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

Last month we reported on American Rhone-style wines we tasted at the 16th annual Hospice du Rhone events in Paso Robles, California from May 1 to 3, 2008.  We noted that this event was an opportunity to consider Rhone-style wines from a fresh perspective because, unlike most tasting opportunities, these events included Rhone-style wines from the Rhone Valley itself (51 wineries), elsewhere in France (4 wineries) as well as from Spain (4 wineries), Australia (17 wineries), South Africa (6 wineries), Chile (2 wineries), Argentina (1 winery) and the United States.  While this was a California-dominated event, and while many of the Rhone Valley’s best producers weren’t represented, there was still sufficient European and other entries to make for interesting comparisons and contrasts.

This month we’ll address the European wines. 

Rhone wines are named for and modeled after France’s Rhone Valley.  But at least two important red Rhone varietals really originated in Spain.  Considering that both Grenache and Mourvedre probably originated in Spain (where they are called Garnacha and Monastrell/Mataro, respectively), it is fair to consider vineyards in both countries to be the source of Rhone varietals despite the fact that the Rhone River Valley itself is in France.  We tasted a wide range of French wines from the Rhone Valley and wines from Spain. 

As we tasted both American and European Rhone-style wines, we kept comparing and contrasting them.  We are fans of the best of both worlds.  In comparing and contrasting, we searched for insights.

Nearly all of the European wines tasted more acidic and astringent compared to their American counterparts, which often tasted sweeter, duller and heavier.  Partially this is due to different climatic conditions and other environmental factors, and partially it is due to different vineyard and winemaking practices (reflecting a different aesthetic).  In general, most of the European wines have a more nuanced balance, a subtler profile and more elegant flavors.  Their higher acidity makes them better mates for most foods.

Classic Syrah from the northern Rhone (Cote Rotie)

Consider a Syrah from a famous French appellation.  The 2006 Cote Rotie Cuvee Rosé Pourpre from Domaine Pierre Gaillard immediately struck us for what it wasn’t: It wasn’t heavy, ponderous or overly extracted, especially in comparison to many of the California wines we had been tasting.  As we considered this Cote Rotie, we appreciated its elegant fruit flavors and a harmonious balance with its acid and tannins. 

We liked it slightly better than a more famous Cote Rotie from E. Guigal.  The 1999 Guigal Cote Rotie “Brune et Blonde” cuvee showed its greater age to advantage.  This wine is a blend of grapes grown on the Cote Brune hillside and the Cote Blonde hillside, each with different soils.  Its aromatics were fully developed and seductive.  It was also well balanced and elegant.  The 2003 “Brune et Blonde” cuvee was a bigger, richer and riper wine, no doubt the product of its scalding hot vintage (it was harvested on August 21!).  Nevertheless, the 2003 had good acidity, so the strength is well balanced. 

We also tasted three of Guigal’s top four Cote Roties.  The 1998 Guigal Cote Rotie Chateau d’Ampuis is from three plots in the Cote Brune and three more in the Cote Blonde part of the appellation.  It started with an attractive aroma (helped by the inclusion of 7% co-planted and co-fermented Viognier) and ended with a luscious and long finish.  In between, the wine had such fresh fruit it was hard to believe its age.  The 2004 Guigal Cote Rotie “La Mouline,” from 90 year old vines, was highly aromatic (it included 11% Viognier also co-planted and co-fermented), open and forward.  While it had good acidity and tannins, it was not too astringent now and was already quite drinkable.  The rich flavors didn’t reflect the more than three years it spent in oak, and the wine wasn’t at all heavy or ponderous.  The 2004 Guigal Cote Rotie “La Landonne,” from 100% Syrah vines planted in 1975, was a bigger and riper wine but was still well balanced in the way too many California wines are not.  It wasn’t as ready to drink as the La Mouline yet, probably at least in part due to the fact that none of the grapes had been de-stemmed, but it was still very well balanced and without any clumsy notes. 

Each of these wines, from one of the finest sources of Syrah, was dramatically different from so many of the American Syrahs poured at this event.  Whereas too many of the American Syrahs could not successfully accompany food any less assertive than a thick steak charred on a grill, the Cote Roties had the nuance and complex flavors to flatter a much wider range of food.

More northern Rhones, both disappointing and impressive

We were slightly less impressed with two other very famous Rhone Syrahs.  The 1999 E. Guigal Hermitage was aromatic, but not as much as the same producer’s Cote Rotie.  It seemed very fresh and had a long finish, both promising traits.  But we couldn’t find the blood and pepper quality of the best Hermitages.  All in all, it was a very good but not outstanding Hermitage.  The 2005 Cornas from Domaine Clape was also very nicely balanced, had good Syrah flavor, showed substantial acidity and was astringent in its youth, but lacked the blood and pepper notes we wished for.  Ultimately, this wine fell short of our high expectations.  But we recognize its youth and allow that it may develop over time.

Two more northern Rhones we did like both came from E. Guigal.  The 2005 Guigal St. Joseph “Vignes de L’Hospice” is from a site directly across the Rhone River from the famous Hermitage hillside and on the same soil type.  It was a big wine but with all the elements in balance and without any heaviness.  The rich fruit was complex and included a nice peppery quality with a lingering finish.  The 2001 Guigal Ermitage (Hermitage) Rouge “Ex Voto” comes from four prime vineyard sites with 50-90 year old vines.  This is the inaugural bottling to be made only in great years.  It tasted very young and was still somewhat closed in, but it did have a very long finish on the back of the palate.  The tannin level was high and will take time to resolve.  It is a big wine that seems to be holding many complex flavors behind its youth.  Despite the depth and richness of these two wines, they still had a grace and balance to complement their size and distinguish them from most imitators from elsewhere.

Before we leave the northern Rhone, at least one white we tasted demands a note.  The 2005 Guigal Ermitage (Hermitage) Blanc “Ex Voto” was a stunning wine.  From vigorous and well-maintained vines ranging in age from 55 to 90 years, this blend of 90% Roussanne and 10% Marsanne is a bottling made only in top vintages.  New oak was used, yet the depth of the fruit obscures any notion of excessive oakiness.  The aromatics are powerful and appealing, and the fruit flavors are rich and complemented by minerals and good acidity.  It has a delicious and very long finish.

Southern Rhone:  prototypical red blends

From the southern Rhone, where blends dominate, we greatly appreciated the 2006 Perrin Vacqueyras cuvee Les Christins.  This well balanced wine showed cherry-like Grenache fruit balanced by the structure from Syrah.  The harmony of the elements is another illustration of why blends are so appealing.

Another southern Rhone wine we tasted is one of the most famous wines in France.  The 2004 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape isn’t ready to drink yet, but its promise shows through its youth.  The flavors intensified as it remained in the mouth and were balanced among the varietals included in the blend, but it hasn’t yet developed its characteristic aromatics and full flavors. By comparison to many of its American imitators, the youthful Beaucastel still showed great nuance, elegance and most of all, restraint.

White blends from the southern Rhone

A white Rhone blend we tasted was a model of what we like and why Rhone blends are such magic.  The 2006 Domaine de la Mordorée Lirac Blanc cuvee Reine des Bois was a delicious blend of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Viognier, Marsanne, Picpoul, Clairette and Bourboulenc.  It had tantalizing aromatics, lively and complex fruit flavors and a lengthy finish.  The varietals in the blend complemented each other and the proportions didn’t let any one dominate.  Only a quarter of the wine was barrel fermented.  That’s just enough to add more complexity without hiding the freshness and vitality.  The dryness contrasted with the richness of the fruit flavors, while the bright acidity accentuated the freshness of the fruit.

Another white Rhone blend we greatly enjoyed came from just a few kilometers across the Rhone River.  The 2006 Raymond Usseglio Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc was stunning.  Not much Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc is made, and they aren’t all at the top level.  But when one is really good, as this one was, they are enormously rich and complex wines.  We can only imagine what this will taste like in a few years.  As with the Mordorée Lirac Blanc, this wine was aromatic, had powerful fruit flavors complemented by good acidity, and every element seemed to fit just right in the overall profile.  This is another prime exhibit of why Rhone blends can be so exciting.

An exemplary Spanish white Rhone blend

Across the border in Spain, blends of white Rhone varietals are also made.  An outstanding example we tasted was the 2006 Celler Mas Gil, Clos d’Agon Blanco from DO Empordá-Costa Brava, just across the border from Perpignan in France.  This blend of Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne is grown on a high altitude mesa.  The result is a complex wine with ripe but not excessively floral aromatics, a light golden color, rich and complex flavors with a medium mouthfeel and a long finish.  The blend of varietals perfectly suits a vineyard site very different from the two French examples above.  This blend might not have sufficient acidity is some sites, but at this location the acidity is an ideal complement to the rich flavors.  This wine isn’t an attempted clone of French Rhone blends, but rather a unique and worthy creation of its own.  It only further reinforces how finding the right blend for a vineyard site can yield an exciting and delicious wine.
Blending lessons from the Europeans

American winemakers need to frequently taste outstanding blends such as the French and Spanish examples cited above.  American wines won’t ever be and shouldn’t be identical clones, but the lessons of how the varietals complement and flatter each other, how the inclusion of grapes with sufficient acidity for each vineyard site improves the whole, how restraint with oak elevates the freshness, and how dryness complements the rich and complex fruit flavors are transferable.

Spanish red Rhones

Grenache (Garnacha) and Mourvedre (Monastrell/Mataro) are believed to have originated in Spain.  So we looked forward to sampling some hard-to-find old vine examples.

Not far from the famous DO Priorat wine region is the DO Montsant in Tarragona (DO stands for Denominación de Origen, the rough equivalent of France’s AOC and the United States’ AVA).  This is the source of some very old vine Garnacha (Grenache).  At the Hospice du Rhone event, we were fortunate to taste several outstanding examples.

Several of these came from the Celler de Capçanes, a cooperative in the village of Capçanes in the DO Montsant.  This cooperative used to make Kosher wines for the Jewish community in Barcelona, about 100 miles to the northeast, but is now focused on making high quality wines that reflect its terroir.  Capçanes has more old vine Garnacha than the entire DO Priorat.   The vines grow on steeply terraced vineyards.

One of these was the 2004 Celler de Capçanes Vall del Calas.Capcanes Tarragona Montsant, a less expensive wine made for early drinking.  This wine is a blend of Merlot, Garnacha and Tempranillo.  It displays forward fruit, probably from its Merlot component.  It also has considerable acidity and structure, likely from its Garnacha and Tempranillo components.  The result is a well balanced wine that could be held for a few years but is quite approachable now.

Special Old Vine Garnacha

From the same producer, we also tasted two very special wines:  the 2005 Celler de Capçanes Cabrida Montsant and the 2006 Celler de Capçanes Cabrida Calissa Montsant.  These are both from 100% old vine Garnacha.  The Cabrida (the word means chalk in Catalonian) bottling is a blend of four different terroirs from 85-105 year old vines.  The Cabrida Calissa bottling, a tiny production, is a blend of four vineyard sites in the same limestone terroir from 80-105 year old vines.  Both wines were nicely balanced with plenty of acidity and neither was overly extracted.  The Cabrida cuvee has black fruit flavors and mineral overtones with a long finish.  It is still very young and needs more time in the bottle.  The scarce Cabrida Calissa bottling is more aromatic, has brighter and more elegant flavors that include minerality and also has a long finish.  It also is still very young and needs some bottle age.  Tasting these old vine Garnachas, we were struck by how very different they are from most of the fruitier versions of Grenache from California.

From the neighboring DO Priorat, we tasted two wines from the Bodegas Mas Alta, the 2005 La Basseta Priorat and the 2005 La Creu Alta Priorat.  The La Basseta is a blend of 50% Carinena (Carignan), 40% Garnacha and 5% each of Merlot and Syrah.  It is a delicious wine with intense red fruit, good acidity and minerality and a lingering finish.  The La Creu Alta cuvee is 60% Carinena and 40% Garnacha.  Also a delicious wine, it has finer tannins than the La Basseta, shows more nuanced flavors, has an extra brightness from the acidity, and promises to age well.

Unique Old Vine Mourvedre-based Wines

From the Levant, we tasted the 2005 Sierra Salinas Mira from the DO Alicante.  This is a blend of 65% Monastrell (Mourvedre) with 25% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Garnacha Tintorera (Alicante Bouschet, not to be confused with Garnacha) from ungrafted old vines (up to about 80 years old) in an unirrigated vineyard at about 2000 feet elevation.  The nose is still mostly closed, but the wine is absolutely delicious, with rich black fruit, complex flavors and good acidity.  It speaks to how good old Mourvedre can be when grown in favorable sites.

Another Mourvedre came from nearby Yecla.  The 2005 Bodegas Castaño Casa Cisca from the DO Yecla.  This is 100% Monastrell (Mourvedre).  The vineyards are high (about 3000 feet in elevation) with temperatures very hot in the day and very cool at night.  The ungrafted, low-yielding vines are old (55-70 years old) and on very stony soil similar to Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  We found it to be very appealing, although slightly oakier than is our preference (it was aged for over a year in American oak).  Otherwise, it is a nicely balanced wine with bright red fruit balanced by crisp acidity.  It will probably improve with more time in the bottle.

This and other Monastrells we have enjoyed from Yecla have softer tannins than we are used to encountering in Mourvedre.  We don’t know why this is, but we can speculate it might be due to the wide temperature swings from hot days to cool nights, or to a combination of those climatic characteristics and the local soils.

Final thoughts on the Hospice du Rhone events

We certainly got the opportunity to taste some of the very best Rhone and Rhone-style wines available from France, Spain and the United States.  The chance to compare and contrast a wide range of top-notch wines is instructive.

The Spanish wines from so-called Rhone varietals (including two important varietals that probably originated in Spain) are different than their French counterparts.  The Garnachas from Montsant are certainly not like the Grenache-based blends from the southern Rhone Valley, and the Monastrells from Yecla are not clones of the Mourvedre-based wines found in either the southern Rhone Valley or in Bandol. Yet they all have a certain European balance and finesse, something only the best American producers are approaching.  As much as we love the richness and ripeness of most American fruit, we wish more of the American producers would learn that subtlety and elegance are better profiles for finished wine than heaviness and clumsiness.