It seemed a good plan. Take one day at the Rhône Découvertes tasting in Avignon. Some of the world's greatest wine bargains go to market as Côtes du Rhône or Côtes du Rhône-Villages. Taste nothing else; try to discover as many new ones as possible. What could be a better use of eight hours?
The Palais des Papes in Avignon is a great venue – in which to shoot a shadowy movie thriller plotted around fourteenth-century papal intrigues. The bottles waited for us in four (or was it five?) conclave-sized caverns containing the wine wares of around 100 growers each, connected by a long series of dark stone stairways and galleries, set around a large courtyard. Each grower, of course, has between four and eight wines from different appellations, each with a different blend, a different élevage and a different story.
New names? This, of course, means much time spent tasting unsuccessful efforts, followed by the struggle for polite, useful and not overly negative comments. I was clutching business cards, a notebook, a computer, a camera, a glass and soon a sheaf of papers too. It didn’t take long to realise that I’d need a week to do what I’d hoped a day would achieve.
There was, though, a vision of paradise. I remembered a column written many years ago written by Charles Metcalfe in which his wife, fellow wine writer Kathryn McWhirter, handed him a glass of what she said was her dream red wine. What were the words? Lush, soft, caressing, gentle, busy with perfumes, enticing with soft fruits, palpably yet gently textured, that sort of thing – and affordable. I emoted so strongly with this Côtes du Rhône ideal that I’ve never forgotten it. But what was the domain name? Perhaps a quiet prayer in a dark corner would bring it back.
There was one final flaw to my plan: 2011. This was the logical vintage for growers to show in 2013, but my advice to anyone reading this is to skip it, unless you are building a vertical collection or drink nothing but Southern Rhône wine all year long. The 2011 Southern Rhônes are best left for those who don’t read wine magazines or wine blogs. The density disappears; the fruit dries out; the excitement evaporates. I don’t understand the logic of wine writers urging off-vintages on their readers, unless it’s to do grower-friends a favour or on the unlikely hypothesis of a bargain. What’s the point? The 2011 wines are just not as good as those from great vintages like 2007, 2009 and 2010, and what I tasted from 2012 suggested that it will be an exciting vintage, too.
My day wasn’t a total failure. There was one happy discovery: the wines of Frédéric Dorthe at Domaine du Chapitre, up in the Rhône’s less well-known right bank at St Marcel d’Ardèche. The unbottled 2012 ‘No. 7’ had all the perfumed poise I’d been searching for, while his classic cuvée from 2009 had astonishing texture and depth for an Ardèche Côtes du Rhône. Even his 2011 ‘Aria’ (a pure Syrah wine) was alluring: not as perfumed as the 2012, but with beautifully extracted tannins and pure black-cherry fruits.
Other good wines from new names to me included the wines of Château Rochecolombe at Bourg St Andéol, also in the Ardèche (especially the two 2010 versions of the Côtes du Rhône-Villages, one oaked and one not): generous, fleshy and exuberant, if lacking in aromatic finesse; the 2010 Côtes du Rhône-Villages Cuvée Florentin from the up-coming Plan de Dieu sector from Bastide St Vincent (sturdy, gutsy: a spadeful of sweet earth); and the new pure-Syrah Cuvée Oto Côtes du Rhône from the Gigondas-based Domaine de la Mavette: stunning orange-blossom-scented wine from 2012, provided it’s turfed out of wood and into bottle before too long. There was also a creditable 2011 Grenache-based Côtes du Rhône from the Châteauneuf domain Bosquet des Papes, the Cuvée Nicolas Boiron: a soprano, but sweetly fleshy with it. The problem with wine fairs, though, is that you know you’ve missed far more than you’ve found.
And then: a miracle. The last room; the last hour. Of course: how could I have forgotten? Not a new name, but a glowing old one: Rémy Klein’s Domaine la Réméjeanne, based at Cadignac near Sabran in the Gard. The blissfully simple 2012 ‘Un Air de Réméjeanne’ Côtes du Rhône is in bottle already: strawberries metamorphosed into wine. Klein has done well with his 2011s, but even so I would stick to the 2010s, and especially the unoaked, old-vine Côtes du Rhône-Villages Les Génévriers (mostly Grenache with a dash of Syrah). This wine seemed to incarnate that remembered ideal perfectly: light, pure, lifted and billowing with graceful scents. The palate showed wonderful penetration and density despite having nothing evidently fat, rich or heavy about it. If wines were angels…
Written by Andrew Jefford