems created cannot always be a protector.
Southern Rhône wines are often complex blends of up to fifteen different varietals, creating wines in a kaleidoscope of different styles, all with unique characteristics. Some of the best wine values in the world can be found here! Generally, the wines from the South are more fruit forward, ripe and sun-kissed. They tend to be fatter in the mouth and higher in alcohol than wines from the North. They are more red fruit driven because of the Grenache over the black fruited Syrah. Think fresh, sweet, ripe cherries, kirsch, black raspberry, and strawberry flavors, often with the addition of fresh Provencal herbs, olives, and a nice, spicy accent. Red, white, rosé, and sparkling wines are all made in the Southern Rhône Valley.
The most dynamic wines generally hail from the region’s mighty crus. A cru, which translates to “growth” in French, designates a legally classified region that’s recognized for its quality and distinctive terroir. Cru wines, labeled solely by their appellation, are the elite, and they’re positioned above wider regional classifications like Côtes du Rhône or Côtes du Rhône Villages. This designation proves both a reward and challenge for winegrowers. It imposes strict yield limits and mandates laborious quality measures like hand-harvesting.
The most popular and powerful cru is Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the undisputed King of the Southern Rhône Valley. With wines that often showcase both elegance and opulence, the deeply concentrated, beefy bottlings of Châteauneuf-du-Pape are the undisputed royalty of the Rhône’s southern cru classification. Châteauneuf-du-Pape was granted official appellation status in 1936 and is unique worldwide for its usage of thirteen different grape varietals. The name Châteauneuf-du-Pape translates to “new home of the Pope" and is a moniker that dates to the early 14th century when Pope Clement V established a summer court in nearby Avignon. By the 20th century, the region’s prominence suffered due to rampant wine fraud. Efforts by Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s winegrowers to designate borders and impose strict production rules led to the French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system, which now governs the nation’s wines. CDP wine production is somewhere in the range of 93% red and 7% white. The permitted varietals are Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Clairette, Vaccarese, Bourboulenc, Roussanne, Counoise, Muscardin, Picpoul, Picardan and Terret Noir. And yes, some bottles are a blend of all thirteen varieties! The art of blending is central to the appellation’s identity. Grenache reigns supreme here, much as it does throughout the entire Southern Rhône. However, Châteauneuf-du-Pape winemakers are free to formulate distinct cuvées from any of the region’s thirteen permitted grape varieties. As a result, its wines can vary significantly in composition. “Each year, each member of our family makes their own blend, and then we decide which direction to go,” says Perrin. “Blending is key to the complexity of each vintage.” Foreign demand for them is so great that about 80% of the region’s wines are exported, primarily to the U.S. and the UK.
While Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the original cru of the Southern Rhône, advances in viticulture and winemaking have blurred the lines between the appellation and its lesser-known and less expensive neighbors. Today, nine cru appellations span the region, each offering distinct wines that express the Southern Rhône’s varied terroirs. Some familiar Crus are Gigondas, Lirac, Tavel, Rasteau, and Vacqueras, all producing unique, terroir driven juice that stands on its own worldwide.
In 2016 Cairanne was the most recent appellation elevated to cru status. Compared to the powerhouse wines typical to the Southern Rhône, the wines of Cairanne create Grenache-based blends often exhibiting a distinct finesse. The region’s soils vary from clay and limestone to sand and pebbles. This diversity of terroir is reflected in the wines. The reds can be fleshy and ripe with flavors of figs and wild strawberries, yet they are often well structured and offer spicy, savory undertones.
This month’s Southern Rhône flight demonstrates the diversity of this amazing region. From the north of the region down to the south, there is something for everyone. With stunning vintages from 2015 through 2017 now on store shelves, there is not a more perfect time to dive in, explore, and drink up!
Southern Rhône Flight
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