The Rhone Report: About Rhone and Rhone-Style Wines and Winemakers is part of an ongoing series.

The most famous appellation in the southern Rhone Valley is Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Wine critic Robert Parker makes no bones about loving Chateauneuf, and calls it the most important appellation in the entire Rhone Valley. According to reputation, the French appellation contrôllée system and market prices, the pecking order of southern Rhone wines is something like this: Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Beaumes-de-Venise, Vinsobres, Cotes-du-Rhone Villages Cairanne (and Rasteau, Seguret and Sablet), Cotes-du-Rhone Villages from other named villages, Cotes-du-Rhone Villages (with no named village) and finally generic Cotes-du-Rhone. Check out our discussion about the various Rhone appellations.

The California Wine Club

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.

We have greatly enjoyed outstanding wines from each of these appellations. And we are second to none in our admiration of some of the wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. As we noted in an earlier column, there is no single Chateauneuf style. Rather there is great diversity among the wines of this heralded appellation. We have favorites among several of these styles, from the Mourvedre-rich blend of Chateau Beaucastel to the wine of Les Cailloux, Clos des Papes, Domaine de la Mordoree, Domaine Roger Sobon and Domaine du Vieux-Telegraphe. See our discussion of Chateauneuf du Pape.

We also love many of the wines from Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Beaumes-de-Venise, the Cotes-du-Rhone Villages from Cairanne, Rasteau, Seguret and Sablet, as well as some generic Cotes-du-Rhone. We wrote about some of these other wines previously. We also wrote about outstanding generic Cotes-du-Rhone.

The Question of Which Appellation’s Wines is “Best”

We have enjoyed the occasional opportunity to taste two or more Rhone wines from different producers and different appellations together to compare and contrast them (we have more commonly tasted multiple wines from the same appellation at the same time). But we haven’t had the opportunity to taste a broad group of excellent wines from the best of the southern Rhone appellations at one time. We have been wondering whether a good Chateauneuf-du-Pape would trump an excellent Cotes-du-Rhone Villages Rasteau, for example, or whether a really fine Gigondas would put a Cotes-du-Rhone Villages Cairanne to shame. By reputation and market prices, there should be such noticeable advantages. But that isn’t true according to our memories. Where is the truth? Are the more famous wines really better and are they really worth more money? Or are the top wines from the top producers in each of these appellations really on a level playing field?

Wines for a Comparative Tasting

So we decided to assemble a group of such wines and have a tasting to compare them. In assembling our group, we didn’t always seek out our very favorite wines (e.g., Chateau Beaucastel from Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Domaine de l’Oratoire St.-Martin from Cairanne or Domaine de la Soumade from Rasteau) from each appellation. Rather we sought out very good and well regarded wines from each appellation. The eleven wines we selected were all very young, from the 2003-2006 vintages.

The wines we selected are listed on this carte du vins presented to our tasting partners:

RHÔNE DU SUD DEGUSTATION
29 MARCH 2008

C’EST VRAIS QUE CHATEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE EST LE ROI?

Les Vins


  • Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Domaine Raymond Usseglio & Fils, 2005
  • Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Domaine Olivier Hillaire, 2005
  • Gigondas, Chateau de Saint Cosme, Valbelle, 2005
  • Gigondas, Domaine La Bouïssiere, La Font de Tonin, 2003
  • Gigondas, Domaine Les Pallières, 2004
  • Vacqueyras, Domaine Sang des Cailloux, Cuvée de Lopy, 2005
  • Beaumes-de-Venise, Domaine de Durban, Cuvée Prestige, 2005
  • Côtes-du-Rhône Villages Cairanne, Domaine Richaud, l’Ebrescade, 2004
  • Côtes-du-Rhône Villages Cairanne, Domaine Catherine Le Gœuil,
  • Cuvée MarieRouvière, 2004
  • Côtes-du-Rhône Villages Rasteau, Domaine Grand Nicolet,
  • Vieilles Vignes, 2005
  • Côtes-du-Rhône, Domaine Gramenon, La Sagesse, 2006


Sante!

This is a fine group of wines. Each of them, tasted alone, is highly impressive. Several of them are limited bottlings of the very best wine from their respective producers. We suspected that each of them could show very well in this company, but we had no idea which ones might shine more brightly than others.

Tasting Blind

Our tasting was blind. We were joined by three of our wine appreciative friends, each of whom has proven to have a discerning palate. We all knew what the eleven wines were, but we had no idea which was which. We only knew the wines by numbers on the foot of each glass.

First, we tasted through all the wines. We talked about them. We discussed what we liked best about each, and we talked about what we found less attractive. The wines started out tight and closed in and gradually opened in the glass. We proceeded at a leisurely pace, giving the wines time to breathe and change in the glass.

Initial Tasting Preferences

We all agreed that our favorite two wines at this stage were the glasses bearing the numbers representing the Gigondas from La Bouïssiere and the Chateauneuf-du-Pape from Olivier Hillaire. Our next two favorites (we divided on the order) were the two glasses with the numbers for the entries from Cairanne (one from Catherine Le Gœil and the second from Domaine Richaud). We all agreed that next favorite was the Rasteau from Domaine Grand Nicolet. All five of us agreed on the next three preferences, but not in the same order, with some preferring the generic Cotes-du-Rhone appellation wine from Gramenon or the Vacqueyras from Sang des Cailloux or the Chateauneuf-du-Pape from Raymond Usseglio. We agreed that at this stage our least favorites of this group were the Gigondas from Saint Cosme, the Beaumes-de-Venise from Durban and the Gigondas from Les Pallières. Lest this be interpreted as critical of those last three wines, we have subsequently re-tasted the same Saint Cosme bottling (Valbelle) at the Hospice du Rhone event in Paso Robles in May and found it to be outstanding. We have long been admirers of this Durban Beaumes-de-Venise cuvee. And we have greatly enjoyed recent vintages of Les Pallières Gigondas. In other words, being among our least favorites in this group speaks to how good they all were, not to any fault with any of the wines in this tasting that we preferred less.

We really liked the La Bouïssiere Gigondas for its attractive nose, rich fruit, delicious flavor, well balanced mouth-feel and long finish. The Olivier Hillaire Chateauneuf-du-Pape stood out for its wonderful nose, complex and elegant flavors, well balanced mouth-feel and protracted finish. The Catherine Le Gœil Cairanne was also very aromatic, included a spicy, peppery quality with its rich fruit, had a delicious flavor, and also had a long finish. The Richaud Cairanne also had an aromatic nose, deep rich fruit with some pepper and gaminess, and a lengthy finish.

Tasting Preferences with Food

Next, we enjoyed a meal featuring Provençal civet de porcelet (pork stew) from the Richard Olney recipe in Provence The Beautiful Cookbook (HarperCollins 1993). We highly recommend this dish with southern Rhone red wines. With the meal, we re-tasted the wines. As we ate the food, the wines continued to open and evolve.

Still tasting blind, our preferences didn’t change much. The Saint Cosme Valbelle Gigondas seemed to lack enough tannin and acid, showed too much oak and had an unattractive nose. On the other hand, one of the other entries from Gigondas, the Pallières, began to show much better. The Raymond Usseglio Chateauneuf-du-Pape lost ground, tasting too thin and not showing much finish. The Richaud Cairanne also wasn’t as good in the re-tasting with the meal; the nose was less attractive and some of its attractive fruit quality had disappeared. The Durban Beaumes-de-Venise continued to be too one dimensional, with predominate Grenache flavors (in this company, a balanced blend of grape varietals usually makes a much stronger competitor). The generic Cotes-du-Rhone cuvee La Sagesse from Gramenon (which is nearly all Grenache with a little Syrah) showed much better, with complex flavors and less oakiness than the initial tasting, thus proving to be an exception to our general thesis that blends of varietals are more complex and appealing. However, we have previously found this particular cuvee to be a rule breaker in that it ages very well and develops nuanced aromas and flavors, perhaps attributable to its relatively cool vineyard site. Our two initial favorites, the La Bouïssiere Gigondas and the Olivier Hillaire Chateauneuf-du-Pape, continued to stand out. By now one of us guessed the Olivier Hillaire wine to be a Chateauneuf-du-Pape and suspected the Raymond Usseglio wine might be exactly that.

As a group, the wines tasted better with the food, probably partially due to having had more time to breathe and open up.

Tasting a Day Later

We re-tasted the wines the next day. By now they had 24 hours to breathe and open up. This time we tasted each wine in a smaller glass and a larger glass.

In the smaller glass, both of our two favorites from the previous day, the La Bouïssiere Gigondas and the Olivier Hillaire Chateauneuf-du-Pape, had an unpleasant harshness in the nose. Switching to a larger glass, they both had attractive aromatics. The Chateauneuf-du-Pape from Olivier Hillaire, had the most enticing nose. Both had delicious flavors, with a fuller mid-palate, more complexity and more elegance from the Hillaire Chateauneuf. Both had appealing long finishes, with the Hillaire Chateauneuf preferred. All in all, the Chateauneuf-du-Pape from a top producer was undoubtedly the best wine of this tasting, but by a very narrow margin over an entry from Gigondas (and we hadn’t included some of favorite wines from Gigondas, such as Domaine Santa Duc, Domaine Brusset, Domaine les Goubert, Chateau Redortier or Domaine de la Soumade, in this tasting).

Among the other wines tasted the second day, the Sang des Cailloux from Vacqueyras really sang (pun intended). It was good in the smaller glass, and in the larger glass it displayed very rich fruit with a strong mid-palate and a very long finish.

At this stage, we preferred it to the Catherine Le Gœil Cairanne, which had an unpleasant nose in the smaller glass but showed much better in the larger glass, with an appealing nose, delicious but not overly rich fruit and softer tannins than most of the other wines.

Other wines that showed better the second day included the Gramenon La Sagesse cuvee with a generic Cotes-du-Rhone appellation (this was the youngest wine in the group (2006) so it isn’t surprising that it improved with more time after opening the bottle), the Pallières Gigondas and the Raymond Usseglio Chateauneuf-du-Pape. All tasted better in a larger glass.

A few of the wines didn’t show as strongly the second day. These included Grand Nicolet Rasteau (which we preferred in the smaller glass) and the Richaud Cairanne (which showed better in the larger glass).

The remaining wines, the St. Cosme Gigondas and the Durban Beaumes-de-Venise, also were better in the larger glass. Neither improved enough to make it into our category of favorites, but both were sound and tasty wines. The St. Cosme Valbelle cuvee was relatively astringent, probably attributable to its old vines source. The Durban tasted of black fruit with some pepperiness.

At this point, our order of preference had shifted. At the top were a Chateauneuf-du-Pape (Olivier Hillaire) and a Gigondas (La Bouïssiere), which had the advantage of more bottle age. Our third favorite had become a Vacqueyras (from Sang des Cailloux, our favorite producer in that appellation), followed by a Cairanne (Catherine Le Gœil), a generic Cotes-du-Rhone (Gramenon), another Gigondas (Pallières) and another Chateauneuf-du-Pape (Raymond Usseglio). While all good wines, our less preferred members of the tasting at this stage included a Rasteau (Grand Nicolet), a Cairanne (Richaud), a Gigondas (St. Cosme) and a Beaumes-de-Venise (Durban).

Conclusion: Which is “Best?”

We found these results to be inconclusive. The eleven wines were a competitive group. Our preferences didn’t favor a single appellation over all others.

Certainly the entries from the most famous appellation, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, didn’t rise head-and-shoulders above the rest. However, our favorite wine of this group was a Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Our preference was based on its extra degree of complexity and elegance. While there are many wines from Chateauneuf-du-Pape that have complexity and elegance, those traits aren’t exclusive to Chateauneuf, and not all Chateauneufs have those characteristics. The other Chateauneuf tasted was very good, but was squarely in the middle of the pack of our preferences.

Just because the two Chateauneuf-du-Papes we tasted didn’t stand out above rest of the pack in this tasting doesn’t mean that wines from that famous appellation don’t have distinguishing characteristics. After all, one of us did guess the Olivier Hillaire wine might be a Chateauneuf and guessed the Raymond Usseglio wine to be what it was.

In the case of the Raymond Usseglio wine, that may have been because it so closely resembles the Chateauneuf-du-Pape made by Raymond’s brother, Pierre, which we described enjoying in our earlier column about Chateauneuf. In the case of the Olivier Hillaire wine, which none of us had previously tasted, the guess of its place of origin suggests that some Chateauneuf-du-Pape really does have characteristics that distinguish it from its surrounding neighbors. Nevertheless, just because one of us could guess the identity of these wines doesn’t mean that the Chateauneuf-du-Papes in this tasting group were notably superior to other wines in the group.

The entries from the second most famous appellation, Gigondas, also didn’t stand out far above less well known or less regarded appellations. However, one of our favorite two wines of this tasting group came from Gigondas. The other Gigondas entries fell into the middle and lower end of this group. The three Gigondas wines had very different styles, and we couldn’t identify a common characteristic. This shouldn’t be surprising, considering that the three wines come from very different vineyard sites.

The sole entry from the Vacqueyras AOC, the next most highly regarded appellation after Gigondas, was our third preference behind a Chateauneuf-du-Pape and a Gigondas. However, this representative of the AOC was from our favorite producer there and was its top end cuvee, and other wines from Vacqueyras might not have fared so well. Unfortunately, we have found that far too many wines from Vacqueyras suffer from wine-making defects.

The entry from Beaumes-de-Venise, which was recently elevated to AOC status, didn’t rise to the level of most of the other wines. But we hasten to add that our very favorite Beaumes-de-Venise red wine (Chateau Redortier) was not included in the tasting. We suspect it would have fared better.

The wines from the Cotes-du-Rhone Villages of Cairanne and Rasteau, which we love and have touted, didn’t stand out in this particular group, with one being our fourth preference and the other two entries being in our less preferred group (although we hasten to emphasize that all of these wines were very good). Just as with Beaumes-de-Venise, this group didn’t include our very favorite wines from Cairanne and Rasteau, and our favorites might have won more favor in this competitive group.

The sole generic Cotes-du-Rhone wine in this group was in the middle of our preferred group, in the company of some very fine wines from more well known (and pricier) appellations. Further, we know from experience that this particular cuvee improves with age and becomes a highly nuanced, aromatic and delicious wine.

In hindsight, we wish we had included a couple of lesser wines in this group just to underscore the high level of the eleven wines we did include.

While the specific appellation has some bearing on how good a southern Rhone red wine is, it appears to us that the more important factors are the specific vineyard site, the specific cépage (blend) and the winemaker. Each appellation has some superstars, some good producers and some so-so producers. The best wine of a “lesser” appellation will be preferable to an average wine of a “greater” appellation.

We need to acknowledge that eleven wines aren’t representative of the entire southern Rhone wine growing area, and that this small sample isn’t representative of any of the specific appellations or growing areas. We shouldn’t try to generalize too much from such a limited tasting. We must also recognize that including wines of different vintages may have influenced our preferences.

Importantly, we tasted these wines at a very young stage. Five or ten or fifteen or more years from now, these wines will have evolved and we might have very different preferences. It is possible that as the wines age, the pedigree of their appellations might begin to assert themselves. In our experience, southern Rhone red wines with a generous proportion of Mourvedre develop very complex aromas and flavors as they age. An example would be a 1972 Chateau Beaucastel we tasted at about 30 years of age. We still don’t know whether to attribute its longevity to its Chateauneuf-du-Pape origin or to the high proportion of Mourvedre in the blend (we suspect it is the latter).

Someday we will have to taste a group of our favorites from these different appellations against each other, and another day we will have to compare a group of such wines after they have had time to age.

But for now, we aren’t prepared to coronate Chateauneuf-du-Pape as King of southern Rhone Valley red wines. When comparing very good wines from different appellations, we didn’t find in this tasting that all of the wines of any of the more famous appellations necessarily stood out above all the others.

A final note is that the glass makes an enormous difference in how wines taste. Using a glass of appropriate size, shape and quality will make the best wines better and sometimes be merciless on flawed wines.