Rhône Valley: a tale of two wine regions The wines of the southern Rhône and its smaller northern neighbour are like chalk and cheese
First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 17th June. 2017
It has always seemed strange that the northern and southern parts of the Rhône Valley are lumped together into the one large area. It’s a bit like putting Burgundy and Bordeaux under the same banner. Separated by a 40km gap, the two regions could not be more different. It is the aesthete versus the gourmand, little and large (literally), chalk and cheese. The south is big, boasting some 30,000 hectares of vines. It is sunny and hot (Provence begins at the southern tip) with rolling hills dotted with the heady herbs of the garrigue, olive groves and ancient Roman ruins. The north is much smaller, about one-twentieth the size of the south. Here, the vineyards cling to impossibly steep terraced slopes. It is too cold to cultivate olives – in the past peaches and nectarines were grown on the valley floor.
The red wines of the north are made from a single variety, Syrah, sometimes with a little of the white Viognier included. Northern whites are made from Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne. Those of the south are typically blends, and can be made from up to 10 red grapes and nine white. A blend of Grenache with a dollop of Mourvèdre and/or Syrah or Cinsault is more usual for the reds.
The northern reds are savoury, elegant and often light in alcohol. The great wines of Hermitage and Cornas have a very stiff backbone of tannin, and keep for decades, but even they share a lifted fragrance and delicacy of the other Northern wines. Do not expect refinement and delicacy (although there are a few very elegant wines) from the south. Instead, you should find warmth, rounded, sweet, ripe fruits, scented with herbs and spice. At least that is what I thought. When I went looking for inexpensive full-bodied Côtes du Rhône in my local supermarkets, all seemed a fairly wimpy 13-13.5 per cent. Hence the hard-to-find Côtes du Rhône below (although it is delicious). I think growers are picking earlier to suit our tastes for lighter wines. Once prices moved over €15, there were plenty of more powerful, rich wines.
This week you can conduct your own comparative tasting at two price levels. The Ardèche and the Monteillet are both from the north and pure Syrah; the others are blends from the south. I am cheating a little on the Ardèche, which is a vin de pays, but it is made in the northern Rhône. If you cannot find any of those featured, you should seek out anything with from St Joseph or Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage or Côte Rôtie. For southern wines, a good domaine-bottled Côtes du Rhône (€15-€20) or a Gigondas, Vacqueyras or Rasteau (or even a Châteauneuf-du-Pape) should give you the true power and flavours of the south, as will both the wines below.
Syrah 2015, Vin de pays de l’Ardèche, Caves Saint Desirat
Light, cool, peppery dark cherry fruits with good acidity and a dry finish. With pork dishes.
Côtes du Rhône Les Galets, Les Vigneron des Estezargues
Fragrant, with excellent sweet, ripe, warming, elegant strawberry fruits.
Stockists: Quintessential, Drogheda; Brown’s, Portlaoise; Wicklow Wine; O’Learys, Cootehill; Hole in the Wall; Clontarf Wines; The Grapevine, Glasnevin.
Les Hauts du Monteillet 2014 Stéphane Montez
Tantalising violet aromas, succulent dark cherry and blackcurrant fruits with a reviving freshness.
Stockists: 64 Wine; Green Man Wines; Searsons, Monkstown.
Vacqueyras 2011, Domaine Montvac Cuvée Vincila
Big, powerful wine offering intense ripe fruits sprinkled with spice. With robust red meat and game dishes.
Stockists: Wines Direct, Mullingar; Arnott’s, Dublin.