Monday, 2 November 2015

Battle of The Rhône: North vs. South

We hear a lot about wines from the Rhône. Does Châteauneuf-du-Pape ring a bell?... Thought so.

Although it's probably the most iconic name in wine, and if you bring a bottle of that to someone's dinner party, both you and your hosts will think you're pretty much the dog's bollocks (or just a flashy twat), the sad truth is that a lot of the wine is sold far too young in the UK. And this often results in the Pape getting a bad rep. The bottles you can pick up for just over a tenner in the supermarket are that price for a reason, and despite the name, they generally don't reflect the quality of a good bottle of Châteauneuf.

There are many other crus (villages that are entitled to put the name of the village on their label) making fabulous wine in the Rhône, and these can sometimes offer much better value due to not having that Châteauneuf status. The Grape Escape held another 'Grape Debate' night recently (see the previous Pinot Noir one here), focussing on some of these wines, and a battle of the Rhône ensued.

The Rhône Valley divides neatly into two - the north and the south - each producing slightly different styles. The north is known for its steep green vineyards, deep-flavoured fine wines and big price tags, with Syrah being the dominant grape. In the south, the climate feels a little more Mediterranean. With the sun gently heating the stony soils of the vineyards, and low rainfall, the fruity concentration of the Grenache grape comes to the forefront.

The majority of the wines from the region are red, but there are a few whites (usually a low acid, smooth, round blend of Marsanne and Roussane), and if you're a rosé fan, then look out for bottles from Tavel. We had a glass of Prieuré de Montezargues Tavel 2012 (Southern Rhône) as an aperitif, and it was fantastic. Nine different grape varieties are used to make the wine, each vinified seperately then blended together at the end, giving real layers of juicy fruits and floral complexity, which just seems to keep going.

Anyway, with four rounds - north vs. south - which would come out on top?

Round 1. The Whites

Domaine Courbis St Joseph Blanc 2013, Northern Rhône (£20.83 in a case from Wine Direct)

With 97% Marsanne and 3% Rousanne, the Courbis St Joseph Blanc is lively on the nose with late summer fruit flavours; apricots, nectarines and some gentle warming spice. It's quite a fat textured wine - rich and creamy - and although it has a mineral kick at the end, it seems to be lacking in acidity.

Domaine Brunier Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 'La Roquete' 2013, Southern Rhône (£28.99 from AG Wines)

Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc probably isn't a wine you'd come across in the supermarkets; it's wonderful when young and fresh, then it goes through a dumb phase for a few years before blossoming again around 10 years after the vintage. This wine is an assemblage of 35% Clairette, 30% Grenache Blanc, 25% Rousanne and 10% Bourboulenc. It's zippy, fresh and floral; juicy with a sharp lemon curd finish that stays with you for ages.

North: 4 South: 17
It was a no brainer, the CNDP Blanc was a beauty!

Round 2. Gigondas vs. Crozes Hermitage

Domaine de la Ville Crozes Hermitage 'Terre d'Eclat' 2012, Northern Rhône (£16.99 from Wineman)

This single vineyard Syrah is instantly satisfying; 40% of the wine has been matured in oak giving it deep smoky bacon and spicy pepper notes. With bright fruits and smooth tannins, it's silky, stylish and slips down a little too easily.

St Damien Gigondas 'Les Souteyrades' 2012, Southerm Rhône (£23.95 from Wine Direct)

Made from 80% Grenache and 20% Mourvèdre, the Gigondas reveals juicy blueberry and raspberry notes, intertwined with lavender and black pepper. Hedgerow herbs and liquorice are present on the palate, with sweet tannins and tongue tingling acidity. It's 15% but you wouldn't know it.

North: 14 South: 7
Although I voted south, the north got the majority, but it was a tough choice; both are excellent, especially for the money!

Round 3. Cornas vs. Vacqueras

Domaine Vincent Paris Cornas 'La Geynale' 2009, Northern Rhône (£36.44 from Christopher Piper Wines)

From the steep slopes of Cornas' amphitheatre-like vineyards, 'La Geynale' is full of black fruits and subtle spices. It's still young and you can tell it's fighting to come out of its shell, but it has an interesting texture - with noticeable tannins - making it an enjoyable drink.

Domaine Le Sang des Cailloux Vacqueyras 'Lopy' 2009, Southern Rhône (£26.15 from Christopher Piper Wines)

Dark and brooding, 'Lopy' is made up of 75% Grenache and 25% Syrah. Ripe berries and cherries, with herbs and faint notes of cloves, it's both elegant and restrained. It has an excellent structure with fine tannins and a lengthy finish.

North: 11 South: 10
Pretty even scoring for this round; the Vacqueyras did it for me. Though the Cornas is drinking well - I definitely wouldn't say no - given a bit of time I think it'll be incredible.

Round 4. Hermitage vs. Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Domaine Marc Sorrel Hermitage 2005, Northern Rhône (£54.00 in a case from VinQuinn)

This wine has everything you'd ever want to find in a northern Rhône Syrah; bold red and black fruits, pepper, smoke and even bacon. It's full and juicy, has sublime tannins, and the long, fine finish makes your mouth water.

Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2009, Southern Rhône (£55.00 from Berry Bros & Rudd)

Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault and Clairette are blended with a little Mourvèdre in this Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Bay and spice are big on the nose, with more herby flavours coming in on the palate. It's silky smooth, liquorice and lavender, and the tannins begin to creep in on the finish; it's intense, rich and rounded.

North: 18 South: 3
The poor CNDP had no hope against the Hermitage. It was really good (and it came from a magnum) but the northern beast could not be beaten! I actually think the Hermitage had more acidity than the bloody whites! Yu-um.

With lots of snazzy embossed bottles and fanciful French labels, on looks alone the Rhône's wines are winning in the regal stakes. But with their contents being so damn delicious as well - especially that '05 Hermitage - wines from the region have a lot to offer. My votes were even - two for the north, two for the south - but it was a 3-1 win for the wines from northern Rhône... Take from that what you will... Let's just hope the Châteauneuf-du-Pape isn't a sore loser.

Here's to the Rhône!


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