Smart buys from the southern Rhone, March 2007

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SOUTHERN RHONE

The 2005 releases from both the Rhone Valley and Burgundy are receiving much hype from both sides of the Atlantic. This is considered a top-tier vintage, and recent tastings of these wines proves this to be true. However, as is all too common in the wine world, we are so immediately consumed with the next “vintage of the century� that we forget about drinking wines with some beneficial bottle age, or from perfectly good recent vintages which offer delicious and accessible drinking at affordable prices. Today, we feature wines which fall into both categories from the Southern Rhone.

With only a river in common with the Northern Rhone, the Southern Rhone countryside is flatter and in areas definitively Provencal, with both houses and vegetation reflecting the influence of the Mediterranean climate. Many other fruits are grown here, and one of the chief hazards is the sometimes cold Mistral wind that can blow fiercely down the Rhône Valley.

Most wines are blends, with Syrah increasingly widely planted to endow red wines with longevity. The main red grape variety, however, remains the noble Grenache, which accounts for the great majority of vines planted in the Southern Rhône. It’s blended with a wide range of other local varieties, most commonly Carignan, Cinsault, Mouvedre, and Syrah.

Co-operatives are very important in the Southern Rhône, accounting for about 70% of total production. The negociants of the Northern Rhône also have a long tradition of buying wine here for blending and bottling en route to the north. But there is also a host of individual estates, especially in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, keen to etch their own stamp on this particularly accessible appellation. Wine-making techniques here are extremely varied; everything from full-blown carbonic maceration to ancient, open, wooden fermenting vats of uncertain age and certain lack of hygiene.


La Vieille Julienne 2004 Châteauneuf-du-Pape $57
La Vieille Julienne 2004 Cotes du Rhone $23

Since Jean-Paul Daumen took over the estate in 1990, things have changed here. Not only has a new aging cellar has been built, but strict measures to improve the quality of the wines have been taken as well. Almost the entire crop is destemmed now, and experimentations with small casks are done. The different grape varieties are vinified separately, although Jean-Paul would like to try and even out the maturity of the different varieties since he believes that a mixed variety vinification yields “more harmonious flavor and aroma integration.” Several wines are made at different quality levels to allow a very rigorous selection policy for the best ones.

Domaine du Marcoux 2004 Châteauneuf-du-Pape $65 (750)
Domaine du Marcoux 2004 Châteauneuf-du-Pape $90 (1.5)

As far back as 1344, the Armenier family has owned vines in what is now Chateaneuf-du-Pape. Today, the Armenier family is still intimately linked with the village and its vineyards. The property is run and managed by sisters Catherine Armenier and Sophie Estevenin. Together, they share the winemaking responsibilities and oversight of their extremely old vines which are farmed biodynamically. This practice started in 1990 at the winery and is now practiced on all parcels. The domaine is comprised of 57 acres spread across various zones of the appellation. Much of the planting is done on vineyards famously littered with large stones, known as galets, which store heat during the day and release it in the cool of night. Other parcels are planted on clay/chalk soil, while others sit on sand and gravel. The average age of the vines is 50 years old, with 10 acres of 95 year old vines.

Andre Perret 2004 Cotes du Rhone $25
André Perret took control of the family domaine – just half a hectare – in 1982. Like many small vignerons of the Northern Rhône, the Perrets were small-scale farmers, growing fruit and keeping livestock, as well as tending their small plot of vines. In fact, the main concern here was historically the orchard, but this is now very much a sideline business, as the wines coming from André Perret’s property are now considered top-class. Expansion of this small domaine was vital, and soon after taking control André Perret purchased a number of plots in Condrieu, together with some in St. Joseph, increasing the size of his holdings to over eight hectares.

Bonfils 1999 Gigondas (1.5) $74
The Domaine du Gour de Chaulé, situated in the heart of the village of Gigondas, was founded in 1900 by Eugene Bonfils, the grandfather of the current proprietor, Aline Bonfils. All the wine produced at the estate was sold in bulk to negociants until 1972, when the mother of Madame Bonfils began to bottle a small percentage for sale to private clients. The tradition of estate bottling has continued to grow under the direction of Aline Bonfils, and now accounts for approximately 50% of annual production. The domaine comprises 15 hectares, 10 of which are within Gigondas, with the remaining 5 situated in the surrounding commune of Vacqueyras.

Les Aphillanthes 2001 Cotes du Rhone Villages $22
Domaine Les Aphillanthes is a rising star of the southern Rhône. Proprietor Daniel Boulle, together with his wife Helene, has been tending his vines for many years, and until recently he was happy to sell his produce to the local co-operative. Fortunately for those of us who appreciate the wines of the Rhône, Daniel Boulle’s friends rightly saw that his fruit was of superb quality,and deserved to be bottled on its own, rather than absorbed into the wines of the local co-op. And, thus, Domaine Les Aphillanthes was born. Located in the small town of Travaillan, just northwest of Gigondas, Daniel and Helene fashion several cuvées of Côtes du Rhônes which have burst onto the international markets to considerable acclaim.

Chateau Redortier 2001 Gigondas $33
Etienne de Menthon of Gigondas’ Château Redortier is an outsider in several respects. He is not a native of the region and lives with his wife up in the hills near to the tiny hamlet of Suzette, near Beaumes-de-Venise. Perhaps more important is his use of 40% Syrah in all his red wine cuvées — except the Beaumes Prestige which uses 60% — extraordinary for this part of the valley. Because of the high altitude, Mourvèdre won’t ripen fully here, so none is grown. Also, Menthon’s refuses to use any wood ageing, as he considers it detrimental to the flavors of Grenache-based wines. The results speak for themselves: some of the finest, most elegant Gigondas produced, critically acclaimed as being one of the appellation’s very best estates.

Pierre Usseglio 2004 Châteauneuf-du-Pape $83
Pierre Usseglio 2004 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Mon Aieul $41

One of the most renowned domaines in the region, Usseglio was founded in 1948 by Italian-born Francis Usseglio. Having moved to the Southern Rhone in the early ’30s and working as a vineyard laborer, he had the opportunity to manage eight hectares of vineyards, from which he began to produce his own wine. His son and successor, Pierre, increased the domaine’s holdings over time, and Pierre’s sons Jean-Pierre and Thierry today run an estate of 22 hectares and 15 different vineyards. Half of the Usseglios’ vines are over 60 years old; the other half over 30. They produce terrifically concentrated yet balanced wines that reveal layers of aromatic and flavor complexity, and are highly sought after.

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