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Notes from the "Rhône Valley Wines Advanced Seminar Series" in Houston

I attended a seminar and tasting sponsored by the Inter-Rhône and American Sommeliers on Tuesday at Camerata in Houston. Local sommelier, Steven McDonald of Pappas Bros Steakhouse led the review and tasting. While far more of the Rhône Valley was covered in the seminar, I am limiting my notes here to information on the areas from the wines that were tasted.

Northern Rhône- Part 1

This region has a dry, continental climate with warm summers and cold winters. The high speed Mistral winds clear skies and bring more sunshine while preventing disease by drying the vineyards. Due to the climate, the northern Rhône is more susceptible to vintage variation than are their neighbors to the south. The Rhone River originates as melt water from the Rhône glacier and the vineyards sit at elevations of 150-300 meters primarily on the west side.

The cru of Saint-Joseph runs south along the western bank of the river. They produce both red wine from Syrah and white wine from Marsanne and Rousanne. Soils are primarily topsoil and gneiss on granitic bedrock. Due to the diversity of the terrain, styles run the gamut from easy drinking to more serious and age-worthy. 

  • E Guigal Saint-Joseph Blanc 2011 – A blend of 95% Marsanne and 5% Rousanne, this wine had light floral aromas of honeysuckle with light apricot and melon flavors, medium+ body, soft acidity and a long finish. The high level of Marsanne adds richness and weight to this wine. Very pleasant, Steven called it “a white wine for steak”.
The name Côte-Rôtie translates to “roasted slope” and the exposure that the grapes receive is one of the things for which the region is known. It has steep 55 degree southeast facing slopes with terraced vines. Hard granitic soils absorb and reflect heat aiding in ripening while grapes from schist rich soils help to add elegance to the wine. Côte-Rôtie produces only red wine from Syrah with the possible addition of up to 20% Viognier co-fermented from a field blend. The area is known for elegant, full bodied spicy red wines. 
  • Domaine de Bonserine Côte-Rôtie “La Sarrasine” 2009 – This is a blend of 97% Syrah and 3% Viognier selected from the producers best sites. Steven called it a classic example of 2009 Cote-Rotie. Intense aromas and ripe flavors of blackberries with black pepper, smoke and violets. Medium+ body, slightly grippy tannins, fresh acidity and a long finish. 
  • E Guigal Côte-Rôtie “Brune & Blonde” 2010 – Steven described this as “robust and smooth, pretty and balanced”.  It is a blend of 96% Syrah and 4% Viognier. Aromas and flavors of blackberries and smoked meat with a long peppery finish. Full body, medium+ tannins and good acidity.

Hermitage is most known for its ripe, round red wines which have great age ability. It sits at a river bend and the vineyards are planted continuously on one big hill and on the smaller one next to it. Soils are primarily mica schist though there are lieaux-dits, named vineyard areas, with special soil components, aspects and elevations which are known to create specific styles of wine although most Hermitage wines are a blend from these areas. 
  • Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage 2011 – 2011 was a cooler vintage giving some wines a “green” character. This is 100% Syrah that was whole cluster fermented and aged in old barrels. Ripe blackberries and plum, cured meat and a bit of mint. Full body, medium+ tannins and acidity, chewy, long finish. Steven pronounced it, “delicious”.

Southern Rhône - Part 2

 This part of the region has a fairly consistent Mediterranean climate with warm, wet winters and hot, dry summers. The cool, drying winds of the mistral are felt along the flatter and wider vineyard area as the river heads out to sea. Soils are varied.

Wines from the Côtes du Rhône are meant to be easy drinking, everyday wines. Due to the large size of the AOC, wine styles may vary due to the different soils, exposures and allowed mix of grapes; up to 21 different varieties are permitted. 171 communes may produce Côtes du Rhône while only 90 can produce the higher level Côtes du Rhône Villages and 18 of those villages can add their name to the label if all requirements are met.
  • Chateau Beauchene Grande Reserve Côtes du Rhône 2013 – A white wine blend of 25% Clairette, 25% Rousanne, 20% Marsanne, 25% Grenache Blanc and 5% Bourboulenc; this wine had fresh apricot aromas with a bit of dried herbs and flowers. Round, smooth, full body, medium acidity with a long mineral finish.
  • Michel Gassier “Cercius” Côtes du Rhône 2011 – From old vines this wine is 85% Grenache and 15% Syrah. Slightly syrupy aromas and flavors of raspberries and blackberries with pepper, full body, high acidity, moderate tannins, a bit alcoholic. Steven commented on a roasted note he detected. He said this was the producer’s higher tier of Côtes du Rhône.
  • Andre Brunel “Cuvee Sabrine” Côtes du Rhône Villages 2011- Strawberry, black cherry, spicier quality than the previous one. Very balanced. This wine is 80% Grenache and 20% Mouvedre.

Tavel only produces rosé wine and they are known for their more powerful style. Soils and grapes are varied. No single grape variety is allowed to make up more than 60% of a vineyard. Soils range from red iron rich clay to sandy soil with galets to white limestone soils. Tavel is one of only two southern crus situated on the west bank of the Rhône. 
  • Domaine des Carabiniers “Lunar Apoge” Tavel 2013 – A blend of 50% Grenache, 20% Cinsault, 15% Clairette and 15% Syrah. Intense aromas and flavors of strawberry and raspberry with herbs and a mineral finish. Medium+ body, rounded feel, fresh flavor. “A bigger rosé with more pairing options”, per Steven.

Costieres de Nimes is the Rhone’s southernmost AOC. 24 communes within this region produce white and red wine. Their vineyard soils are mostly comprised of alluvial gravel beds known as gress with some sandy top soil and clay over bedrock.
  • Michel Gassier “Nostre Pais” Costieres de Nimes 2011- This wine is a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault. Aromas and flavors of black cherry and raspberry with potting soil. Full body, less acidic, seemingly less fresh than some of the others.

Lirac sits on the right or west bank of the Rhône. Soils are comprised of limestone scree in the west and alluvial and fluvial pebbles and sand as you head east. Historically, this is where barrels were first branded with a “CdR” to prove origin. Lirac wines are known for a style that is similar to Chateauneuf-du-Pape, fuller-bodied, intense and complex.
  • Plateau Des Chenes Lirac 2011 – Pronounced aromas and flavors of red berries, white pepper, sage and a bit of potting soil. Dry, medium+ body, acidity, and fine grained tannins. Steven called this “a more serious wine with greater complexity and length” and “a good food wine.” This is a blend of 60% Syrah and 40% Grenache.

Vacqueyras which translates to “Valley of the Rocks” just received AOC status in 1990. They are known for producing deeply-colored, spicy, full-bodied reds with freshness and intensity.
  • Seigneur de Fontimple Vacqueyras 2012 – Flipping the previous percentages with this one, 60% Grenache and 40% Syrah. Aromas and flavors of red fruit, fennel and nutmeg. Rounder, riper than the previous wine with a bit of a savory note in the finish. 

The seminar ended with the reminder that “For every occasion, the wines of the Rhône Valley are always right.”


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