The Other Rhône

Think of the Rhône’s vineyards and you think of Côtes du Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Hermitage, maybe Ventoux or Nîmes. But there are other wine regions bordering the river that are less well known, and not all of them are even in France.

Coteaux des Baronnies

The village of Sainte Jalle. Home of Domaine du Rieu Frais.

The Rieu Frais vineyards at the end of August

Almost in my back yard (if I had one), there are the vineyards of the Baronnies hills. The hills form the north eastern boundary of the Côtes du Rhône region and, unsurprisingly, the vineyards are at a higher altitude than their CdR neighbours. Heat-loving varieties like grenache and mourvedre can struggle for ripeness with the slightly cooler temperatures, but white grapes and “Bordeaux” reds thrive, allowing winemakers like Jean-Yves and Alexandre Liotaud at Domaine du Rieu Frais to produce great chardonnay and, especially, viognier and brilliant reds from cabernet sauvignon (the 2007 is delicious right now) and merlot. And the scenery around their home village of Ste. Jalle is stunning.

Alexandre Liotaud

Domaine du Rieu Frais Viognier 2010, IGP Coteaux des Baronnies

Rich and powerful, with the full range of viognier apricot/peach fruit. There’s still a welcome thread of acidity that comes from having vineyards at around 600m (a little under 2000 ft). I don’t know a viognier that gives you more for your money – around 7,60€ locally.

The barrel cellar at Rieu Frais

I can’t find anything available in the USA from the Baronnies hills. In the UK, Waitrose sells a grenache-based Coteaux des Baronnies red for £6.29, but that appears to be it in terms of what’s available. I can’t speak for the UK wine, but I know the maker, Cellier des Dauphins, and the Baronnies red they sell under their own name here in France is fairly dull stuff. Any feedback from UK readers would be welcome.

I seem to remember that The Winery in London’s Maida Vale used to sell the wines from Domaine La Rosière, run by a different branch of the Liotaud family. And I recently saw the Winery’s van parked outside the Baronnies-producing Roche Buissiere estate in the village of Faucon (they make a superb, 90% syrah CdR called Gaïa too). I can’t see any mention of either on The Winery’s website, but if you’re in the area it’s a nice shop to visit in any case with a great German wine range.

Clairette-de-Die

The tower that dominates the town of Crest in the Drôme valley.

Further north, in the Drôme valley, are the Clairette-de-Die vineyards. Producers there grow muscat and clairette grapes to make a light, 7-8% alcohol, frothy, aromatic sweet wine. (Despite the wine’s name, the clairette grape, if it is included at all, only makes up a minor part of the finished blend) . I think, and lots agree, ex-Bollinger man Frédéric Raspail at Domaine J-C Raspail is the best winemaker.

Around here, you can pick up a bottle of decent supermarket own-label Clairette for around 5€. But Fred’s wine isn’t much more expensive and it’s worth spending the extra.

Domaine Jean-Claude Raspail Clairette-de-Die Tradition n.v.

I don’t care what you think you think about sweet wines, good Clairette-de-Die is a revelation. It smells like elderflowers and makes a refreshing restorative at any time of day. However, it’s the intensity and balance of Fred’s wines that set them apart. Is it connected to the fact that he is one of the last producers to turn the maturing wine by hand? The best thing with cake. And tarts. And puddings. Around 8€ locally.

The "pupitres" or racks used for riddling the Raspail Clairette-de-Die by hand

And as if to prove a point - Frédéric Raspail turning bottles. Sorry the quality isn't great - it was pretty dark down in the cellars.

Lucky Californians can buy Fred’s Clairette-de-Die at Woodland Hills Wine in Los Angeles ($15.99 exc. tax) and Blackwell’s Wines and Spirits in SF ($18 exc. tax). Elsewhere in America it tends to be the Clairette made by the more-than-competent Jaillance co-operative that you come across when you can find any at all, although K&L and Solano Cellars (both CA) and Yapp in the UK sell Achard-Vincent‘s very good wine (the English translation on Achard-Vincent’s website isn’t quite so tip-top). And talking of more obscure Rhône wines, Yapp also sells rather delicious Brézemes of Domaine Lombard. More on those soon…

You can visit both the Liotauds and Frédéric Raspail through Rhône Wine Toursclick for the link. Both are certified organic, by the way.

Coteaux du Lyonnais

Skipping past the Vivarais region in the Ardèche (basically CdR in a lighter style), its equally easy to miss Lyon’s own vineyards, the Coteaux du Lyonnais. Driving north along the A7 to Lyon, you might think that the vines stop at the steep slopes of Ampuis (Côte-Rôtie). But further back from the river and the autoroute, starting in the gently rolling hills around Givors and sweeping around the western flank of Lyon, there are growers nuturing black grapes, except here it’s gamay not syrah. A lot of the wine is, frankly, pretty mediocre sub-Beaujolais, but there are some good producers and I want to mention one in particular.

Guillaume Clusel's Cuvée Galet

When I visited Domaine Clusel-Roch last autumn I tasted (and bought – ye gods, the price!) the supremely stylish Côte-Rôties of Brigitte Roch and Gilbert Clusel. But Brigitte also poured two cuvées of red Coteaux du Lyonnais made by her son, Guillaume. These are gamays made from low, concentrated yields (as little as 20hl/ha – or about half that of a serious claret) with plenty of skin maceration and traditional long fermentations. In other words, proper wine. Not big, not brawny, but taut, sinewy, mineral and, more to the point, delicious.

Guillaume Clusel “Traboules” 2010, Coteaux du Lyonnais

Traboules comes from two specific vineyards – Rochipel and Coutois – in the village of Millery, where the soils are formed of glacial debris. It is 100% gamay, but you’d be forgiven for thinking Rhône syrah rather than northern neighbour Beaujolais. Red fruits (cherry) and a slight floral touch. At around 7,50€ it’s a steal.

Guillaume Clusel “Galet” 2010, Coteaux du Lyonnais

Galet comes from older vines in the La Petite Gallée vineyard, also in Millery, and spends a year in previously used oak barrels. Côte-Rôtie methods are used with a month-long maceration/fermentation, “remontage” and “pigeage” (ways of mixing the grape skins with the fermenting juice to extract more colour, weight, tannins etc). All this shows in extra flesh and richness (it’s still sinewy though) and black, not red, fruit flavours. It’s just 12€ locally, but less than 2,000 bottles were made so stocks are tight.

"Remontage" - taking the fermeneting wine from under the cap of grape skins and pumping it over the top. This photo, by the way, was taken at Domaine Beau Mistral in Rasteau.

US readers are relatively fortunate: The Wine Exchange in Orange, CA and Blackwell’s in San Francisco are currently selling Traboules, Slope Cellars in Brooklyn has Galet.

You can buy Clusel-Roch’s Côte-Rôties and Condrieu at various upmarket London wine merchants but not, as far as I can tell, the Lyonnais.

Onwards and upwards (at least topographically)

But the Rhône doesn’t end in Lyon either. From there,  the river flows through the sub-alpine vineyards of Savoie. (They really need a blog of their own, but in passing I’d suggest you look out for the Chignin-Bergeron made by André & Michel Quenard as its one of the loveliest expressions of roussanne that I know.) Finally, the Rhône crosses the Swiss border in the suburbs of Geneva.

Having recently come back from Geneva and having drunk probably more Genevois (Genevan?) wine than anybody who doesn’t live there (and quite a few who do) I hope I’m qualified enough to pass on my thoughts. I wouldn’t call myself an expert, but until one comes along I suppose I’ll do. That, however, is for Part 2.

Santé

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours, where I write far too much about food and wine subjects that frequently interest only me (chatus grape anyone?). If that hasn’t put you off already, you can read more by going to our website, www.RhoneWineTours.com. If you have any suggestions for future blogs, please get in touch.

Comments are closed.