The Rhone Report: About Rhone and Rhone-Style Wines and Winemakers is part of an ongoing series.
There a lot more Rhone wine producers than most American wine consumers can get the time or opportunity to know. That creates a challenge when considering whether to purchase an unfamiliar Rhone wine. Anyone can learn to recognize some of the most famous (and often expensive) Rhone bottlings.
Don’t we all know Chateauneuf-du-Pape from Chateau de Beaucastel or Hermitage from J. L. Chave? And most of us have heard of the big negotiants, such as Guigal, Jaboulet and Chapoutier.
But what about smaller, lesser-known bottlings? Some of the best Rhone imports are from small producers that aren’t widely known. How can a wine lover discover small production, high quality Rhone wines? Reading literature about wine and researching web sites is one way. Asking a reputable wine shop or restaurant wine buyer is another. But what can you do if you have a chance to buy an unknown Rhone wine in a retail shop or order it with a meal in a restaurant and you don’t have the benefit of your own research and you don’t know if you can trust the opinion of the wine retailer or restaurant? There is another approach that usually works. Read the back label!
That’s right. Look at who imported the wine in your hands (in a restaurant, ask to look at a bottle in which you may have an interest). A lot of the best Rhone wines, especially from the smaller producers, are imported by a limited set of importers. If you become familiar with those importers, you can greatly increase your odds of finding a bottle of Rhone wine to your liking.
That’s because there are a limited number of importers of quality wine who actually make tasting visits to the Rhone at least annually. Those who do and who specialize in Rhone wines import most of the high quality but lesser known bottlings, because they have spent the time seeking out these wines.
Here are some of the American importers whose Rhone offerings we find especially worthwhile:
Robert Kacher Selections, Washington, D.C.. Bobby imports the wines of one of our very favorite Rhone producers, Domaine Santa Duc (see previous article), which specializes in Gigondas and Cotes du Rhone. He also imports the notable wines of Andre Brunel (Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Cotes du Rhone), Domaine les Cailloux (Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Cotes du Rhone) and Michel and Stéphane Ogier (Cóte Rôtie and other northern Rhone wines), as well as several lesser-known producers. Bobby tends to like wines that aren’t shy (perhaps reflecting his personality); in his younger days the adjective “massive” was one of his favorites. Nevertheless, we don’t mean to imply that the Rhone wines in his portfolio are unbalanced, for most of them are fine examples of high quality wines. In fact, Bobby has been a leader in seeking out more natural, less processed wines from low-yielding vines. He would be the last person to offer an industrial, stripped, devoid of all flavor (“clean”) wine. In the interest of full disclosure, we must share that we have known Bobby for nearly 30 years and have long regarded him as a pal.
Kermit Lynch Selections, Berkeley, California. Lynch was one of earliest importers to spend substantial time with the winemakers in the Rhone and was an early exponent of shipping wines in temperature controlled conditions. We highly commend his book Adventures on the Wine Route as both entertaining and informative. While Lynch imports wines from many regions, not just the Rhone, his Rhone stable is impressive. It includes our favorite Vacqueyras, Domaine le Sang des Cailloux, and our favorite producer of Muscat Beaumes de Venise, Domaine de Durban (see previous article). He also imports Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe (Chateauneuf-du-Pape) and Domaine les Pallières (Gigondas), which he co-owns with the Bruniers of Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe. Lynch spends part of each year in Bandol on the coast of Provence, the location of Domaine Tempier, the great producer of classic Mourvedre, which Lynch imports.
European Cellars (Eric Solomon Selections), Charlotte, North Carolina. Solomon’s portfolio includes one of our favorites – Domaine la Soumade (see previous article). Solomon also has a range of other Rhone producers, notably Roger Sabon (Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Cotes du Rhone) and Domaine de la Janasse (Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Cotes du Rhone). We have never encountered a bottle from Eric Solomon that wasn’t an excellent selection. For those interested in Spanish wines, this is one of the very best sources.
Robert Chadderdon Selections, New York, New York. Another of our favorite Rhone producers, Chateau Redortier (Gigondas, Beames de Venise Rouge) (see previous article), is imported by Robert Chadderdon. Chadderdon certainly isn’t a Rhone specialist, as he imports a wide variety of high quality wines. Among them are the northern Rhone wines of Andre Perret (Condrieu, St. Joseph).
Kysela Pere et Fils, Winchester, Virginia. This firm imports fine wines from many regions. Among Fran Kysela’s Rhone imports is Domaine de la Mordorée, our favorite producer of Tavel rosé (and also of high quality Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Lirac and Cotes du Rhone). We have found Kysela’s wines to be reliable and representative of their places.
Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, Alabama. This is the firm founded by Robert Haas, one of the principals in California’s outstanding producer of Rhone wines, Tablas Creek Vineyards. While better known for its Burgundies, Vineyard Brands is the long-time importer of Chateau de Beaucastel from Chateauneuf-du-Pape, as well as other Rhone wines from the Perrin family (the other principals in Tablas Creek) such as Coudoulet de Beaucastel, La Vieille Ferme, Perrin et Fils and Perrin Reserve. Each of these wines is excellent at its price point. Also in the interest of full disclosure, we need to share that we have known the Haas family for nearly 30 years and regard its members as friends.
New Castle Imports, Pawleys Island, South Carolina. This small firm imports the wines of another of our favorite producers, Domaine Brusset of Cairanne (producer of Cotes du Rhone Villages Cairanne, Gigondas and Cotes du Rhone, see previous article). New Castle also imports the notable wines of Domaine Alain Voge (Cornas and St. Péray) and Domaine Pesquier (Gigondas and Cotes du Rhone) as well as other fine producers.
Martines Wines, Inc., Novato, California. Martine Saunier is devoted to French wines and imports a wide range of them. Her impressive Rhone list includes Chateauneuf-du-Pape star Chateau Rayas and its Cotes du Rhone cousins, Chateau de Fonsalette and Chateau des Tours. Martine also imports Domaine de Font-Sane (Gigondas), Domaine du Pégau (Chateauneuf-du-Pape) and Féraud-Brunel (Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Cotes du Rhone and Cotes du Rhone Villages from Cairanne and Rasteau).
Wines of France (Alain Junguenet), Mountainside, New Jersey. A specialist in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Alain imports Chateau Rayas, Chateau Fortia, Pierre Usseglio, Clos du Pape, and Domaine Lafond (which also bottles Tavel and Lirac).
Louis/Dressner Selections, New York, New York. This importer brings us two of our favorite producers from Cairanne, Domaine de l’Oratoire St. Martin and Domaine Marcel Richaud (see previous article). This firm’s portfolio contains many gems, but a few of the entries are not among those we highly admire.
Just because an importer isn’t on this list doesn’t mean that their wines are inferior. To the contrary, a lot of wonderful wines are imported by a wide variety of other firms, large and small alike. In some markets, local importers and brokers represent some outstanding wines. Our purpose here is to list importers whose wines are commonly available and whose Rhone portfolios are, in our experience, reliable. When one of these names appears on the back label of a Rhone wine, chances are that the wine is worth drinking. So if you are making a selection among Rhone wines you don’t know, finding the name of one of these importers on the back label can increase the odds that you will enjoy the wine in the bottle.