Sunday, October 25, 2009

Good Morning, time for Rhône wines!

At nine am the other day, I found myself a) awake, which is unusual for me, and b) sitting in front of a whole bunch of wineglasses. After ten months on a Broadway schedule of late nights and late awakenings, the only thing that could possibly rouse me so early is – yup – wine.

I was about to begin the two-day New York Wine Experience presented by the Wine Spectator. There would be seminars all day and Grand Tastings at night. By the end of the second night, I would have tasted almost 200 wines, my teeth would turn a ghastly shade of blue, and my palate would wave the white flag in surrender. But boy, was it worth it!

The first seminar of the event was a “Rhône’s Rising Stars Tasting” run by James Molesworth, a senior editor at the magazine. Admittedly, some of the winemakers were not new to the scene, as the title seemingly implied, with familiar names like Chave, Ogier and Perrin on the list. To me, the real theme of the tasting seemed to be more about the wines themselves rather than the producers. We tasted three 2006s and five 2007s, showcasing the current trend in winemaking in the Rhône, and really highlighting the wines’ minerality, for as Mr. Molesworth succinctly stated, “Minerality is where you get the sense of place.”

In the Rhône, a swath of land in southern France along the Rhône river, there is a wide range of climate, soil, and topography. Syrah is the predominant grape variety in the north, and Grenache is planted more widely in the south, where it thrives in the warmer temperature. Although the hour was early, I was excited to begin tasting these spectacular wines.

First up was the Jean-Louis Chave St.-Joseph 2006. St.-Joseph is a long area peppered with terraces and plateaux across the river from the pedigreed Hermitage region. This wine had a ruby red color, with a nice robust nose of crunchy red fruit. It had length and finesse, but I found it a bit sour, tasting of unripe fruit, atypical of the common idea of massive, huge Syrahs. 93 WS, $60, 750 cases produced. The relatively small production of this wine earned it the nickname “Chave’s Cult.”

Our second wine came from the top end of the northern Rhône, close to the Côte-Rôtie. The Les Vins de Vienne Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Sotanum 2007 is not from a designated appellation, as the vineyard was old and not formed when the quality-controlling AOC designated the appellations of the region. The vineyard was re-established in 1996, and the winemakers hope to one day be included in the designation. For now, they subvert the rule of Vins de Pays not being allowed to list vintages by marking their wines with roman numerals of the vintage year. The Vins de Vienne had a quiet nose, with very pleasant bright fruit, a hint of violets and warm tannins. 93WS, $66, 1580 cs.

My favorite wine from the north was the Michel & Stéphane Ogier Côte-Rôtie Lancement Terroir de Blonde 2006. If the Hermitage is the spiritual home of the Rhône, the Côte-Rôtie (“Roasted Coast”) is the hotspot. The style was more powerful, and I felt I could tell the effects of the granite and schist soil on the wine, as the nose had very earthy elements as well as blacker fruits. On the mouth, the wine was quite smooth, with notes of cigar and an abundance of black raspberry and black cherry. This wine could use another ten to fifteen years of age. Alas, the production is tiny at 75 cases, and the price tag is high at $232, so I’m afraid I won’t be adding this wine to my cellar anytime soon! 94 WS.

Our last wine from the north was the Domaine du Coulet Cornas Les Terrasses du Serre 2006. Located at the southern edge of the valley in Cornas, the Domaine du Coulet makes a point of combining modernity and tradition in its winemaking practices, for example, using stainless steel tanks for fermentation but employing no temperature control during the process. This wine had an interesting nose of cranberry and honey combined with a pleasant meatiness. On the palate there was a very specific dried flavor of herbs and violets, good minerality, and strong tannins. This wine also begs for age. 93WS, $65, 5000 cs.

The southern Rhône is a bigger and wider-spread area than the northern portion – 95% of Rhône wines produced are from the south. In the northeastern corner of the southern Rhône is Vinsobres, and the location shows the transition from predominant Syrah in the north to abundant Grenache in the south; the Perrin & Fils Vinsobres Les Hautes de Julien 2007 is a blend of 50% Syrah and 50% Grenache. This wine seems very alcoholic on the nose, with lots of anise. This blend shows a good balance of varietal character. There are strong notes of black olive tapenade, black pepper and tar, with prominent tannins. 92WS, $49, 500 cs.

Still transitioning southward, we ‘arrive’ at the dramatic vineyards of Gigondas with the Château de St.-Cosme Gigondas Le Claux 2007. It is worthwhile to note that “St.-Cosme” is a negociant wine (basically a wine blended with grapes from different areas and growers,) while “Chateau de St.-Cosme” is a singular estate-produced wine. Louis Barruol from the Château feels that Grenache is “transparent” to the area’s terroir and climate and takes care to cultivate the grape so the wines are not enormous and flabby. This wine has a tarry, molasses nose and is quite tannic with hot black fruit and truffles. 96WS, $65, 365 cs.

The heart of the Rhône is arguably Châteauneuf-du-Pape. There is an increase in the number of single-vineyard wines from this region as vignerons strive to highlight the individual parcels that pepper the area. Here, all kinds of soil types are found; gravel, clay, limestone and sand. The Domaine Giraud Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Gallimardes 2007 is a 90% Grenache, 10% Syrah blend from a very sandy parcel. It has a very angular nose with lots of anise and blackberry jam. In the mouth, there is kirsh, raspberry and blueberry brandy layered with pepper and tar. The winemakers are pleased with the intense modern style of this wine, and feel it is their best vintage in 25 years. This wine could certainly be cellared for 10-20 years. I enjoyed this wine, and will be trying to seek some out for my cellar. 96, $52, 256

The final wine of the tasting was my overall favorite. A relative youngster on the scene (a true “rising star,” perhaps,) the Domaine St.-Prefert was started in 2002, after the winemakers bought some flooded vineyards the previous owner didn’t want to re-establish. Grenache is still the leading grape of the Domaine St.-Préfert Châteauneuf-du-Pape Auguste Favier Réserve 2007 at 80% of the blend, with 10% Cinsault, and the rest Syrah and Mourvèdre. This wine had an amazing nose, heady and complex, which was mirrored by the flavors of sweet fruit, kirsch, cassis and nice herbs on the palate. It wasn’t overly tannic, but cried out to be paired with food. 95WS, $60, 1750.

I had to laugh that I’d spent an intense hour and a half contemplating and enjoying this series of Rhône wines, all before my usual wake-up time. The Wine Spectator’s New York Wine Experience was just getting started, and without a break, we were introduced to the next speaker. I will give you, dear reader, a break before my next entry, so you can go out there and experience some wonderful Rhône wines on your own. Keep an eye out for 2007s especially – all the vignerons on the panel were in agreement that 2007 will prove to be a wonderful vintage for the entire Rhône region. Santé!