Rhone Valley Intro (Cornas/Chateauneuf)

Greetings fellow lovers of the vine! It is hard to believe, but Labor Day is nearly upon us, and that can only mean one thing… it’s time to start transitioning away from the crisp and delicious whites and roses of summer back into the warming and burly reds for cooler weather!! Before I delve into this month’s subject, let me pass along a few updates.

First, I was fortunate enough to be able to host a lovely tour of some fantastic wines with a few of our list members on a recent trip to the beautiful city of Vancouver. The wines were great (Bachelet, Huet, La Rioja Alta, Meo-Camuzet, Luciano Sandrone etc..), but the company was better. The wine learning as you would expect was also incredible. I anticipate that invites for rendezvous with guided tastings will become a frequent thing for me in the near future and I will be happy to oblige. I only require airfare (private chartered helicopters preferred as I do like to make a splash on my entrance), the menu ahead of time (to appropriately pair and plan the wines), and an introductory level stipend of $1500 as a professional courtesy fee (depending on the level of learning desired, the stipend may increase).

Second, as I write this I am in the throes of preparation for my first French wine tour!! The excitement I am feeling is indescribable. I am nearly fluent in Francais at this point as my preparation as included not only studying the regions we will be visiting, but also an in depth learning of the language (Le vin de Bourgogne est le plus bon et plus chere, just as a brief example). Obviously I will plan to work reviews of this trip into the future discussions of our group, so donations to help fund the travel will be accepted and considered as part of your membership fees. Given the current wine budget discussions ongoing with my lovely financial manager (my budget request $25,000 for wine importing, her budget request $2500 for wine importing… we are nearly to an agreement) I could use a few investment dollars from the group. This could be the beginning of the Newman Montana Wine Importers LLC… (if we actually return to the states which right now I give about a 50/50 chance). If you are interested we will be leaving on 9/21 and traveling to Beaune via Paris. We will then spend 5 days in Burgundy, 3 days in the Rhone Valley, and 3 days in Bandol, before traveling back to Paris for a few days of sight seeing that was negotiated against my better judgement…You may notice that the list of places to visit includes 2 places we have already visited via our letters so to assist you in understanding where we will be, this month’s discussion of course will center on the Rhone Valley!!Rhone Map

The Rhone Valley is a region near and dear to my heart and is really second only to Burgundy (per my personal preference) for producing viscerally thrilling and beautiful wines. It is a diverse region, but we can boil it down a little bit and make it relatively easy to understand the basics. First, we will split the region into 2 areas; The Northern Rhone and The Southern Rhone. This split is quite an easy thing to understand as the 2 different areas specialize in entirely different grapes. First we will visit the Northern Rhone.

As you can see above, the Northern Rhone is made up of a few communes just to the south of Lyon. The grape of choice here is Syrah (also known as Shiraz in some areas). There is also a related grape that you may here about which is a relative of Syrah and was likely one of the original grapes of this region called serine. This is not planted widely anymore due to low yields and issues with disease pressure. So to keep it simple, we will say that Northern Rhone wines are Syrah. There are 5 major communes in the area; Cote Rotie, Hermitage, Cornas, St. Joseph, and Crozes-Hermitage. We will leave Condrieu, Cheateau Grillet, and Saint Peray for a more advanced lesson. While all of these areas can make very good wines, the first three mentioned are generally considered the best (and cost the most). We will focus on Cornas today which is not only one of my personal favorites, but also still has some fairly reasonable value comparatively.

Cornas terraces
The steep granite hillsides of Cornas

Cornas is roughly translated into “burnt or scorched earth”. It is the only area noted above that requires the wines to be 100% Syrah. The other areas allow blending of small proportions of other wines. Cornas is less well known than Hermitage and Cote Rotie, but makes wines that can be equal or better in my opinion. It is, unfortunately also very small in area with only 131 hectares under the vine (314 acres). The best wines from Cornas come from steep decomposed granite hillsides which have turned into a mix of clay and sand. There are also some limestone deposits in the area. The hillsides are steep to the point that many of them are incredibly difficult to work and many people moved out of the grape growing business many years ago as the region struggled to sell its wines and the work was backbreaking. Thankfully, there are several young producers that are now reviving some of these abandoned vineyards. Cornas has always been considered to be the awkward, bumpkin relative of its more aristocratic neighbors further north. This is mostly because there was less investment into wine making and many of the wines formerly came out tough, tannic, and burly. They still have the characteristics, but with a newer generation leading somewhat of a renaissance, the wines are blending their power with a bit more grace and elegance. The wines are very dark purple in color with generally moderate to high alcohol, high tannins, and moderate acidity. The nose is beautiful… there is a wildness, often hints of game, with lots of briary dark fruits, violets, smoke and smoked meats, and a sense of crushed stone that seems to come straight from the granite. Given the power and tannins these are definitely age worthy wines and I have a number slumbering in my cellar currently, but I will say they can also be very enjoyable in their youth. To taste young Cornas with its fruit still fresh enough to just keep the tannins in check is truly a delight. There is just a pure exuberance and power to the wine that fades with age. I recommend getting several bottles and trying at least one young. These are definitely wines that require food and generally heavier meat dishes to help match the power and settle the tannins. Game dishes are fabulous with Cornas, any grilled beef/lamb dishes go well as the smoky flavors from the grilled meat mesh perfectly. I have also tried Cornas with fowl and if roasted and juicy, this can also be quite good.

Ok, enough about Syrah… let’s move further south and discuss a more well-known wine that can be equally delicious; Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Literally translated this means “New House of the Pope” and historically denotes the fact that in the 14th century, pope Clement V transferred the location of the papacy from the Vatican to Avignon which is the largest town in this wine region. This also explains the reason that on bottles of this wine you will find an embossed papal seal as homage to their history. The grapes that make of Chateauneuf are many (we are focusing on the rouge version here, the Chateauneuf blancs will have to wait for another session). In fact there are 13 legal grapes that can be used to make this wine. For our purposes however, we will focus on the 3 most common; Grenache noir, Syrah, and Mourvedre. Grenache is generally the base of these wines with 50-80% of the blends and occasionally 100%. The soils of the area are quite interesting, as often the vineyards appear to be rocky plains. The stones, called galets, are rounded rocks that were previously in a riverbed.

Les Galets de Chateauneuf
The galets of Chateauneuf

Underlying these rocks are areas of limestone, areas of sandy soil, and some clay. The climate here is warm and dry with little rainfall compared to many areas. The galets capture the heat during the day and radiate warmth to the vines overnight as the temperatures can drop. The other prevailing part of the climate here is “Le Mistral”. This is howling wind that blows from the top of the Alps, down across the Rhone and out to the Mediterranean. This helps to lower disease pressure and rot as the wind keeps the grape bunches fairly dry. Compared to the Northern Rhone regions, this is a big area with approximately 3161 hectares under production. Grenache reminds me somewhat of a higher alcohol version of pinot noir. It is relatively low tannin, moderate acidity, but as compared to pinot, higher alcohol. It tends towards red berry fruit flavors (strawberry, raspberry, red currant) with floral notes, spices (anise, rosemary, thyme), and often a smoky hint. The syrah and mourvedre are used to add structure as they are both very tannic wines and they help to allow the wines of Chateauneuf to enjoy long aging. Many wines made here today are huge, powerful wines. In fact, I find some of them to be overripe and too highly alcoholic. I have seen many in the 15.5-16% ABV range, which often feel overdone and almost stewed to me. I tend to prefer the older school Chateauneufs that have finesse and elegance with silky subtlety leading the way rather than brawn and alcohol. These again are wines that go well with hearty meals. Braised meats, roasted meats, and hearty stews are good matches. These are wines that are lovely to sip by the hearth during a cool fall evening… Again, these are wines that age well. I tried a 1990 Domaine Pegau in 2014 that was simply stunning. As with Cornas however, there is something about a young Chateauneuf, with just 1-2 years in the bottle that is very enjoyable. The Grenache fruit carries such lovely intensity when young…

Ok, I’m sure most of you will not actually make it to this section of the email (certainly not Chris Brown…) so I will wrap it up and get on to my favorite/recommended producers.

Cornas: The two best producers in my humble opinion are Thierry Allemand and August Clape. Their wines are simply the essence of old school Cornas; beautiful with age, but enjoyable in their youth. They are unfortunately fairly pricey these days ($90-150)… Clape does make a young vines cuvee called Renaissance that is a bit cheaper and is delicious and if you ever see the Clape Cotes du Rhone I highly recommend buying it as it is from vines just over the border of Cornas and tastes very similar for about 1/3 the price. Other producers that I seek out are Alain Voge ($40-60), Franck Balthazar ($30-60), and Vincent Paris ($30-60). These are producers from the new generation in this area and they make fantastic wines for what is overall a great value compared to wines in the region. Courbis also makes good Cornas, and Jean Luc Colombo is not bad.

Chateauneuf du Pape: There are loads of great producers here. One which I hope to try one day, but likely will not is Chateau Rayas. They make a 100% Grenache version that is considered to be nectar of the gods. Unfortunately at $500-800 a bottle, only gods can afford it… If you have one, please invite me over when you open it. They do make a lower priced bottling called Pignan for about $200. My go to producers from here are: Domaine Pegau – fanstatic, elegant wines with a gamy hint that melds beautifully with the Grenache fruit, Domaine Vieux Telegraphe – a classic, old school version with good proportions of mourvedre so often more tannic requiring patience; Beaucastel is also similar in that they have a high proportion of mourvedre which helps to balance their wine in warm years and gives it fantastic ageability; Jean Royer makes a lovely Burgundian like example of Chateaunef and is generally quite affordable ($30-50); Roger Sabon tends a bit more towards the ripe/modern end of the spectrum, but I have had several of his wines that are still quite good; Janasse also is in the ripe/modern camp, but the wines are generally balanced enough to age gracefully and are delicious young. Most of these wines will be anywhere from $35-110 depending on the vintage. I have found Chateau La Nerth and Fortia to be good examples at a bit cheaper, often around $28-30. There are many other good Chateauneufs available which I have not yet experienced (but hope to while I’m there!) and if you have had any I’d love to hear.

I suppose I will go ahead and wrap it up at this point as most readers are likely asleep or have already deleted this… Wish me luck in my travels and until next time remember that life is unpredictable, so make sure you drink plenty of good wine now!

J. “Galets” Newman, CSW