by Anthony Enright
I like to think of the wine world as a family tree. At the base there are the historic regions which were established hundreds or even thousands of years ago, and have had the luxury of time to develop traditional techniques that become the basis for what we think is correct or desirable. The next level up (let’s think of it as the branch level) are the regions that may not have the advantage of history, but have the climate, funding and investment to develop globally-recognized wines whose quality rivals the classic regions (The U.S. and Australia live here). The final tier (perhaps the leaves of new offshoots in our tree metaphor) are either producers in established regions who are experimenting with grapes, blends and ideas that are not in the mainstream, or regions where the industry is still emerging, so there is no established hierarchy. I lead with all this exposition, because I want to talk about one of the world’s classic wine regions, France’s Rhône Valley, and discuss the influence of that region’s grapes and techniques on a small but devoted group of winemakers.
Where to start with the Rhône Valley, I guess in this case ancient history is not far enough back, we have to get geological. The creation of the valley was a complex interaction of the Alps, the Mediterranean and the adjacent Massif Central which over millions of years merged and battled to create hundreds of unique soil types, geological areas and bedrock conditions. These various soil types and drainage conditions play an essential role in the way in which growing vines are supplied with water, determining the varied aromas and flavors of Rhône wines. The potential of the area was not lost on early civilizations, with the Greeks first developing vineyards in the Southern portion of the valley in the fourth century B.C. The Romans really understood the potential of the area, and in true Roman fashion, began in the first century A.D. a concerted effort to develop the region into a wine growing powerhouse. Their improvements included hundreds of miles of retaining walls, aqueducts, wineries, fortified villages and transport routes to support the industry. Not surprisingly, the reputation and quality of the wines continued to improve until the region was a true rival to Italy for the best wines in Europe. The collapse of the Roman Empire deprived the region of outlets for its products, and so vineyards and winemaking declined into a regional undertaking throughout the Middle Ages.
A Renaissance for the region closely mirrored the Renaissance of Europe, with the Pope’s 14th century relocation from Rome to Avignon, smack dab in the middle of the Rhône Valley. The Popes had both the interest and funding to develop the area and sponsored improvements to the vineyards and wineries. John XXII, the second of the seven Avignon popes, had a summer residence built at Châteauneuf du Pape and Benedict XII, the third Avignon pope, ordered the building of the Palais des Papes. Later, at the end of the 17th century, and for the next 200 years, the port of Roquemaure (Gard) became a great center for the shipping of goods by river and so the wines of the Valley began again to be sought after throughout Europe. Throughout all of these periods, each region and area of the Valley was experimenting with plantings and blendings that best highlighted the character of the site and individual micro-climate. Six major grapes blended in various ways came to dominate the wines, Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre on the red side and Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier on the white side. With the adoption of the quality control measures of the AOC in the early 20th century, these styles and traditions were set in place . The Northern Rhône (i.e. St. Joseph and Hermitage) generally focused on structured long aging wines made with the Syrah grape, and the Southern Rhône (i.e. Lirac, Gigondas, Côtes du Rhône) focused on blended wines dominated by Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre.
Phew, I knew that was going to take a while, but context is important. So how does any of that information affect or benefit you? Well for one thing, Rhône Valley wines remain one of the great and exceptional pleasures of the wine world. While the best and most famous can be just as stratospherically priced as those from other areas, many of the Southern appellations offer amazing value while providing a world class taste of wine history. For many reasons, some of which are self evident (relying on many grape varietals rather than just one allows for much more consistent and controllable results), blended wines tend to be less prized and therefore less expensive than their single varietal counterparts. Conversely, these wines can sometimes have more balance and complexity and provide equal pleasure at a lower price point, so they are worth keeping at the top of your mind at the wine shop or when dining out.
It’s not just in the Rhône that the holy trinity of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre are making a statement. For the last few decades, a dedicated (some would say fanatical) group of winemakers in California have touted the planting and development of Rhône varietals. Unfortunately, the public hasn’t come along for the ride. I’m not really sure why these types of wines haven’t become more popular, they seem to be the definition of populist. They are earthy, juicy wines at reasonable prices that deliver consistent results year to year and are tasty on their own but also food friendly. I attribute the problem to name recognition. When someone tells you a wine is a chardonnay or a pinot noir, your brain immediately processes an expectation for what’s about to hit your palate. Unless you have a significant level of wine experience, the same recognition does not happen when presented with a California wine called Esprit de Beaucastel (which incidentally is a Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre blend made in the style of famous Rhône producer Chateau de Beaucastel…of course) – there’s just no simple expectation.
So it’s a marketing problem, but it’s also a style issue. The blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre (GSM from here on out) can produce rich fruit bombs that are pure hedonistic pleasure, and also produce earthy, smoky herbal wines that initially seem restrained but sing with food. So the very flexibility of the blend may be it’s own worst enemy from a sales standpoint. But friends, none of this is a problem for you, it’s an opportunity. The market confusion means that these wines rarely top out over $30 and many of the best are much less. It’s a rare opportunity to taste wines that are time tested pinnacles of the winemaker’s art for less than a mediocre bottle of whatever trendy chard or pinot is on the market. In case I’m not stressing how passionate I am about this I will restate. Finding wines that are amazing but overlooked by the general market is the trick for drinking great wine on a budget, and the Rhône style GSM wines are one of the deepest and most reliable of these categories.
So who makes Rhône style wines and how can you identify what’s worth purchasing? I encourage you to experiment as you can seldom go wrong in this category, but below are some recommendations on regions, producers and specific wines to get you started.
Qupe: This winery has been at the forefront of the promotion of Rhône wines in California for decades. They make a number of really gorgeous (and pricy) Grenache and Syrah based wines along with this great GSM blend.
Tablas Creek: Another advocate of the GSM blend, Tablas Creek makes a number of reds from those three grapes, and each is brilliant in its own right. Their value option is one of my favorite Rhône style wines from the new world.
Cline: On the budget end of the spectrum, Cline makes some great single varietal Syrah and Mourvèdre at very reasonable price points. It’s also a very easy brand to find, and so a good choice if you find yourself shopping for wine in a hurry. I tend to think that Cline’s winemaking style masks some of the unique characteristics of the Rhône grapes, but their signature GSM blend (despite its really dumb name) is a rich mouthful and will certainly have fans.
Though well known for Shiraz (which is actually just the Syrah grape, though made in a style that highlights the fresh fruit over the herb, mineral or earth) some stunning GSMs are produced in the country. Bear in mind the flavor profile of these will vary greatly from the GSMs made in the Rhône or California. They tend to be explosively juicy, bright and rich. Great to drink on their own, but more difficult to pair with food.
Oxford Landing: The GSM from this budget winery is perhaps the best wine value I’ve tasted in a while. When you find it snap up a few bottles; it won’t disappoint.
Rosemount: Another Aussie wine behemoth, the Rosemount winery makes one of the best examples of new world GSM. This bottle will knock your socks off with intense berry fruit aromas and deep underlying smokey spice. It’s also able to age, but I doubt you’ll want to wait.
D’Arenberg: This Aussie winery makes a dizzying array of Rhône style wines, most of which you will never find in the U.S. This little gem however, is easy to find and a serious contender for your new house wine. It’s consistent vintage to vintage and manages to bridge the gap between the juicy Aussie style and the restrained Rhône style with rich and savory yet ripe and spicy flavors.