Tasting in Tain – Part 1

March 12th, 2014

The annual Tain l’Hermitage wine fair is a chance for the local Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage winemakers to get together in force, but there are plenty of brave interlopers from the other northern Rhône appellations. And me, of course.

The vineyards of Hermitage rise up behind Tain.

The vineyards of Hermitage rise up behind Tain.

Many estates had their newly released 2012 reds on show and, tasting across all the regions both in Tain and at Vinisud (more on that monster tasting in a future blog), it strikes me that although they certainly haven’t got the size or concentration of the ’09s and ’10s, the last two great vintages, they share many similarities with the bright, fruity 2011s, albeit in a chunkier, more tannic form.

The best 2012s are delicious, the flavours clear and pure. The worst are under-ripe, green and stalky, tasting hollow and under-nourished. The same happened in 2011, but the higher tannins in the ’12s only exaggerate any under-ripeness.  As usual, the good winemakers made good wine and the poor winemakers struggle whatever the vintage.

There are a lot of lovely white 2012s already on the market, where the typical Rhône weight and richness meets just enough crisp acidity, and some producers were showing pre-bottling samples of their 2013s, which promise a similar style. The buying public has already discovered viognier, from the Rhône and elsewhere, but St. Péray, white Crozes-Hermitage and St. Joseph, and Brézème for that matter, show just how good affordable marsanne-based wines can be. (Barely affordable white Hermitage is in another league.) The lighter styles work well drunk by themselves, the fuller, oaked wines are great with food – nothing is better with a buttery roast-chicken.

The tasting notes below only deal with the “southern” estates – Condrieu, Côte-Rôtie and the northern sector of St. Joseph will be covered by Part 2. And there are omissions. In a few hours I could only scratch the surface, so there were plenty of estates whose wines I didn’t get to try. And some famous names like Chave and Graillot weren’t at the fair. So if you don’t see a familiar name, don’t think it’s because I didn’t like the wine.

Finally, I apologise in advance for the quality of the indoor pictures. The light inside the tasting room is dim and yellow, meaning slow shutter speeds and lots of blurred images. Where necessary I’ve cheated with an old photo.

So bearing all that in mind, here’s a far from comprehensive run-down of what’s going to be worth buying (or not) in the order that I tasted them.

Domaine Betton

Christelle Betton

Christelle Betton

I’ll admit right now that I’m biased. I work with Christelle Betton and I love her wines. At this stage, the Crozes-Hermitage “Espiègle” 2012 is a touch more serious, a shade less obviously fruity than the ’11, but that’s only relative – Christelle’s aim is always to play up the fruit and soft tannins in her young-vine cuvée. The 2012 vintage of her old-vine cuvée, Caprice”, is the best I have tasted. Its summer berry fruit is so pure, so vibrant, the wine is a joy to drink.

The white Crozes, “Cristal” 2013, is essentially pure marsanne aged in a mixture of oak barrels and stainless steel tanks. The wine hasn’t been bottled yet, but the sample I tasted mixed flavours of ripe apple and patisserie. Her white Hermitage, Arpège 2011″, gets more barrel ageing – everything, all 600 bottles worth, goes into barrel and stays there longer. Its flavours are similar but in a more concentrated, weightier form. There’s spice from the oak ageing, almond and a mineral streak. Very good now, but it will be even better with some extra ageing.

Christelle Betton’s wines are available at Theatre of Wine in London and should soon be available in the USA. I’ll keep you informed.

Domaine Lombard par Montagnon.

Julien Montagnon (centre)

Julien Montagnon (centre)

Julien Montagnon is the best winemaker in the small appellation of Brézème and I’ve often written about those particular delicious reds and whites (now being made biodynamically). This year though I wanted to concentrate on his new range of Crozes-Hermitage and Hermitage.

The Crozes-Hermitage Blanc 2012 is 100% marsanne with no oak ageing.  A fresh style with the smell of spring blossom. The palate is clean and bright, tasting of apple compote. The Hermitage Blanc 2012 comes from one of Hermitage’s greatest vineyards, Le Méal. The small amount made was aged in a “demi-muid”, a larger barrel size that allows the wine to breathe but stops the oak from dominating the flavour. This is lovely. The smell is of apple pie (Mr. Kipling’s to be precise, for the British readers) and crème anglaise, the oak more pronounced on the palate than the nose. Great balance. It is intense without being massive.

The Crozes-Hermitage Rouge 2012 sees no oak and comes from a mixture of de-stemmed and whole bunches. It has clear, bright, almost crunchy fruit, with the flavours of damsons and sloes. The Hermitage Rouge 2012 is in a similar style, but a real step up (after all, it is roughly 3 times more expensive at the cellar door). Like the white, it is pure Le Méal fruit. As you’d expect, the flavours are riper, more concentrated, than the Crozes red although the alcohol is the same 12.5°. There’s lots of black fruit, especially bramble, and the wine feels alive and vibrant. It’s very impressive, but one to put away for three or four years at least.

Yapp in the UK lists a couple of Domaine Lombard’s 2010 red Brézème wines as well as the 2012 white, one of my favourite wines of last year.

Domaine Habrard

Laurent Habrard

Laurent Habrard

Laurent Habrard’s organic Crozes-Hermitage Rouge 2012 is in a softer style than Lombard’s with a touch of chocolate, although it’s still bright and juicy. The St. Joseph Rouge 2012 has higher acidity and tighter tannins. At this stage in its life, it feels a bit grumpy. Come back in six months.

Lincoln Fine Wines in Venice, CA and Le Du’s in New York have the 2009 vintage of the red Crozes-Hermitage and white Hermitage respectively.

Domaine Johann Michel

Johann and Emmanuelle Michel

Johann and Emmanuelle Michel (taken 2013)

Johann’s wines are always worth waiting for, I just wish I didn’t have to wait as long for his emails. His Cornas 2012 is beautifully put together. Young and dark, it has juicy raspberry and plum fruit, a silky texture and great length. Anyone who still thinks Cornas is the rustic cousin of Hermitage or a Côte-Rôtie should think again.

I believe Johann’s wines are available from Flint Wines in the UK (although they’re not listed on the Flint website) and Uncorked in London has Johann’s delicious “Grain Noir” Syrah 2011. Wine Exchange in Orange, CA, Timeless Wines in Winchester, VA and MacArthur Beverages in DC all have a good range of Johann’s wines.

Gilles Bied

This estate has vineyards in the southern sector of St. Joseph and in Hermitage. They were only showing older vintages. The St. Joseph Rouge 2007 was browning in colour and tired out. Very rustic. I didn’t taste the Hermitage 2006, but I hope it was better because there are plenty of talented Crozes winemakers out there who would kill to get their hands on land in Hermitage.

Domaine JC and N Fayolle

JC & N Fayolle

JC & N Fayolle

I tasted here more out of hope than expectation. There are three branches of the Fayolle family in the small village of Gervans, all making Crozes-Hermitage and Hermitage. And it seems from repeated tastings that none of them do it terribly well. I only tasted the “La Rochette” Crozes-Hermitage Rouge 2011 and I will quote directly from my tasting notes: “Smells stalky and unripe. No – it is stalky and unripe. Disappointing.”

Domaine des Martinelles

This estate is run by another branch of the Fayolle clan. Their more basic Crozes-Hermitage Rouge 2012 has an easy-going, simple style with not much to say for itself. The local co-operative does something similar at a lower price. The Hermitage Rouge 2009 was big, dense and dark, but clunky and clumsy. It is still young, but I suspect it will never have any finesse or lift.

Mickaël Bourg

Mika Bourg

Mika Bourg

Mika’s St. Péray 2012 is 100% marsanne aged in a mixture of oak (grapes from very old vines on granite soils) and tank (young vines on limestone). Delicious. The ’12 has greater breadth and spice than the ’11, but keeps its juiciness and minerality. A hint of marsanne’s almond-like bitterness adds complexity and interest. This is the sort of roast chicken wine I was talking about.

A vin de table, “La Démarrante” 2012 comes from young syrah vines within the Cornas appellation. Despite its lowly status, it is, frankly, better than most reds I tasted that day. Fresh and vital, there’s a bit of graininess and ripe raspberry and cherry fruit. And it’s only 8€ (£6.50ish, roughly 10$). An absolute bargain. The vrai Cornas, “Les P’tits Bouts” 2012, had been bottled only days before and Mika was apologising for it being a bit shaken up. Unnecessarily, as it happens. It has certainly closed up between barrel and bottle and it needs a bit of time to relax, but it’s clearly concentrated and powerful without being unduly heavy. I know from tasting a barrel-sample that it’s going to be very good indeed.

Mika’s wines are available in the USA from WineMC². They’re based in New York but deliver. I can’t believe that no-one in the UK has picked up on him.

Cave Babics/Luyton

Michele Luyton

Michele Luyton

I was told that the estate has just over 1ha (2½ acres) in one of Hermitage’s greatest vineyards, Les Bessards (although I read later that the plot is actually at the foot of that slope, which is a slightly different thing).

The Hermitage Blanc 2011 comes from a small patch of limestone. It’s a restrained style with a typical marsanne soft, low acid palate. Pleasant without scaling any heights. The Hermitage Rouge 2011 comes from granite soils. It’s not super-powerful, but it’s decently constructed and preferable to anything from the various Fayolles. There’s some weight and plumpness and dark berry fruit. And the price, 28€ locally, is very reasonable for a red Hermitage.

The St. Joseph 2012 has a warmer, softer feel than St. Jo’s from further north in the appellation. The plump fruit (again) helps cover the tannins.

Lucie Fourel

Lucie Fourel

Lucie Fourel

Lucie’s parents belonged to a local co-operative and Lucie worked at top Côte-Rôtie estate Clusel-Roch before going her own, organic way. This is a very classy range of wines.“Les Pitchounettes” Crozes-Hermitage 2012 comes from younger syrah vines and is aged 50:50 in tank and barrel, in this case larger demi-muids of 5 years+. Masses of juicy red berry/cherry fruit, but no lack of depth.

Three more red Crozes were on show: “L’Insoumise” 2011 spent 18 months in demi-muids. The vines are around 30 years old and the vineyard is stony. It’s fuller than, but similar in style to, Pitchounettes – juicy, spicy, peppery. Les Saviaux 2012 comes from a vineyard covered in round stones (galets roulés) similar to those at Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It spends six months in barrels and six months in tanks before being bottled, but here the bunches are fermented whole, with no de-stemming. It’s more closed than Insoumise and needs a year or so before it’ll be ready to drink. Black fruits mix with more medicinal tones (germolene, menthol) before pepper and spice kick in again. Finally, Aux Racines de St. James 2012 is from old vines – average 50 years – planted in sandier soils nearer the river. Again, whole bunches of syrah, stems and all, were fermented and the wine then spent a year in demi-muids before being bottled unfined and unfiltered. You’ll need to wait a little while to get it at its best, but even now the fruit is lovely, with an incredibly more-ish morello cherry character.

Lucie’s wines are available at Vinoteca in London and are worth looking out for. Lucie said that you could also try Carte Blanche Wines in Hampshire. Wine Traditions in Virginia is her USA agent and they ship around the country.

Jacques Lemenicier

Jacques Lemencier

Jacques Lemencier (taken 2013)

I always like Jacques’ whites. The St.Péray Traditionelle 2013 is an unoaked blend of 90% marsanne and 10% roussanne. It has a similar feel to the 2012 – imagine a clear mountain stream (forgive the pretentiousness) and the purity that suggests. The palate mixes frangipane with French apple tart flavours.

Many of Jacques’ Cornas vines are at relatively high altitude, which shows in the house style – his red isn’t the biggest, but it has real elegance. The Cornas 2012 has a bright, cherry and mulberry fruit style and a silky texture. Good length too.

Quaff Fine Wine in Brighton is listing Jacques’ Cornas 2009, a great, fuller-bodied vintage which should be hitting its stride about now.

Summary

In short, 2012 is a classic rather than superlative northern Rhône vintage with good, sometimes very good, wines available from all the appellations.

The whites, already generally available, are especially good, particularly the marsanne-based whites of St. Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage and St. Péray, which can tip over into heaviness in riper years. The reds are more patchy, although on this evidence Cornas seems particularly successful. But stick with the right producers and there are good things everywhere.

In Part 2 we’ll look at Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie, as well as the northern end of St. Joseph. In the meantime, happy hunting and santé.

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. Be brave, Part 2 should be a little shorter. And there are plenty of other pieces, so why not take a browse. You can also like us on Facebook. Even better, cut straight to chase and book yourself a fantastic wine tour or private tasting by going to www.RhoneWineTours.com. Then you too can get to meet the winemakers.

 

 

 

 

Chateau Chadwick or Teaching the French How To Make Wine

February 27th, 2014

I know I spend a lot of time talking about other people’s winemaking skills, but it’s not as if I’m ignorant in the matter; though I say it myself, I have form on the vigneron front. And to prove the point, last weekend I opened the very last bottle of “Chadwick Road”, named in honour of the south east London address where I lived for 12 years and where I planted my first pinot noir vine.

The last bottle of Chateau Chadwick

The last bottle of Chateau Chadwick. The glass is clear – the wine really was that colour.

A couple of years after that first back garden pinot, I planted another black grape vine – sold to me simply as a “teinturier” – and then a “cardinal” vine on my little organic allotment in Brixton, which in turn was joined by three more pinot noir vines that had started out as cuttings from the original.

Cardinal grapes in the process of changing colour.

Cardinal grapes in the process of changing colour, although they will always be red rather than black.

If you do the maths you’ll see that that comes to a total of just six vines. And although that made me one of London’s largest vineyard owners at that time – there wasn’t exactly a lot of competition –  it didn’t make a lot of wine. So each year I padded out my meagre haul with black muscat grapes I bought in Borough Market, which I accept didn’t do a lot for either the self-sufficiency or economic arguments for making my own wine. If you were picky, you could also point out that black muscat is a table grape, not a wine variety. But that’s ok – the cardinal grapes I was growing on the allotment would have been eaten not drunk in their native California, so the two were in good company. (You know, beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to buying vines at a UK garden centre.)

Teinturier grapes grown in a London garden.

Teinturier grapes grown in a London garden.

Despite all that, I didn’t always have enough grapes to make wine. So in 2008 I stuffed my bountiful harvest in the freezer and waited until late September 2009, when I was ready to pick the next lot of grapes. Then everything got pressed with a potato masher and fermented together – hence the bottle of “2008/9” in the photo. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with blending different vintages together, indeed Krug is very proud of its “multi-vintage” champagnes. Although I’m fairly sure they don’t store their grapes behind the fish fingers.

Fermentation was “en plastique”, as they say in France, and once the colour looked about right I drained the juice off the skins and carried on letting the wine slowly bubble away in a glass demijohn. Once the bubbling stopped, the wine was siphoned into a new demijohn, sealed and left to mature for a year before I put it in old (but clean!) screwcap wine and mineral water bottles. I didn’t use chemical treatments at any stage – not on the vines, not in the wine – although that probably wasn’t true for the bought-in muscat. And without adding sulpur, the only way I could think of to stop the wine oxidising was to fill the bottles right to the very brim so that there was no air in them and then screw on the top as tightly as I could. Scientific it ain’t.

Did I mention that the wine wasn't filtered

Did I mention that the wine wasn’t filtered?

And do you know what? Last Saturday, after four years of patient maturing, it was terrible. No, I’m joking. It really wasn’t that awful. None of us died, at least. The colour was still surprisingly deep – that’s the teinturier grapes for you (teinturier means “dyer” in French) – and there was a youthful little prickle of gas on the palate. It was even fruity, which I suspect came from the muscat more than anything else – it certainly had some of the flavour of the muscat grape juice that I can buy here in France. It didn’t clash horribly with a roast chicken. What more could you want? Admittedly I had one glass and moved on to a local viognier. But still, never let it be said that this boy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Santé

Paul

Note: this is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours, where we lead by example. There are plenty of pieces about other people’s wines in the archive, on the website, www.RhôneWineTours.com, and on our Facebook page.

 

Happy Birthday Nyons Olives, Happy Birthday to You

February 11th, 2014
A view over Nyons, with an olive tree in the immediate foreground and the silver-green leaves of the tops of further olive trees at the bottom of the picture.

A view over Nyons, with olive trees in the foreground.

Why Happy Birthday? After all, I’d be lying if I said I could pin down the date when the first olive trees were planted in Nyons. Nobody’s quite sure – perhaps it was the Greeks who introduced them over 2,000 years ago? If not the Greeks, then the Romans. But one thing’s for certain, 2014 marks several milestones:

Birthday No. 1: 20 years ago Nyons olives and olive oil were the first in France to be given “appellation d’origine contrôlée” status. Like the system used for French wine, the “AOC” recognises the special qualities of Nyons oil (“Unique in All the World”, as the local signs say) and the tanche variety used to make it.

In the olive groves above Nyons. This photo was taken in late October when this tree held a mixture of unripe green olives and some that had already turned purple and black.

October in the olive groves above Nyons. The olives (some still green) are two months away from being harvested.

Nyons olives sold loose in the market.

Prepared Nyons olives being sold in the market.

The olives are picked when black and fully ripe, after they’ve been softened and wrinkled by the first frosts, usually around New Year. The bigger olives are sold for eating; the late harvest helps to remove any bitterness, making them rich and savoury, with soft flesh underneath a firm skin – perfect as an aperitif. The smaller olives are pressed to make an Extra Virgin oil which is noticeably rounder and mellower than many other premium oils with their more peppery bite.

Oil from one of the many independent producers.

Oil from one of the small independent producers. Nyons oil is soft and buttery with a mild grassiness.

Sadly, as in all things, premium means expensive: you can expect to pay around 17€ per litre if you buy Nyons olive oil directly from a grower, but I’ve seen it advertised at 23$ for a bottle one quarter that size (250 ml, roughly 8½ fl.oz) in America. But then it’s an oil to be brought out for special occasions, not used to fry potatoes (although boy would they be good).

The growing of Nyons olives is dominated by small-scale farmers and local residents, many with just a few trees in their garden, most of whom are members the 1,100-member-strong growers’ co-operative, Vignolis, which takes its members’ crop and brines it whole for eating or crushes it for oil. The rest of the harvest is shared between the numerous private producers.

In the co-operative. The olives are kept in these stacked containers...

In the Vignolis co-operative. The olives are kept in these stacked containers…

...while the oil is kept in these spotless stainless steel tanks.

…while the oil is kept in these spotless stainless steel tanks.

There are 230,000 olive trees within the Nyons appellation. That may sound a lot, but the amount of oil made is still a drop in the ocean compared to some other parts of France, never mind Spain, which produces of 40% of the world’s olive oil.

Birthday No. 2: 30 years ago Nyons held its first annual “Alicoque” festival to celebrate the release of the new season’s olive oil.

Dancing in traditional local costumes.

Dancing at the Alicoque in traditional local costumes.

“Alicoque” comes from the name of  the traditional post-harvest supper taken by the pickers and oil mill workers. The festival, which takes place in late January/early February each year,  is a chance to taste the brand new oil poured onto a garlic-rubbed crouton but, almost as importantly, it’s also a chance to parade around the town in costume. Talking of which…

Birthday No. 3: 50 years ago the Confrérie des Chevaliers de l’Olivier (“Brotherhood of the Knights of the Olive Tree”) was formed.

The French love the chance to dress up. These are the Knights of the Olive Tree,

The French love to dress up – the Knights of the Olive Tree

There’s a certain type of French person (or should that be French man?) that loves an opportunity for a bit of dressing-up, but the Brotherhood was created with a more serious purpose in mind:

Nyons is on the climactic limit for commercially growing olives – any further north and they won’t ripen successfully, consistently. The long growing season this gives is part of what makes Nyons olives and oil so special. But being (relatively) far north has its disadvantages – the devastating winter freezes of 1929 and especially 1956 killed around three quarters of  Nyons’ 1 million olive trees and many growers contemplated pulling up those that had survived in order to plant hardier vines or fruit trees, particularly apricots. The Brotherhood brought together growers and helped to protect the local industry while it got back on its feet.

Selling oil on Alicoque day.

Selling oil on Alicoque day.

Obviously the best way to celebrate these anniversaries is by coming to Nyons and buying your olives and olive oil straight from the producer, perhaps taking the opportunity to sit outside a bar, nibble your delicious olives and sip a glass of chilled Côtes-du-Rhône rosé made in the vineyards that surround the town. But if that’s not possible, here are some stockists who may be a little more local:

You can buy Nyons oil and olives in America. Googling “Nyons olive oil” will do the trick, but you could start with Todaro Bros. in NYC – www.todarobros.com – who are currently selling 1 lb of olives for a very reasonable $6.98. From what I’ve seen, most of the oil available in the USA comes from the Vignolis co-operative and you can spot it by the “NYONSOLIVE” label. Prices vary significantly, so shop around. A few places sell Domaine Rocheville’s independently made oil.

It’s harder to track down either the oil or the olives in the UK. Neal’s Yard in Borough Market certainly used to sell the olives. The Ham and Cheese & Company, again at Borough market, but also www.thehamandcheeseco.com, recently mentioned Nyons olives on their Facebook page. You could also try The Fresh Olive Company – www.fresholive.com.

Wherever you are, happy hunting. And Happy Birthday.

Santé

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. Can’t see any mention of wine? Try some of the older blogs, or our photo-filled Facebook page. Can’t see any mention of tours? You need our website – www. RhoneWineTours.com. We even have a winemaker who makes organic olive oil – two for the price of one!

 

 

 

 

Rhône Grapes Part 2 – White Wines

February 2nd, 2014

Part 1 of this blog was all about the grapes used to make the Rhône Valley’s red and rosé wines (follow this link if you missed it), so it doesn’t take a genius to work out that part 2 is all about the region’s white grapes.

It’s fair to say that the Rhône’s reds are better known than the whites – hardly surprising when red wine production dwarfs that of white wine – and that applies equally to the grapes that go into them. Most wine drinkers will know about syrah (although, for anglophones, perhaps more often under its Australian name, shiraz); some will know grenache and mourvèdre; others will know the blend of all three by its common abbreviation, “GSM”. But viognier aside, it’s likely that most people couldn’t name a single one of the white grapes.

So let’s start there:

Viognier

Viognier

Viognier may be the best known of all of the Rhône’s white grape varieties, but as recently as 50 years ago it was almost extinct. Only 14ha (35 acres) of vines were left in the whole world and they were all planted on the steep slopes around the village of Condrieu and neighbouring Ampuis. From that low point, the grape spread slowly at first, starting with the (very) gradual replanting of old, abandoned Condrieu vineyards, before a boom started in the 1980s when winemakers elsewhere began to discover how good viognier wine could be. It’s now grown all around the world and French plantings alone are roughly 300 times greater than they were.

Viognier’s origins have been debated for a long time, including suggestions that it was carried from the Dalmatian coast by Emperor Probus. But as with syrah, DNA testing has shown that one of viognier’s parents is mondeuse blanche, a variety now grown nowhere but the Savoie and Isère regions of France. So south east France, maybe even Condrieu itself, seems a more likely home.

Viognier is a difficult grape, being both susceptible to disease and requiring a fine balancing act on the part of the winemaker. Pick the grapes too late, sometimes by only a matter of a few days, and all-important acidity can disappear, leaving the wine feeling oily and fat. (Someone once described over-ripe viognier to me as tasting like a gin and tonic in wine form.) But pick early to preserve freshness or, even worse, allow the vines to produce an abundant crop, and the wine can end up bland. And bold flavours really should be viognier’s trump card – even at its shyest it will mix ripe pear with a whiff of spring flowers, but more often you’ll find apricots, musk, lychees, even parma violets. Despite that, almost all viognier wines are dry.

Although there are excellent examples in the southern Rhône, northern viognier is more highly regarded as the best wines have a firm core to balance the richness. None, though, are long term keepers. Even the best viognier, by which I mean the best Condrieu, loses a lot of its appeal after 4 or 5 years.

Marsanne growing at Hermitage.

Marsanne growing at Hermitage.

Marsanne is another grape variety closely associated with the northern Rhône. And apart from some plantings in Australia, most notably at the Tahbilk estate in Victoria, it has generally not travelled far from its presumed home, the village of Marsanne a few kilometres from Montélimar. It’s the most commonly planted white grape in the vineyards of Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Saint Péray and Saint Joseph – all reachable within 20 minutes drive of  one of the northern Rhone’s main towns, Valence – but hardly anywhere else. In those few places, even when it’s blended with roussanne (see below), it tends to be the dominant partner.

Like viognier, marsanne is a low acid grape. However, its flavour profile is less exotic. Ripe apple and almond are frequent descriptions, with the wines turning more obviously nutty and honeyed as they age, even though they stay dry. And unlike viognier, marsanne wine can age – stored properly, a good white Hermitage can easily live for a decade or two, sometimes longer, although don’t expect a Crozes or St. Péray to last as well.

Marsanne is rarely encountered in the southern Rhône, although it is permitted in Côtes du Rhône blanc.

Roussanne has traditionally been marsanne’s blending partner in the northern Rhône, where it’s allowed in all the same appellations. It tends to be a little less “fat”, having slightly higher acidity levels and aromas that, while not as flamboyant as viognier, are both finer and more pronounced than marsanne. Spring flowers are sometimes suggested.

DNA testing strongly suggests a parent-offspring relationship with marsanne, meaning one developed from the other. In that case, it’s likely that roussanne also originated in or near the Rhône Valley.

Unlike marsanne, roussanne is on the list of permitted varieties in Châteauneuf du Pape, which at least makes it a bit more visible in the south.

Grenache Blanc

Grenache Blanc

Grenache Blanc is a colour mutation of grenache noir, with the same DNA structure, qualities and (sometimes) failings.

Within the Rhône Valley, grenache blanc appears only in the south where it produces full-bodied whites, usually more notable for their rich texture than their pronounced flavour. The wines are low in acidity and can oxidise quickly. So to help ageing and balance, it’s normally blended with a compatible partner – some of the best white Chateauneuf du Pape show what such a blend is capable of: a rich texture, flavours that mix ripe green plum with apricot and lemon, and a surprising ability to age.

Clairette. Not to be confused with claret, the British name for red Bordeaux.

Clairette. Not to be confused with claret, the British name for red Bordeaux.

Clairette has traditionally been one of grenache’s partners, lending acidity and so a crisp edge to grenache blanc-based wine. It probably first appeared in France, although there do seem to be some genetic links to a number of Italian varieties.

Clairette appears in many of the white blends, from Côtes du Rhône upwards, but it only takes centre stage in the valley of the Drôme, the Rhône tributary that flows down from the alpine foothills to the east. There, between the towns of Crest and Luc-en-Diois, clairette is used to make the dry sparkling wines, Clairette de Die Brut and Crémant de Die.

Bourboulenc

Bourboulenc

Bourboulenc is another grape frequently encountered in southern Rhône blends, where producers value its citrus flavours and acidity. It’s found all along the French mediterranean coast, but possibly originated in the Vaucluse region: there is an old vineyard called Barbolenquiera in Aubignan, not far from Avignon.

Domaine de Durban - one of the best muscats.

Domaine de Durban ‘s Muscat de Beaumes de Venise (left)

Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains (small-berried white muscat) is grown around the village of Beaumes de Venise to make a sweet, fortified wine that smells of some or all of the following: elderflower, orange peel, honey and apricots. It goes particularly well with fruit tarts, although the locals in the southern Rhône also like it as an aperitif and with foie gras. Muscat is also the main grape (75% minimum) in the delicious, gently sweet version of sparkling Clairette de Die. (Yes, obviously it’s slightly confusing that a wine called Clairette de Die has no more than 25% clairette in the blend.)

It’s an ancient variety that has been grown around the Mediterranean basin for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years, but its genetic relationship with a large number of Greek and Italian varieties suggest one of those two as its original home.

Picpoul (or Piquepoul) Blanc is a colour mutation of picpoul noir and is also likely to have originated in the Vaucluse, where most of the earliest written references appear. It’s another in the list of higher acid grapes used to balance grenache blanc. One of its few varietal appearances is as bone dry Picpoul de Pinet, a wine made near Sète, on the Med. coast. It has become increasingly sought after in the UK over the last few years, performing a very similar job to Loire Valley muscadet, which is generally cheaper but completely out of fashion.

You can find traces of other white varieties in the Rhône: ugni blanc is allowed in Côtes du Rhône blends and chardonnay is grown to make vin de pays wines, particularly in the cooler Ardèche and Drôme hills. But I can safely say that if it’s not listed here, you don’t need to know about it.

Santé

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours, our opportunity to spread the word about, well, the Rhône Valley and wine. We try not to force the tours bit down your throat; there’s a perfectly good website for that – www.rhonewinetours.com
The website also tries its best to sell our rather fabulous wine tastings, too. Ten different wines for up to ten people from only 120€, including delicious local cheeses and charcuterie. That’s just 12€ per head! 1,20€ per wine per head!

Well, I only said we don’t try to push the tours here.

PS. All photos are ours. I don’t mind you using them if you ask first.

 

Rhône Grapes Part 1 – Red and Rose Wines

January 27th, 2014

French winemakers have a strongly-held belief that “terroir” plays a big part in a wine’s flavour; a belief that complex and subtle combinations of climate, microclimate, geology and geography can make the difference between a simple Bourgogne Rouge and a grand cru La Tâche in Burgundy or between a generic Côtes-du-Rhône and a Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the southern Rhône. I’d absolutely agree with them, but at the same time there’s equally no doubt that the grape varieties used to make wines have a major impact on the way they taste. Part of the reason a Bourgogne Rouge and a red Côtes du Rhône taste different is that one is made with pinot noir while the other is a blend based around the grenache grape.

I’ll come back to the idea of terroir at a later date. For now, I’ll stick to describing the main Rhône Valley grape varieties and how they influence the flavour of the wine in your glass. The descriptions and photos are all my own (and please ask permission if you’re going to use the photos), but the history bits owe a debt to Jancis Robinson’s magnificent “Wine Grapes”. Part 1 is all about the grapes that go into the reds and rosés.

Red wines

Grenache Noir

Grenache Noir

Grenache noir forms the basis of all southern Rhône reds, from Côtes-du-Rhône to Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It’s even used to make a port-style fortified wine in the village of Rasteau.

Its skin has less colouring pigmentation than, say, cabernet sauvignon or syrah (with which it’s frequently blended), so grenache-based wines are also less deeply coloured. But don’t assume that means they are lightweight. Although grenache can be persuaded to make Beaujolais nouveau style “primeur” wines, it’s a heat-loving grape that can reach very high sugar levels, meaning that many southern Rhône wines are around 14-15° once all that sugar has been converted into alcohol. The best hide the alcohol well while remaining warm, round and hearty. Flavours tend to be in the red-fruit spectrum – red cherry, even strawberry, with some spiciness.

It’s most likely that the grape originated Spain, where it is called garnacha or garnatxa, although Sardinians, who call it cannonau, claim their island is its home.

(Note: As rather a long aside, it may be useful at this point  to explain what I mean by a grape’s home. I’m talking about the place where that particular variety first appeared, often as a result of the natural cross-fertilisation of two other distinct grape varieties. This isn’t always easy to establish – many grape varieties have existed for centuries, if not thousands of years, and have migrated from their original base, although the advent of DNA testing has made the task slightly easier. For example, we now know that cabernet sauvignon is a crossing, almost certainly accidental, of cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc, which would suggest that cabernet sauvignon’s origins are French, and more particularly around Bordeaux, where its parents have been grown alongside each other for centuries. The first written records of cab. sav. (late 1700s) also come from that area.

In turn, sauvignon blanc is thought to be an offspring of a similar-sounding eastern French grape, savagnin, and another, unknown variety, while cabernet franc’s parents haven’t been traced, although there are genetic links to certain Basque grapes. Cabernet franc also happens to be one of the parents of merlot, while chenin blanc also has savagnin as a parent, making it a half-sibling to sauvignon blanc. It’s all a bit Jerry Springer.)

Syrah. Notice the little "wings" at the top of the bunch. They're typical of syrah.

Syrah. Notice the little “wings” of grapes that stick out at the top of the bunch. They’re typical of syrah.

Syrah is the sole black grape of the northern Rhône red wine appellations – from north to south Côte-Rôtie, St. Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, Cornas and Brézème. In the south, syrah forms an important part of most blends.

Despite longtime suggestions that the grape was originally from Persia (around Shiraz) or from Sicily (Syracuse), it now appears that syrah comes from south east France as DNA testing has shown that it’s a crossing of dureza, an obscure grape from the Ardèche region to west of the Rhône river, and mondeuse blanche, a white grape from the mountainous Savoie area to the east. Despite having a white variety as a parent, it’s a darker grape than grenache and brings extra colour to southern blends.

In the northern Rhône, the flavours centre around black fruits, particularly blackcurrant, but sometimes there are strong meaty, gamey, even farmyard smells – think grilled bacon, dead pheasant and shit, respectively. Surprisingly, this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Less ripe examples can taste a little stalky or green. The fullest wines come from Hermitage and Cornas, with Crozes-Hermitage and St. Joseph capable of making soft, juicy, easy-drinking wines as well as something more serious. In the hotter south, the flavours are typically more like blackberry, even bramble jam, and the alcohol levels higher.

Mourvedre

Mourvèdre

Mourvèdre is another Spanish import (called monastrell around Valencia) that loves heat and ripens late. Go any further north than the southern Rhône and it won’t ripen at all. It probably first entered Provence from the Spanish port of Sagunto (once called Morvedre in Catalan) and came into Roussillon, on France’s border with Spain, via Mataró, hence the grape’s names in mediterranean France and subsequently Australia.

Mourvèdre wines are deeply coloured, high in tannins, relatively low in alcohol, at least when stood alongside grenache, and often need time to soften. They are very resistant to oxidation, which means they keep well. All these qualities make the grape an excellent fit with the paler, softer grenache.

Mourvèdre’s flavours are of black fruit (plums, black cherry and blackberry), often with something meaty or leathery about the aromas, something like the smell of a saddle or a posh handbag depending on your demographic.

Carignan. Disappearing from many southern Rhone vineyards.

Carignan. Disappearing from many southern Rhone vineyards.

Carignan is the bad boy of the southern Rhône, banned from Chateauneuf, Gigondas and Vacqueyras on quality grounds, and severely restricted elsewhere. It was far more common in the vineyards thirty, even twenty years ago, but its most common replacement, syrah, brings an easy fruitiness to cheap Côtes-du-Rhône intended for immediate drinking whereas carignan, when asked to play the same role, produces hard, charmless, frequently bitter wine. It can make great wine, but the winemaker needs to be willing to cut the crop level to the bone and it helps if the vines are old. You’re best chance of finding a good French carignan is in a wine from Roussillon, where the best taste like inky black fruit mixed with crushed rocks.

Other black grapes used to make red wine include cinsaut, counoise, muscardin, camarèse, vaccarèse, picpoul noir and terret noir. If it’s used at all in red wine, cinsaut makes up a minor part of southern blends. It never appears in the north. And the rest exist almost more in theory than in practice.

You do get the occasional appearance of  “international” varieties like cabernet and merlot, but they’re not allowed in appellation contrôlée/protégée wines, only in vins de pays. And let’s not open that can of worms.

Rosé Wines

Mourvèdre, syrah and grenache noir (especially) are also used to make the Rhône’s rosé wines, which are typically dry and pale (although less so than their Côtes de Provence neighbours) and range from light, crisp quaffers through to the full, powerful wines from the village of Tavel. But there’s another black grape that’s used far more in rosés than in reds – cinsaut.

Cinsaut

Cinsaut

Cinsaut is an old southern French variety, almost certainly from Provence or neighbouring Languedoc-Roussillon. It’s happiest in hot, dry climates. On its own, it gives wines that are pale and relatively low in alcohol, but also (at their best) aromatic, fresh and fruity, which is why lots of southern winemakers like to add a small percentage to their red blends – many a Châteauneuf-du-Pape has 5% or so of cinsaut in the mix to give the wine a bit of a lift. And it’s precisely those qualities that make it excellent for rosé.

Anything left out of this list can be safely ignored. There are a few brave souls persisting with obscure grapes like chatus and even the (technically prohibited) jacquet. But your chances of finding their wines are as likely as a Rhône winemaker making a “blush” grenache.

Santé

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours, and my opportunity to write about the Rhône in general, wine in general and the combination of the two in particular. As the name suggests, we run wine tours throughout the region and we’ll never turn down the chance to host a wine tasting. If you want to know more, just go to the website: www.RhoneWineTours.com

And I’d be delighted to reply to any comments you might have, either about the blog or our increasingly popular Facebook page (several Friends and counting!).

 

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know…And Then Some

January 17th, 2014

The 3rd in a short and occasional series on my favourite wine books.

700 pages devoted to 50 miles of vineyards.

700 pages devoted to 50 miles of vineyards.

Oz Clarke might have helped to get me interested in wine and Kermit Lynch might have inspired me to make wine my way of earning a crust, but it’s John Livingstone-Learmonth who has cornered the market when it comes to books on Rhône wine. I could have chosen my trusty battered copy of “Wines of the Rhône”, published in 1992 and still the best guide to the Rhône in general. But in the end it had to be Livingstone-Learmonth’s magisterial tome, “The Wines of the Northern Rhône”.

There are downsides to the book – as the title makes clear, you’re not going to find anything about the southern Rhône vineyards and its 700-plus pages must weigh a good 5lbs. So it’s not the book to take on a wine holiday if you’re travelling the length of the river. But the scope of  it makes you believe that if JL-L had tried to cover the south too the book may never have been finished, or would have needed a trolley to be carried around.

The introduction looks at modern winemaking methods in the valley and the history of wine in the region; the grape varieties used and the climate they grow in. But the level of detail gets even more impressive when it comes to the different appellations. So, for example, Côte-Rôtie has its own chapter starting with a map precise enough to show individual vineyards, followed by a description of the geography and geology, the “terroir”, of each place in minute detail. That could, should, be dry as dust, but the tone is lively and JL-L has roped in the winemakers to give their descriptions of the vineyards and the different styles they produce. The result is certainly geared to readers with a real interest in wine – wine geeks like me, perhaps – but it hardly reads like an academic paper

Livingstone-Learmonth then describes what surely was every Côte-Rôtie wine estate that existed at the time of the book’s publication (2005), giving each at least a potted history, sometimes a number of pages, as well as a review of their recent wines. Finally, there’s a general overview of previous vintages back to 1955.

That whole process then gets repeated for Condrieu, St. Joseph, Hermitage, and so on. And for anybody whose head isn’t spinning by this point, there are plenty of statistics at the back of the book to get your teeth into.

The passing of time inevitably means that some details are out of date, what with new estates appearing and old ones being sold or split up, or one generation passing the reins on to the next, sometimes with a dramatic change in quality (for good or ill). But that shouldn’t detract from a remarkable achievement.

In short, this book is essential if you love Rhône wines.

Santé

Paul

PS. I once went to a tiny little wine fair outside the equally tiny (but sadly not very pretty) village of Les Pilles in the southern Rhône. Roughly half a dozen producers had turned up, a few small independents and representatives from a couple of co-operatives, all of whom make wine in the obscure little Coteaux des Baronnies region whose wines you rarely see outside the region, so hardly of interest to anyone writing for an English-speaking audience.  I had an excuse to be there – I work with one of the estates (I didn’t say the wines aren’t good) and I live nearby. Now I don’t know where John Livinstone-Learmonth lives, but there he was interviewing the winemakers and scribbling notes. That’s dedication.

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours, not the John Livingstone-Learmonth fan club. If you’ve found this you’ll know that the blog contains lots of other pieces about the Rhône, wine and most combinations thereof. There’s also a website – www.RhoneWineTours.com – and a Facebook page with fewer words and more pictures. We’re always looking for more “likes”, but occasional visitors are welcome too. JL-L has his own website, Drink Rhône.

Bonne Année

January 2nd, 2014

After the excesses of Christmas and New Year, well December in general really, what better way to start 2014 than with a long, vigorous walk? In my case, 3½ hours up hill and down dale starting in the village of Condorcet in the Baronnies hills, 15 minutes drive from Rhône Wine Tours base in Nyons.

All that's left of the old village of Condorcet, abandoned around 1870.

All that’s left of the old village of Condorcet, abandoned around 1870. The vineyards in the foreground produce Coteaux des Baronnies reds.

This is a favourite walk, starting with a steep climb from Condorcet church, up past vineyards, the old hilltop village abandoned in the late 1800s in favour of the current valley site, and then on into the woods before dropping into the hamlet of Saint-Pons. It was here that seven French resistance fighters were shot by a firing squad in 1944.

Plaque attached to the wall of a house in the hamlet of Saint-Pons commemorating the execution of seven resistance fighters.

Climbing again from Saint-Pons, on past the apricot orchards, you come to one of the best places in the region for picking sloes. The locals leave them alone as there’s very little you can do with this little wild plum other than make sloe gin, which doesn’t seem to be to the French taste. This is unusual, as almost everything else edible and free for the picking gets used in one way or another – wild herbs and walnuts, gentian root and  mushrooms, the fruit from the occasional remnants of old orchards, brambles and wild raspberries growing high on Mont Ventoux, you name it.

Sloes growing wild near St-Pons

Sloes growing wild near Saint-Pons

Tradition says that sloes should be picked after the first frost, so New Year’s Day couldn’t be better. If I take a bag or a tupperware container I can grab a couple of hundred grams, enough to make half a litre of sloe gin. If you’d like the recipe, get in touch. (If I had the distilling know-how, I could also pick juniper berries on the same walk and use them to make my own spirit, taking the whole process right back to basics. Although, given that home distilling is illegal here in France, perhaps it’s better that I stick to cheap supermarket gin as my base.)

Juniper grows abundantly in the woods around Condorcet.

Juniper grows abundantly in the woods around Condorcet, but it’s hard to get at – those spikes are sharp.

By now, I’m at the half distance mark and my legs are starting to tire. Although it’s a favourite, it’s a long time since I’ve done this walk and I feel unfit and out of practice. So it’s a good job that I’ve brought a packed lunch – sandwiches made with the remains of last night’s roast duck and apple sauce – and that the path starts to zig-zag downhill to the stream that runs along the bottom of the valley.

You're going to get your feet wet whatever you do.

You’re going to get your feet wet whatever you do.

With Saturday’s rain, the stream is swollen and the banks are muddy – enough sticks to my boots to double their weight. But I’m quickly back on gravel and the mud drops off as I climb gently towards the the first vineyards since the start of the walk, past the hunting dogs’ kennels, the fields that are full of poppies in summer and a handful of farmhouses before I’m finally back in Condorcet.

A winter vineyard waiting to be pruned.

A winter vineyard waiting to be pruned.

In the hills above Condorcet on a beautiful New Year's day. The snow-capped peak of the Angele mountain is just visible on the horizon.

In the hills above Condorcet on a beautiful New Year’s day. The snow-capped peak of the Montagne d’Angèle is just visible on the horizon, to the right.

By the end, I’m stiff and tired. But I wouldn’t want to start the year any other way.

Wishing you an excellent 2014,

Bonne année et bonne santé surtout,

Paul

This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. If you’d like to experience the delights of the Rhône Valley, whatever the time of year, you can contact us at info@rhonewinetours.com. You can also visit our website – www.RhoneWineTours.com – where there’s loads of information about our tours and wine tastings; things to do and places to stay while you’re here; our winemaker friends; and probably some other stuff too. Our Facebook page is home to smaller pieces too short to justify their own blog and plenty of photos. And we’re always looking for more “likes”. Hint, hint.

On the Scent of Black Gold

November 25th, 2013

If you’re looking for black gold, it’s not oil you want, it’s truffles. And the new season has just started.

Tuber Melanosporum - that's a black truffle to you.

Tuber Melanosporum – that’s a black truffle to you.

The southern Rhône is blessed with the limestone-rich soils and hot, dry summers that the black truffle prefers. So although Tuber melanosporum (to give it its botanical name) is often called the Périgord truffle in honour of the other major French growing region, production, if that’s what such a random process can be called, is greater in the Drôme and Vaucluse. So much so that the truffle market in the tiny village of Richerenches handles around 30% of all the truffles grown in France during the short mid-November to early-March season. Richerenches, I was told proudly by one trufficulteur, sets the world price for black truffles. And as the price last winter reached 950€ per kilo, even before middlemen and retailers got involved, that makes them one of the world’s most expensive food items. So it’s surprising that the trade is dominated by small-scale truffle growers and hunters, “paysans” or peasants in the French, non-pejorative sense of the word.

Truffles in the market at Richerenches

Truffles (the cheaper Tuber Uncinatum this time) in the market at Richerenches

The problem with black truffles, and the reason they’re so expensive, is that they can’t be grown or farmed in the normal sense of the word – they’re far too fussy, far too complicated for that. I’ve mentioned the limestone soils and hot summers (with short, sharp showers too, please), but that’s only half of it. They will only grow around certain trees – hazel, beech, but especially oak – and in fact they form a parasitic relationship with their host. But sadly the reverse isn’t true – where there are oaks there’s no guarantee that there will be truffles. Even where oak copses are deliberately planted and the ground inoculated with truffle spores, perhaps only 20% of the trees will go on to host truffles, one grower told me. And did I mention that it will take 15 years before the freshly-planted oak will show the first signs of truffles and that you can forget ever finding a crop once the tree hits 40?

Truffle oaks

Truffle oaks

Plus you’ve got to find them. Unlike mushrooms, truffles never appear above ground. So they have to be dug out, which means knowing where they are, and we’ve just seen the problems that can cause. Growers therefore take advantage of the highly developed noses of dogs or pigs to sniff and root out the highly scented tubers. Dogs have to be trained to search while pigs will go at it enthusiastically. But, given half a chance, a pig will eat whatever it finds, so on the whole growers in the Rhône stick with man’s best friend. Dogs will also start rooting excitedly around a truffle, but at least the grower has a chance to jump in to rescue his prize, while at the same time feeding the dog a small treat for its hard work.

Hunting for truffles under the oaks

Hunting for truffles under the oaks

Every Saturday morning during the four month season the growers take their spoils to Richerenches in the Enclave des Papes, the heart of truffle country, where they set up their trestle tables to display their wares (although it’s rumoured that more deals are done away from prying eyes, from the backs of vans or down quiet side streets). The public are welcome, but restauranteurs and brokers from as far away as Paris bring the big money (cash only, bien sûr).

This is where the real business is done - out the back of a parked car.

This is where the real business is done – out the back of a parked car.

As well as fresh truffles, both melanosporum and cheaper, less fine varieties, at Richerenches you can find them preserved, flavouring oil and even as an aperitif; you can pick up a mandolin for finely shaving your truffle; you can even buy a young oak if you fancy your chances at growing your own.

Truffle oil, truffle-flavoured aperitif

Truffle oil, truffle-flavoured aperitif

Fancy growing your own?

Fancy growing your own?

Then, of course, there are the stalls typical of any market in the region, those selling fruit and vegetables, jams and preserves, cheeses and charcuterie, nougat and pastries. The local bars, which unlike their neighbours in Nyons or Vaison-la-Romaine are relatively quiet in summer, are standing room only and thick with the smells of strong coffee, hot chocolate and rough wine.

Some of Provence's favourite winter vegetables. Those are cardoons at the front and they make an excellent gratin.

Some of Provence’s favourite winter vegetables. Those are cardoons at the front and they make an excellent gratin.

By 1pm the market is finished, the stalls are packed away until the following week and the crowds pile into one of the places serving truffle omelette for lunch. Given the main ingredient’s associations with luxury, you might think that fine dining would be the order of the day. Not a bit of it – the omelettes come on disposable plastic plates and are washed down with more rough wine. And given the truffle’s peasant roots, maybe that’s how it should be.

Recipe – Truffle Pasta

If you’re a dab hand with an omelette pan, by all means use your truffles that way. But this recipe for truffle pasta is, if anything, even simpler (or at least requires less technique) and well worth the effort. It brings out the truffle’s haunting, undergrowthy smell and a flavour that is at once both delicate and intense. (By the way, melanosporum are not absolutely necessary here. Last winter at one truffle “farm” near Grignan I bought the similar Tuber brumale, which cost me 25€ for 100g, or roughly ¼ the price. Unless you’re Donald Trump, the brumale will do fine and 100g goes a long way.)

You don't need much (thankfully).

You don’t need much (thankfully).

Ingredients – serves 2

Enough pasta for two people. Home-made egg tagliatelle would be perfect, but good dried tagliatelle (or pappardelle for that matter) works well. 

50g of unsalted butter

30-50g of cleaned truffles. This partly depends on the size of your truffles (and your wallet). My 100g from Grignan gave me 6 little nuggets. I used 2, but you can up the quantity for a stronger flavour.

Freshly grated Parmesan to taste.

A very little truffle oil (optional)

Method

1. While you’re bringing a large pan of well-salted water to the boil, gently melt the butter in a small pan. It should get warm rather than hot.

2. Grate your truffle into the butter and turn off the heat. At this stage you can add a little dribble of truffle oil if you want to heighten the flavour. But be careful, it’s powerful stuff. (All the recipes I looked at involve finely slicing the truffles but mine were used straight from frozen – they keep their flavour well – and were too small to use a mandoline without risking my fingertips. A relatively fine grater worked well and in the end I liked the way the truffles shavings were dispersed through the “sauce”.)

That's the sauce done

That’s the sauce done

3. Once cooked, drain your pasta reserving a little of the cooking water.

4. Add the pasta to the butter/truffle mixture, mix well and slacken with a splash of cooking water if it seems too stodgy.

5. Serve with the parmesan sprinkled generously on top. You may want a touch of seasoning, but the parmesan provides plenty of salt.

6. Eat with great pleasure.

It might not look much, especially in this photo, but boy does it taste good.

It might not look much, especially in this photo, but boy does it taste good.

There are plenty of people who will tell you to choose a white wine to go with the pasta. Me, I’d go for a red. But whichever you choose, I think this is a case where older is better. A young wine packed with fruit will clash, as will a very oaky wine, but time will soften both of those elements and may even bring out flavours that pick up on the truffles’ woodsy side. Mature Burgundy (red or white) would be pretty special, or maybe an older Barolo or Barbaresco. But given that I live in the Rhône and the truffles were grown here, I’m picking Alain Verset’s Cornas 2006. And while I’m down in the cellar I’ll grab a bottle of Domaine Lombard’s Brézème blanc for those who want a glass of white.

Santé

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours, where I write about anything food/wine/Rhône related (and not necessarily in that order). Richerenches market is just one of the many reasons for coming to the region. If you’d like to see a few more, you can follow this link to our website – www.RhoneWineTours.com – where there’s also information about our wine tours and tastings and potted biogtraphies of some of our favourite winemakers (like Alain Verset and Domaine Lombard mentioned above). There’s also a Facebook page with plenty more wine stuff, photos especially – click on the link, have a look round and feel free to like us.

 

 

 

Another week, another trip to Lyon

October 22nd, 2013

involving hideous parking problems (3 hours to find a parking space!), an idiot opening his car door on me as I drove past and a self-inflicted bang on the head. At least there are some compensations, good wine being chief among them.

Christelle Betton

Christelle Betton

Christelle Betton let us taste her newly fermenting red and white Crozes-Hermitage, as well as her lovely 2011 reds, Espiègle and Caprice. Christelle ferments the grapes from her various plots separately and even at this stage it’s easy to spot the difference between the wines from, say, Les Chassis and Sept Chemins, young vines and old vines. Christelle was shattered after three weeks with three hours sleep a night, but charm itself.

Alain and Emmanuelle Verset

Alain and Emmanuelle Verset

Alain Verset showed us how he draws the wine off the bottom of his tanks of Cornas every day during fermentation and pumps it back over the top to help extract colour and flavour. And so we could see the result, he then poured us glasses of every finished vintage from 2006 to 2010. The ripe 2009 and structured ’10 are still very young, the spicy ’06 and funky ’07 ready to drink. The most pleasant surprise, however, is the ’08, which Alain serves last. In the language of winemakers, 2008 was a “difficult” vintage (for which read “horrible”), cool with lots of rain. But despite that, Alain’s ’08 is a wine I’d very happily drink very often. Yes it’s lighter than the rest, but it smells like the contents of a spice rack (clove, cinnamon, star anise) and would be perfect with roast pheasant (maybe lightly rubbed with a little pimenton, for you foodies out there).

Mika outside his cellar

Mika outside his cellar

Mickaël Bourg handed us a barrel sample of his 2012 St. Péray. By the time of writing it should be in bottle and will be worth looking out for if you’re in the region (sadly he doesn’t export). Mika recently took over a plot of very old marsanne vines growing on granite in the northern sector of the appellation and they have added richness and structure to round out the liveliness of the wine from his vines grown on limestone. He’s rightly very pleased with the result.

We finished with a glass of his delicious 2011 Cornas. It’s a totally different style to Alain’s, darker with more fruit (especially blackcurrant). It’s one of wine’s fascinations that two winemakers, growing the same grape variety – syrah – in a wine region only a few kilometres long and wide, using similarly Heath Robinson facilities, can fashion such contrasting wines.

Seb in the cellar at Domaine de Lucie

Seb in the cellar at Domaine de Lucie

Non-interventionist rebel Sébastien Wiedmann explained the difficulties of doing as little as possible when making wine, drawing pictures to illustrate the whole thing, and expounded on his love of old plots of hybrid vines (naughty boy, Seb, but strictly for home consumption) before letting us taste his red St. Joseph 2011 and Lucie Fourel’s range of Crozes-Hermitage. Lucie makes a pure roussanne white and three different reds, of which the Saint-Jaimes 2011 was my pick. I should explain the Seb and Lucie are partners, in the living together sense, if not when it comes to winemaking.

Lucie Fourel's Aux Racines de Saint-Jaimes 2011

Lucie Fourel’s Aux Racines de Saint-Jaimes 2011

There were also visits to two of the Rhône’s big guns: Vidal-Fleury, who put on a great tour of their hi-tech winery before a comprehensive tasting of their range, and Yves Cuilleron, producer of damn fine Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu. Of course I picked up a couple of things; well it would be rude not to, wouldn’t it?

Vidal-Fleurie's Brune et Blonde Cote-Rotie 2009

Vidal-Fleurie’s Brune et Blonde Côte-Rôtie 2009

Yves Cuileron's Les Chaillets Condrieu 2011

Yves Cuileron’s Les Chaillets Condrieu 2011

And for light relief and super-tasty everyday drinking, I came home to Alexandre Liotaud’s Rieu Frais syrah rosé 2012 (an excellent cure for stress and bumps on the head) and Julien Montagnon’s Domaine Lombard La Côte 2011 (an equally excellent accompaniment to a roast guinea fowl and an episode of Morse on YouTube).

Alexandre Liotaud

Alexandre Liotaud

Domaine Lombard La Cote

Domaine Lombard La Côte

Thanks to them all for helping me forget the less glamourous side of the job.

Santé

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours, where I write about wine, food and the hazards of driving in Lyon. There’s plenty more on the website – www.RhoneWineTours – and lots of shorter pieces, photo albums and the like on our Facebook page.

For those of you who can’t make it to the Rhône valley, Christelle’s red Crozes and her white Hermitage are available at Theatre of Wine in London and the Hermitage should soon be in New York; Fields Morris and Verdin import Alain Verset’s Cornas, which should mean that you can get it at Berry Brothers (again in London); Seb and Lucie’s wines are – or at least were – sold by Vinoteca (guess where) and Lucie’s wines are imported into the USA by Wine Traditions; Vidal-Fleury’s tasty Côtes-du-Rhône is available at Majestic in the UK, check wine-searcher.com for US suppliers; Yves Cuilleron’s wines can be found at many independent merchants of taste and discernment – Theatre of Wine certainly stocks his great value vin de pays viognier, roussanne and marsanne, as well as some of his more expensive bottles. Again, a quick scan of wine-searcher.com should bring up a supplier near you.

 

Colorado Wine – Could It Make It Big?

October 7th, 2013

Apparently, wine is made in every state in America. Some states, like California and Oregon, are world famous for quality wine. Others – Alaska, really? – are surely home to no more than one or two inspired/mad individuals. Between those two extremes there are states like Colorado, where wine has become a recognised part of the agricultural landscape, attracting locals and visitors alike, and where, with a bit of luck, we may start to see truly great wines appearing.

Recently I spent a week in Colorado wine country, including a visit to the Colorado Mountain Winefest in Palisade, and below are my conclusions. But first, a bit of background…

All the fun of the (wine) fair

All the fun of the (wine) fair. It’s all very laid back.

A Brief History

Wine was first made in Colorado in the 19th century but following Prohibition, which came in 1916, four years ahead of most of America, vines were replaced by peach trees. (Like my home region of the Drôme, where the celebrated Hermitage is made, Colorado has a longstanding reputation for producing great soft fruit. Indeed, it pains me to say it but Palisade may grow the best peaches I’ve ever eaten. So if there’s a link that can be made between growing peaches and grapes, the signs are good for Colorado wine.) The state’s modern winemaking history only goes back 30-odd years and even some of the longer-established wineries like Plum Creek and Carlson Vineyards were only set up in the mid-late ’80s. The Grand Valley region, which includes Palisade, accounts for around 85% of the state’s grape production.

The Case For

In winemaking terms, the state has plenty going for it. First of all, its summers are hot and dry, so there’s the scope for good ripening. In fact, in terms of “degree days” – a broad measure of a region’s suitability for growing grapes – Grand Valley ranks with Napa and parts of Tuscany. The arid climate allows for minimal spraying in the vineyards, which in turn means that Colorado’s wineries have the potential to be as “green” as any out there. Second, Colorado’s high altitude (after all, Denver is the “mile high city”) means that there can be big temperature swings between day and night, preserving acidity and freshness in the wines, especially important in whites but not to be ignored in reds either.

In addition, because the winemakers aren’t burdened by history or French-style appellation laws they’ve been willing to try out a huge range of grape varieties – I tasted everything from varietal blaufrankisch to 100% petit verdot – and there were some great label designs, fun and funky, which would have been largely unthinkable in France. That’s the good news.

Colorado wine country - out the car window towards Palisade

Colorado wine country – looking out the car window towards Palisade

The Case Against

The flip side is that the winters are cold and in extreme cases there can be snow on the ground as late as May and as early as October. So although the “degree days” figures are similar, Grand Valley’s growing season is typically around 180 days, compared to 230 for Napa and Tuscany. Despite the summer heat, that’s still a short time in which to ripen grapes. And by that I don’t just mean sugar ripeness (which will eventually create the alcohol) but proper ripeness of flavour. Even worse from the growers’ point of view, an icy spring can destroy a year’s crop.

To my mind, too many of the “dry” white wines are not dry enough. Admittedly, it’s more of an issue with riesling and gewürztraminer, and I have exactly the same issue with Alsace versions of the same grapes. But, as far as I’m aware, nobody in Alsace is making semi-sweet reds. And I suspect there are very few people making commercial fruit wines or, as I saw in Colorado, sauvignon blanc flavoured with lavender (bloody hell!). The producers would no doubt argue that they’re catering to demand, both from the locals and the many visitors, but it can look like a lack of confidence in their ability to guide their customers, or even to make proper dry table wines. It’s not as if Napa has a sideline in cabernet sauvignon with blueberries. Be brave Colorado winemakers!

Unsurprisingly in such a young wine region with plenty of producers who have learnt as they’ve gone along, there are also signs of “iffy” winemaking, or should that be iffy grape growing translating into dodgy wine? I tasted viogniers from three different producers that had similar bizarre flavours of charcoal/wood ash and burnt toffee (and one was a double gold-winning wine!) Had all three bought grapes from the same source? And I tasted several reds – cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc especially – which were thin and vegetal, and quite a few that had the earthiness of beetroot. One Australian winemaker friend kindly suggested this may be the Colorado “terroir”, but my suspicion is that the growers need to examine their growing methods – all the boring things like crop levels, pruning and trellising that make a big difference in the final wine – and concentrate on red varieties that can live happily with the short growing season. Or perhaps focus on whites?

Tasting at the Winefest

Tasting at the Winefest

This may explain my biggest issue with the reds – oak. Superficially, a veneer of oak can hide deeper faults. And if there are no faults, well oak just makes the wine taste better, doesn’t it? But lighter wines are swamped by too much barrel ageing and fuller wines tend towards the same set of flavours regardless of grape variety. I know lots of people like an oaky red, but with honourable exceptions a lighter hand might have allowed the fruit to shine a bit brighter.

If all this sounds unduly negative, it shouldn’t be taken that way. Because I think that great wine can be made in Colorado I’m judging the wines against world class standards. And while I don’t think any of the wines I tasted are quite there yet, it’s surely just a matter of time. In the meantime, there are certainly some well made, often good value wines I’d recommend. Here’s the proof:

White wines

Hermosa Vineyards Viognier 2009

Kenneth Dunn at Hermosa Vineyards

Kenneth Dunn of Hermosa Vineyards

I would have thought that viognier would work well in Colorado, but of the half-dozen or so I tasted only Hermosa’s had the sort of varietal expression I would expect: texture, richness and stone fruits on the palate. Kenneth Dunn, the winemaker, does like his oak barrels though. I would cut down on the two years (!) in barrel and release the wine a little younger.

Plum Creek Sauvignon Blanc 2012

Plum Creek sauvignon blanc

Plum Creek sauvignon blanc

Looks to New Zealand rather than France. Very zesty, aromatic and fresh. Lots of grapefruit.

Plum Creek Palisade Festival

Plum Creek Palisade Festival

Plum Creek Palisade Festival

A blend of sauvignon, chardonnay, pinot gris and riesling. Off-dry and orange blossom-y. Despite my comments about sweeter styles, I liked this a lot. In fact, although Plum Creek’s sauvignon was judged the best white at the show, I had a slight preference for this. It reminded me of certain Argentinian torrontes or the Torres’ wine Esmerelda. Good everyday drinking.

Two Rivers Chardonnay 2010

 

Two Rivers chardonnay (left)

Two Rivers chardonnay (left)

All the grapes were grown around Palisade and East Orchard Mesa, but the wine came across like a Pouilly-Fuissé. Spiced pear fruit, oak there but not overwhelming. Really quite classy.

Canyon Wind Chardonnay 2012

Canyon Wind chardonnay

Canyon Wind chardonnay

This was aged in stainless steel vats in which American and French oak staves had been immersed; really just a way to get some oak flavour without the cost of barrels. Being a purist, I don’t normally approve, but it worked here. Like the Two Rivers, quite French in style but this time with a bit less oak and a bit more zip – more Macon than Pouilly. Nivea and lime zest aromas. I’d very happily drink this.

Reeder Mesa Gewürztraminer 2012

Two gewurztraminers - Reeder Mesa (left) and Carlson's "Laughing Cat" (right)

Two gewurztraminers – Reeder Mesa (left) and Carlson’s “Laughing Cat” (right)

Very aromatic – rose and orange peel. Sweetness is balanced by crisp acidity (not normally a gewürz strong point) so that the overall balance works. See also their petit verdot in the reds section.

Carlson Vineyards “Laughing Cat” Sweet Gewurztraminer 2012

Also aromatic, if not quite so overt. Very zesty – lime and Rose’s lime cordial. Had a slight prickle on the palate, which helped lift it too. It went very well with a slow cooked pork with peanut sauce dish the students from the local catering college has prepared for the VIP tent. What do you mean? Of course I was in the VIP tent.

Whitewater Hill Vineyards Late Harvest Riesling 2011

Whitewater Hill Late Harvest Riesling

Whitewater Hill Late Harvest Riesling

More Clare Valley than Rhein. Lime zest and petrol on the nose. Palate consistent and true to the grape.

Bookcliff “Friday’s Folly” White

An easy-going, everyday blend of viognier, chardonnay, muscat and riesling. Simple, cheap and fruity, and no worse for that.

Stoney Mesa Pinot Gris 2012

A crisp, clean style. No great complexity, but its slightly tropical fruit (guava, banana) is attractive.

Red Wines

Turquoise Mesa Colorado Crimson 2011

Turquoise Mesa Colorado Crimson

Turquoise Mesa Colorado Crimson

Weirdly, given the difficulties some growers seemed to have ripening relative cool-loving cab franc and pinot noir, there was no problem with this more Mediterranean-inspired blend of syrah (47%), mourvedre (30%), viognier (12%) and cinsault (11%). Although there was too much oak for my taste, the chocolate and cherry fruit, texture and bright colour were attractive. Voted best red in the show.

Alfred Eames Tempranillo 2009

Alfred Eames Tempranillo

Alfred Eames Tempranillo

Ripe and juicy, although the oak flattened the varietal character somewhat.

Reeder Mesa Petit Verdot 2010

Reeder Mesa Petit Verdot

Reeder Mesa Petit Verdot

One of the more serious reds on display. Palate is herbal and tarry to go with its hedgerow fruit. Not Bordeaux exactly, but going that way. I could easily imagine this with nice leg of lamb.

Bonaquisti [d]RED

Bonaquisti d[Red]

Bonaquisti d[Red]

Bonaquisti is an “urban wine company” based in Denver, although the grapes mostly come from Palisade and the surrounding area. Plenty of colour, plenty of fruit – cherry and plums. Supposedly a blend of merlot, syrah and cabernet sauvignon, but quite Italian in style. One article I read after tasting the wine mentioned that there was a bit of (Califonian? unsaid, but implied) zinfandel in the blend, which wouldn’t surprise me. This was my favourite red at the wine fair.

For now, this list may only be relevant if you’re in Colorado – finding these wines outside the state will be difficult – but don’t say you haven’t been told. There aren’t any truly exceptional wines made in Colorado…yet. But give it time.

Santé

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhone Wine Tours (yeah, we’re a bit off our normal patch in Colorado). If you’d like to see more (or even some) wine, food and Rhône-related stuff you can visit our website – www.RhoneWineTours.com – or, for shorter bits and pieces and lots of photos, go to our Facebook page. We’d be delighted if you “liked” us, although I suspect we won’t be seeing a rush of Colorado winemakers…