Ten Green Bottles – Part 2

So you’re planning to hold a wine tasting. You’ve invited your guests? Check. You’ve bought some stinky cheeses and salty charcuterie? Check. What else? Oh yes, the wine.

In Part 1 of the blog (click on the link if you missed it) I said that you should have a theme to your tasting. That way, the tasting has some structure and you will hopefully learn a bit more. I host tastings for people who have come to the Rhône Valley and who want to taste the local wines, so the basic theme suggests itself. But within that there’s plenty of scope for me to play around: maybe we’ll only look at the wines from the northern Rhône; perhaps we’ll only taste reds; we could concentrate on one particular vintage, even the wines from a single village, and so on.

Wines from Domaine Lombard, Domaine Gérard and Jean-Claude Raspail (see below)

I normally use ten wines for a tasting. Much fewer and the lack of depth means it becomes hard to draw any conclusions other than “I like that”, much more and it gets hard to draw conclusions about anything, even the way home. To give you an idea, here’s the line up from a recent tasting with an explanation of the logic behind my choices:

1 Jean-Claude Raspail Clairette de Die Grande Tradition – it’s always good to start with fizz to get people in the mood. Normally I would make it a dry wine, but the tasting happened to be in the village of Saillans in the Drôme valley where they make a speciality of light, sweet, sparkling muscat-based wines. So it seemed natural to start with one of the best. (Just to avoid confusion, I should mention that although the wine is called Clairette, also the name of a locally grown grape, growers typically only use around 20% of clairette in the blend. There, that’s clear isn’t it?)

Then the following three whites were chosen to show the different flavours of some of the region’s main white grapes:

2 Domaine du Moulin Côtes du Rhône blanc 2011 –  a wine made largely (unlike the fizz) from the clairette grape, which forms a major part of many traditional southern Rhône whites. This is fresh and crisp, perfect as an introduction.

Father and son Vinson - makers of the Domaine du Moulin wines

3 Xavier Gérard Viognier 2011 – this comes from a Condrieu producer who also has a vineyard just outside the boundary of the Condrieu appellation, the home of the viognier grape. A wine carrying the Condrieu name would sadly have blown the budget, but this is the next best thing. This is bigger, richer (and more aromatic) than the Moulin, so comes after it.

Xavier Gérard outside his Condrieu estate,with the vineyards of Côte-Rôtie in the background

4 Domaine Lombard Brézème blanc 2011 – a blend of marsanne, roussanne and a little viognier, all aged in oak. There are plenty of marsanne and roussanne wines made in the Rhône, either as varietal wines or blended together – white Crozes-Hermitage, white St Joseph etc – so there are lots I could have chosen, but this is from an estate just down the road from Saillans. And it’s very good. As the most powerful white it came last. Put the Moulin after it, for example, and although that is a tasty, well-made wine, it would have seemed thin and sharp in comparison. Remember the aim isn’t to prove that one wine is “better” than another – you want to enjoy them all, if possible – rather you’re aiming for a natural progression.

Julien and Emmannuelle Montagnon, the new owners of Domaine Lombard

Most of the reds at this particular tasting were from the southern Rhône and are (it follows) grenache-dominated blends. The one exception was the Crozes-Hermitage, which is from the northern Rhône and (it equally follows) therefore pure syrah. That allowed us to make some general distinctions between northern and southern reds. And by again following a broad progression of lighter to heavier, each one was able to show its own merits:

5 Domaine Beau Mistral Côtes du Rhône rouge 2010 – a really good example of a generic Côtes du Rhône. Lovely in its own right, but it also serves as a good reference point for the more “serious” southern reds that follow. The tasters kept back a little in a separate glass so that they could make side-by-side comparisons.

6 Domaine Betton “Espiègle” Crozes-Hermitage 2010 – the northern interloper. A juicy, fruity example of pure syrah. Espiègle roughly translates as “cheeky”, and that’s what this is. More importantly for my purposes, it tastes totally of northern Rhône syrah and completely different to the other reds here.

Domaine Betton Cuvée Espiègle

7 Domaine La Fourmone “Maître de Chais” Vacqueyras 2007 – a bit weightier than the Crozes, but around the same price and so in theory of a similar standard. Does that theory stand up to tasting? Yes, as it happens. But the extra age of this compared to the previous two allows us to to talk about maturity.

8 Domaine du Terme Gigondas 2009 – a big bruiser from a vintage that itself is hardly on the shy and retiring side. Vacqueyras, the number 7 in our line-up, and Gigondas are two villages only a few kilometres from each other, but their contrasting soils (stony clay/limestone against heavy clay) mean that the wines are quite different. So we can talk about “terroir”.

Anne-Marie Gaudin-Riche, Domaine du Terme

9 Domaine La Boutinière Châteauneuf du Pape 2009 – same vintage and a similar blend to the Gigondas (both are about 80% grenache), but this is clearly different despite the two estates being only twenty minutes drive apart. Thank the terroir again. This is a wine I’ve tasted many times, so I know it will be a fitting finale to the reds.

10 Domaine Beaumalric Muscat de Beaumes de Venise 2011 – we’ve come full circle by finishing with a sweet, white muscat. Except this is rich and unctuous and about twice the alcoholic strength of the Clairette de Die. People often say they don’t like sweet wines, but it’s funny how they all seem to like this.

Beaumalric Muscat de Beaumes de Venise (in fact we tasted the 2011)

This is just an example. Here are a few more:

You could try comparing, say, cabernet sauvignon-based wines from around the world – maybe some Napa Valley or Sonoma cab with a Bordeaux red or two from the Médoc (or better still, from a village like Pauillac or St Julien), plus similar wines from Australia, South Africa and Chile. It’s a formula that’s repeatable with lots of grape varieties – for example, pinot noir from Burgundy, Santa Barbara, Otago, Mornington Peninsula etc etc; riesling from the Rhine and Mosel in Germany, Clare and Eden in Australia, Alsace, Austria and Central Europe; chardonnay from just about the whole winemaking world, and so on.

You can take a region like the Loire Valley, which covers many winemaking appellations, to see if, despite their differences, you can spot a common thread. So perhaps you could taste Muscadet, Vouvray and Pouilly-Fumé for the dry whites; Chinon or Saumur-Champigny for cabernet-franc based reds; pinot noir from Sancerre or Menetou-Salon; gamay or malbec (locally called cot) from Touraine, with a local fizz to start and a sweet Anjou chenin blanc to finish.

Where two regions or countries produces similar styles or grow the same grapes, you could compare and contrast. France and Australia or France and New Zealand both work well (or why not NZ v Oz?).

If you’ve got the money and patience to track down the bottles, maybe a “vertical”  tasting of different vintages from the same estate. (This assumes, of course, that the wines were meant to be aged in the first place. Tasting ten vintages of Yellow Tail chardonnay is unlikely to be edifying or indeed pleasant.)

There’s plenty more scope to experiment, but I think you get the picture. After that, all that’s left is to enjoy the tasting. Oh, and clear up afterwards.



Note: This is Rhône Wine Tours blog where we try, unsuccessfully, to send out a regular stream of interesting articles. We’ll leave you to form a judgement about whether it’s the regularity or the interest that well fall down on. If you’d like to see more then there are plenty more blogs and a rather tasty website – www.RhoneWineTours.com – where there are a  more suggestions for tastings and tours (but where I do all the hard work).


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