Part one gave the background to the BIG Rhône tasting at Ely as part of Rhône Wine Week in Ireland and some of the whites which really caught my eye.
So now we’re on to the main event:
Of course the Rhône is much more celebrated for its red wines, so below are some of the red beauties that really stood out for me (in no particular order). Once again, apologies for the image quality – the low light downstairs at Ely is very atmospheric but smartphone cameras struggle.
Pierre Gaillard Cornas 2012 (Mitchell & Son, €45.99)
The only AOC (well AOP now, but you know what I mean) that mandates 100% Syrah, Cornas in the northern Rhône is reputed to be rustic – and given the label you might have no reason to think otherwise – but this was anything but rustic. Pierre Gaillard’s most southerly vineyard is a parcel of old vines over the age of 70, situated on altered granite slopes, offering good drainage and warmth from the hot temperatures of its micro-climate.
Perhaps it’s modern, hygienic winemaking equipment that banishes rusticity, or maybe the east-facing aspect of the vineyard that endows the wine with power. Whatever the cause, it’s a delicious wine that showcases some of the best that Rhône Syrah can do. There is bacon and black olives, pepper and spice, but above all refined power from the fruit.
As a former Cornas doubter, I doubt no more.
M. Chapoutier Rasteau 2012 (Findlater, €19.99)
Maison M. Chapoutier (M for Max, then his sons Michel and Marc) produces wine from all across the Rhône region, though is most well known for their top Hermitage wines, of both colours. Chapoutier’s wine labels are distinctive because of their raised Braille dots on the labels - and as a happy coincidence they are aesthetically pleasing for sighted people as well.
Rasteau AOC was well known as a Vin Doux Naturel for a long time, its dry reds were Côtes du Rhônes Villages-Rasteau until their promotion with effect from the 2009 vintages. It is therefore one of the more modest Cru but this bottle really delivers – plump red and black fruit from the Grenache, with a little spicy edge from the Syrah. At a fairly modest price this is something that would stand up to hearty winter dishes but would be great sipped out of a big glass on its own.
Château de Montmirail Gigondas “Cuvée de Beauchamp” 2012 (Didier Fiat, €26.00)
Gigondas is now the unofficial second-ranked Cru in the southern Rhône behind Châteauneuf-du-Pape. With the heavy, embossed bottle there’s no doubt it’s trying to ape its more famous neighbour. A small amount of rosé is made here, but the main event is the red, made from a maximum 80% Grenache, a minimum 15% Syrah and/or Mourvèdre, then the balance made up of certain other Rhône varieties.
The Cuvée de Beauchamp consists of 75% Grenache, 15% Syrah and 10% Mourvèdre, a classic GSM blend. It’s big and powerful without being jammy – supercharged strawberries was my main tasting note!
Les Vignerons d’Estézargues Côtes du Rhône Villages-Signargues “Sy” 2012 (Tyrrell & Co, €22.00)
“Sy” is actually short for Syrah which is 90% of this blend which is almost unheard of from the Southern Rhône – and this area is within touching distance of the Mediterranean, it’s so far south. The southerly latitude accounts for the additional weight and power compared to average Rhône Syrahs – 14.5% alcohol and a huge mouthfeel.
The high proportion of Syrah planted in the area is a result of moving from mixed agriculture (particularly olives) to predominantly viticulture in the 1960s – landowners were free to choose the most appropriate Rhône variety and many went for the prestigious Syrah.
Of all the Rhône Syrahs I’ve tasted recently this is the closest to a New World Shiraz. Blackberry and plum with exotic spice combine on the palate, with enough acidity to keep it from being blowsy. Every New World Shiraz fan should try this!
Château Pesquié Ventoux “Artemia” 2012 (Château Pesquié, €45.00)
Like a drunken reveller leaving a nightclub, Ventoux has dropped its Côtes, which signifies a step up in status and quality. Although it is situated in the southerly reaches of the Rhône, the cool winds coming off the Mont de Ventoux and Valcluse mountains help maintain acidity and freshness.
Château Pesquié is named after the Provençal word for a fishpond – springs and natural water sources being very important in such a warm climate. Artemia is their premium bottling made of equal parts of Grenache and Syrah, both from low-yielding sites. All the grapes are handpicked and after ruthless selection they are destemmed and given a long fermentation and maceration. Malo and maturation take place over 18 months in 50% new and 50% two and three year old oak barrels.
Everything about the making of this wine is designed to make it epic!
And is it! It’s rich and unctuous, dark black fruit and spice compete for your attention. But it’s not all about big fruit, there’s also acidity and minerality there. This is obviously very very young, but it is already drinkable. Do you mind if I say “epic” again?
Château Pesquié Ventoux “Artemia” 2006 en magnum (n/a)
Just to show what the wines look like with a bit – but only a bit – of age, Monsieur Chaudière brought along a magnum of Artemia 2006, the third release.
Even accounting for the slower ageing in magnum, this was still a baby. It had started to add a few more developed notes to the primary fruit, but this will be drinking well in another fifteen years. Want!
Domaine La Monardière “Les 2 Monardes” Vacqueyras 2010 (JN Wine, €22.85)
Vacqueyras became the third major Cru of the southern Rhône in 1990, and is one of the very rare AOCs that produces wine in all three colours (though is predominantly known for its red). The Domaine was created by the Vache family (no sniggering please, it’s childish) a few years before, in 1987, and now has 20 hectares under vine. “Monarde” is a medicinal herb similar to bergamot which grows widely in the area.
A blend of 70% Grenache and 30% Syrah, the grapes are hand picked and sorted then fully destemmed. Wild yeast is used rather than commercial yeast. The two grapes are fermented separately for two to three weeks – the Syrah is punched down to extract colour, flavour and tannin, whereas the thinner skinned Grenache is treated more lightly. Maturation is 12 months in concrete tanks and barrels and then bottling is done without fining or filtration.
There’s lots of primary cherry and blackcurrant fruit here – particularly coming from the Grenache – but also lots of herbs and spices. It’s a veritable spice rack in a bottle!
JL Chave Côtes du Rhône “Mon Coeur” 2012 (La Rousse Wines, €22.90)
Although this is “only” a Côtes du Rhône the quality in the bottle is a lot higher than the appellation might suggest. It also commands a higher price than other basic CDRs, but the producer’s name carries a lot of weight. The Chave family have been growing grapes in the Rhône for half a millennium, with the current man in charge being Jean-Louis (JL).
The fruit comes from the Southern Rhône’s northerly villages of Valréas, Vinsobres and Visan which are fairly high in altitude and have more Syrah than usual in the south – perfect for a house from Hermitage! This is quite serious for a Côtes du Rhônes and has firm tannins, but its red and black fruits with a savoury black olive streak are just delicious!
Santa Duc Rasteau “Les Blovac” 2009 (Le Caveau, €18.45)
As you might expect from Le Caveau this is an organic wine made by a small producer. After over a hundred years selling their grapes, they began making their own wines in 1985. Their home base is in Gigondas at the foot of the Dentelles de Montmirail, but they make wines from several appellations across the southern Rhône. The Domaine’s name is taken from the Provençal for a calling owl which is common to the area – there’s no saint or duke involved!
Once again we have a typical southern Rhône blend of 80% Grenache, 10% Syrah and 10% Mourvèdre (the precise blend does change from vintage to vintage). The grapes are picked when fully ripe, but then have a long fermentation with gentle extraction. At five years old it’s starting to become more even interesting and adds smoky, gamey notes to the dark black fruit. Espresso and dark chocolate make for a full house of flavour.
JL Chave Hermitage “Farconnet” 2009 (La Rousse Wines, €58.00)
So we’ve already seen what Chave can do with a basic Rhône appellation, now to look at the most prestigious appellation of the northern Rhône – Hermitage. Famed as the original home of Syrah, Hermitage became almost synonymous with the grape itself – hence Penfolds icon Grange was labelled as Grange Hermitage until 1989 (though I’m not sure how it became the name for Cinsaut in South Africa!).
Ostensibly a négotiant wine, the grapes are sourced from both Chave’s own vineyards and those of long term contract growers on the western slopes of the granitic Hill of Hermitage. The power of the vintage really comes through in the fruit – some dried but mainly fresh black berries with the signature Syrah spice.