Monday, May 21, 2012

Rhone rocks

Consider now the Rhone Valley, that riverine crease between the Massif Central and the Alps that led the Phoenicians into what became France. When the Romans arrived, good wine was already being made there. Rhone reds are big, often inky, and full of amazing nuance. The big ones go with autumn fare like wood smoke and falling leaves, but the less intense are suited to all seasons.
     In the 14th century Pope Clement V established his summer residence in the wine-producing country north of Avignon. Chateauneuf-du-Pape is now the best known Rhone village, and produces the best known - but not necessarily the best - wines from country that reminded me, when I first saw it, of the American Southwest. The vines grew from glacial deposits of round, white stones that acted as solar collectors and warmed the vines at night, helping to produce dark, intense fruit, and some of it found its way into cheap bottles fitted with plastic tops and appropriate cost.
I later tried two aged Chateauneuf-du-Papes from bottles that did not have plastic tops. Those sloping shoulders contained great, mature flavors that few wine drinkers ever experience, for Rhone wines are usually drunk far too young. These came from two top producers – Guigal, and Jaboulet’s “Les C├ędres,” and their effect was riveting. Both had a deep, bricky color and released a powerful and complex bouquet, filling the mouth like exotic fruit, both still tannic but the finishes went on and on.
Quality Rhones are no longer under-appreciated, of course. Prices rose on the wines’ merits, but the best Rhones are still reasonable next to their celebrated neighbors in Burgundy and Bordeaux. Good and even lesser ones have the staying power of a Clydesdale. A Rhone wine left open for two days still hauls the taste buds around a course with more points of interest than most reds can offer when they’re freshly opened, at twice the price.
Gigondas, another appellation in the southern Rhone, produces huge wines, too, but Cotes du Rhone, the most commonplace of the southerners, remains a fine, adaptable bargain. Although it can usually be drunk after a year or so, and often immediately, it too improves with age. Cotes du Rhone Village is a slight step up. One I recommend with misgiving – since it’s one of my everyday wines and the price will go up if it gets too popular - is Cairanne, from Comte Louis de Clermont-Tonnerre, well-made and flavorful, with good body and consistency and costing only about $13.  
The northern Rhone also produces wines of unforgettable depth, notably the Cote Rotie. Two of the best I ever tasted are Guigal’s '80 La Landonne and the ’80 La Mouline, but that was a long time ago. Other northern Rhone appellations are Hermitage, and Cornas, and all these wines are intense and almost black in color. In fact, if Rhones generally have a problem, it’s brawn. The big ones should be decanted long before a meal, and served with meats or cheese of substance. Game may overwhelm some burgundies and clarets, but the Rhones resound like contrapuntal brass in the semi-arid outback.

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