I can’t recall the last time I took so much pleasure tasting an array of wines from a single region as I did recently pairing bottles from the Rhone Valley in France with dinners at home.
As difficult to understand as any wine region in Europe, the Cotes du Rhone offers wines with a hearty spiciness and rich in tannins and acid. That makes them enjoyable without thinking too much about their exact provenance.
Bordeaux is relatively easy to know because its better wines are made at individual chateaux; Burgundy is tougher because so many vineyards have multiple owners and merchants with their own labels.
But becoming familiar with Cotes du Rhone, with its northern and southern region (which alone plants 23 grape varieties), and names like Cote Rotie, Condrieu, Crozes Hermitage, Gigondas, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Beaumes-de-Venise and many others, can be a lifetime study.
And there’s not much help out there. Robert M. Parker, Jr.’s “Wines of the Rhone Valley” (Simon & Schuster, $30) has not been updated in 15 years; and John Livingston-Learmonth has not followed up his monumental 720-page “The Wines of the Northern Rhone” (University of California Press, $65) of 2005 with a companion volume on its southern counterpart.
Not until the 1980s did Cotes du Rhone begin to develop anything close to the reputation of the more illustrious Bordeaux and Burgundy.
Starting in the 1970s, forward-looking merchants like E. Guigal (controversial for introducing new oak to the aging), Jaboulet, Chapoutier and Delas, modernized the estates, while winemakers like Gerard Chave, famous for his Hermitage, became local heroes for their rigorous commitment to better Rhone wines.
Red wines of the north are dominated by syrah while those in the south are usually a blend of local grapes, mostly grenache, syrah, mourvedre, and cinsault. They also tend to have slightly higher alcohol levels than other French wines.
The wines I chose for my sampling were not random, though a January sale prompted me to try some I was unfamiliar with. All but one was from the 2009 vintage, a warm, and drought-stricken year that tended to make for higher alcohol levels. I avoided any wines above 14.5 percent. I also tried one 2007, an excellent vintage, to see how it was coming along.
The 2007 Les Halos de Jupiter Vacqueyras par Philippe Cambie ($31), from the south, was very powerful, still dense in tannins, with a big bouquet and plenty of grenache fruit (about 85 percent), made more enticing by its blending with syrah. I’d hang onto this for another two or three years.
Domaine de la Janasse 2009 Cotes du Rhone ($20) had enormous charm, a joyous nose and plenty of fruit balanced by easy acids, with just 50 percent grenache, making this a fine red wine for just about any meat dish but not with seafood. Janasse is best known for his Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but this lesser offering, using just a little new oak, is a real bargain.
Domaine La Milliere Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2009 ($50) has plenty of spice, from anise to cinnamon, in a dark intensity that comes from being made from vieille vignes (old vines). It can certainly age well but it’s a beauty right now, with the fire of 14 percent alcohol. It’s worth every penny.
Alain Graillot Crozes Hermitage 2009 ($28) is typical of its northern appellation, a Syrah-dominated wine with well-knit elements of fruit, bold but softened tannins and an excellent edge of acid that makes it so good with food.
Its 13 percent alcohol shows you don’t have to go high to have heft. Graillot left a corporate career to buy a vineyard in pig farm land, whose excess of nitrogen was no virtue. Careful upgrading drew praise for his first vintage, 1985, and his reputation has steadily grown.
Chateau Cambis 2009 Cotes du Rhone Villages ($9) is that very rare thing, a beauty of a French wine with little pedigree that sells for under ten bucks. It’s got all the grenache fruit it needs, along with body and backbone. And it’s ready to drink right now and for the next couple of years. This is one of the best buys out there.
Alain Jaume & Fils Les Valats Rasteau 2009 ($22) is from vineyards around the tiny, picturesque southern village of Rasteau. Made from 90 percent grenache, this 14.5 percent alcohol red is pretty one-dimensional, without much of a nose, though the wine went well with a rare porterhouse steak.
(John Mariani writes on wine for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)