By Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr
When it comes to blending grape varieties, no place is better known than Bordeaux. The five red varieties used here to make some of the most famous wines are called “noble” for historic reasons. But blending takes a far more interesting turn in southern Rhone Valley where producers have more varieties from which to craft their delicious wines.
While northern Rhone Valley is dominated by syrah because it grows best in its cooler temperatures, southern Rhone Valley’s Mediterranean climate means milder winters and warmer summers – conditions needed for varieties such as grenache. Although the wines from this region may not be as complex and full-bodied as their northern cousins, they represent better values and are far less pretentious. In recent years we have turned to the recognized appellations of southern Rhone for unabashed, unadulterated fun.
The most well-known AOC here is Chateauneuf du Pape, but the other appellations have gained more attention in the last two decades as their quality has improved. As many as 18 grape varieties are permitted in Chateauneuf du Pape; fewer varieties are allowed in other AOCs.
Anthony Taylor, brand ambassador for Maison Gabriel Meffre, said Chateauneuf’s fame is due largely to history – its wines were being exported longer and garnering more exposure. But the other regions introduced improved vineyard and winemaking practices to grab the limelight.
“There has been a huge jump in quality in the last 20 years,” Taylor said. “The wines are cleaner, better made and have fresher acidity.”
He said producers are paying more attention to the winemaking by lowering fermentation temperatures, managing canopy better to shield grapes from the sun, and limiting intrusive oak flavors by trading small barrels for 600-liter barrels. There is also a trend toward clay and cement fermentation vessels.
Taylor extolled the benefits of blending. “Blends are better and more interesting,” he said. “That said, people want to know what a certain vineyard can produce. Some are experimenting more by vinifying varieties separately.”
While grenache is the foundation of most wines from southern Rhone, syrah and mourvedre serve important supporting roles. Syrah adds color, acidity and lower sugar levels. Mourvedre contributes tannins to grenache’s roundness.
This region often faces drought conditions but some drip irrigation is being allowed, particularly for new plantings. The 2021 season suffered from heavy frost damage in the valley floor – the crop is expected to be down 30 percent. Add mildew to the mix and grape growers feel compelled to look to more hardy grape varieties as the climate warms.
The simple wines of the Cotes du Rhone are easy to find but stepping up to a Cotes du Rhone Villages will yield a better drinking experience. We particularly like the firm wines from Rasteau. But if you are looking for purely delicious wines that put an exclamation mark on red fruit, look to Gigondas and Vacqueyras. These wines are often less than $30 and deliver a lot for the money. The wines from Vacqueyras are rustic and more approachable than those of Gigondas.
Here are a few wines from this region that we recently tasted:
Gabriel Meffre Rasteau Saint-Didier 2018 ($16). The red berry and herb aromas jump from the glass. On the palate, there is lively acidity, bright and young raspberry and cherry fruit with a hint of licorice.
Famille Perrin Nature Cotes du Rhone 2019 ($15). Composed of grenache and syrah, this lively blend is pretty simple and recognized for its bright red fruit character.
Domaine Galuval Le Coq Volant Red Cotes du Rhone Villages 2019 ($15). An even split of grenache and syrah, this has a lot of pep in its step. Simple black fruit flavors with a hint of spice and easy tannins.
Domaine de Mourchon Grande Reserve Seguret Cotes du Rhone Villages ($25). Grenache dominates the blend at 65 percent with syrah making up the balance. The additional syrah gives the wine more color and heft. It is full bodied, yet elegant in the finish.
Guigal Cotes du Rhone 2017 ($18). We’ve followed this wine for decades. Always a great buy, it bursts with fresh black fruit on the nose and adds spice notes to the flavors. Elegant, yet complex enough to complement pasta, pizza, burgers and similar food. Syrah dominates the blend.
Domaine Santa Duc Les Aubes Vacqueyras 2019 ($30). Intense floral and herbal aromas followed by rich, slightly ripe raspberry and strawberry flavors. The composition is 80 percent grenache and 20 percent syrah. Great value.
We’ve been believers of de Negoce, a direct-to-consumer wine brand managed by Cameron Hughes. We’ve purchased several cabernet sauvignons at a fraction of their original cost and never have we been disappointed.
Hughes buys the wine in various forms from a reputable wine producer with the understanding he won’t reveal the source. He puts his own label – de Negoce – on them and sells them for prices far less than what the producer charges. The consumer puts a lot of trust in Hughes.
With California fires depressing production in the coming releases, we wondered how this would impact his sales.
He told us, “I can’t speak to the wines being bottled by other producers, but on the bulk market I have yet to see a single non-smoke-tainted 2020 Bordelais variety wine coming from the fire-affected areas.
“We at de Negoce have some great 2019 California wines in inventory, and we are still able to acquire more. However, we are also looking to expand into new regions. We’re finding wines from all over Southern France, Chateauneuf du Pape, Bordeaux, Burgundy. Even in the challenging years, there will always be quality wines available at excellent prices that we can pass to our clients.”
Luretta Gutturnio Superiore 2018 ($25). A very interesting and tasty red wine from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. A blend of 60 percent barbera and 40 percent croatina (locally called bonarda but not the same as South American bonarda). Very expository flavors of plum and dried cherry and a hint of leather to add complexity.
Mira Pinot Noir Napa Valley Hyde Vineyard 2016 ($90). This is a deep, rich pinot noir with cherry and cranberry flavors and a hint of spice in the finish. A big and a bit reticent wine but it should age well.
Rabble Wine Co. Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles 2018 ($27). Another red wine winner from Paso Robles. Aged in French oak (15 percent new barrels), this robust wine exhibits delicious and abundant berry and cherry notes with a hint of mocha. A very agreeable and drinkable wine.
United Ink Red Blend Columbia Valley 2019 ($18). One of the better red blends that we have tried recently. An artful blend of 60 percent merlot with syrah and cabernet sauvignon at 20 percent each, this offering from Washington State present bright cherry fruit with chocolate notes in a very smooth style that still retains ample tannins.