Unbeatable Rhone

Rhône expert JOHN LIVINGSTONE-LEARMONTH hunts down the best of the Rhône’s great-value wines, recommending 20 excellent producers whose wines offer huge enjoyment – and don’t cost the earth

Think Red, Think Rhône. No, I didn’t make it up, but I can remember it. This is the slogan used by the Rhône region to promote itself across Britain over the past three years. The timing has been good, since vintages from 1998 to 2002 were distinguished, and 2003 was another generally successful year.

Helping to push quality have been widespread improvements in vineyard work and vinification during these years. Reduced cropping by patient growers and cool macerations, for instance, will sort out domaines in 2003. ‘We won’t make the mistakes of previous hot years,’ comments Yves Gras, the dedicated owner of Domaine Santa-Duc in Gigondas.

Happily, it’s now unusual to find lax growers and shoddy, uneven wines. Particular progress has been made in the Rhône Villages and neighbouring communes, where the wines are juicier and more striking than before. They deliver exciting flavours that match a wide variety of dishes and can be drunk solo, a factor that helps draw in younger drinkers.

Even long-established areas such as Cornas and Crozes-Hermitage have witnessed improvements, while such fringe newcomers as Côtes du Ventoux and Costières de Nîmes possess a decent spread of domaines producing properly structured wines of character and longevity.

The commercial drawback to an extent is that there are not enough outlets to go round for all these wines. Merchants tell me that they don’t need to stock a Ventoux because they already have a much higher-profile Côtes du Rhône filling that broad price category. They also point out that their lists have doubled or trebled the Rhône exposure in recent times.

‘Given the quality in the Rhône, the value is phenomenal,’ states Brough Gurney-Randall of OW Loeb, ‘but I know people get a bit bemused by all the different villages. They still think the area gives good value, though.’

Selecting a group of undervalued domaines therefore comes with the proviso that there are wines in Rhône that are not necessarily exported, but which rate as great buys from their cellars. They are not present here. To find such domaines, my rule is that I am always happy to pay for wines that reflect their origins pretty faithfully. A committed owner is another given.

Good-value quests tend to rule out trumpeted wines made by go-go producers, who are keen to emphasise the size, scale and techniques behind the winemaking. The hand of these growers can lie heavily on a bottle, (and actually often includes a special, heavy bottle…), so there is an absence of turbo-charged, modern-technique wines from this selection. This is not to write off big wines completely, merely to observe that they do not always give value on a tight budget.

There are several organic domaines, which marks a growing mastery of the essentials of making low-intervention wines cleanly and efficiently. These are wines where the family culture has been to emphasise the vineyard work over generations, not just in recent times. Sensibly low yields are another prevailing theme.

It’s also fair to add that the négociant trade from within the Rhône is on the rise; apart from regulars Chapoutier, Delas, Guigal and Paul Jaboulet Aîné, there are good developments at names such as Ogier, Laurent Charles Brotte and Michel Bernard.

While vintage 2002 was a year of great weather problems right near harvest time, the 20 domaines singled out here are all skilled enough to have produced sound wine on a reduced scale. And if the wine wasn’t up to scratch, you won’t see it anyway – it was sold off in bulk.

NORTHERN RHONE

Chateau Curson

Etienne Pochon is the refined, slightly reserved owner of this 14.5ha (hectare) domaine in the eastern end of Crozes. He left the Cooperative de Tain in 1988, and stepped up his commitment to natural vineyard methods in the 1990s. His E Pochon reds and whites display a simple fruitiness, but the red Château Curson is the star. Aged for 11 months in one-third new, the rest young oak, it is a wine of real dimension, and has enjoyed a run of quality between 1999 and 2001. These Cursons are marked by elegantly spiced dark fruits, with a tannic frame that needs 4–5 years.

Red 2001

£114 (case); J&B

Domaine Clusel-Roch

No Big Project here – just a steely resolve to secure quality fruit in the vineyards. Gilbert Clusel and Brigitte Roch’s wines moved into the leading flight at Côte-Rôtie during the 1990s. These elegant, wonderfully clear-cut Syrahs have very pure fruit/earth aromas and sinewy, firm flavours on the palate. The vineyard is a tiny 3.5ha in the northern sector of Côte-Rôtie, and it became officially organic in 2002. Two years in cask for the classic, also two years in new/young oak for the prized Grandes Places single vineyard. Wonderful, classic Côte-Rôtie.

Côte-Rôtie 2001

£22.90–24; J&B, VTr

Côte-Rôtie 2000

£19; J&B

Côte-Rôtie 1997

£19; J&B

Domaine Combier

Laurent Combier lets his wines do the talking. The 15ha domaine also grows peaches and apricots and has been organic since 1970. It is in the south of Crozes, where the warm clay-sand soil near the Isère river allows the Syrah to express juicy, rounded fruits, along with olives and blackcurrant on the bouquets. The classic wine is bottled before the summer, and is great to drink young, taking the overt fruit on the up. The special Clos des Grives receives a year in cask; fat and tarry, with dense stone fruits, it rewards ageing. Laurent has also started a project in the vineyards of Priorat in northeast Spain.

Crozes-Hermitage 2001

£8.99; VRo

Domaine Pierre Gaillard

Twenty years ago Pierre Gaillard helped to build Marcel Guigal’s new vineyard of La Turque. Now he has his own high-quality domaine on the windy plateau above the Rhône, with all the latest cellar equipment for his St-Josephs, Côte-Rôties and Condrieus. In 1995 he took his St-Joseph Clos de Cuminaille back to single 3.8ha vineyard status. Planted in 1981, the Syrah from its sandy granite has always expressed an impressive minerality alongside oily, intense black flavours. Aged for 18 months in cask, 30% new, Cuminaille is a great example of refined modern winemaking – Syrah at its energetic best.

Clos de Cuminaille, St-Joseph 1999/2000

SOUTHERN RHONE

Chateau de Nages

Energetic and switched on, Michel Gassier has been a positive driving force in the fringe Rhône area of Costières de Nîmes. His 100ha domaine (75ha Costières, 25ha vin de pays) turns out stylish, well-structured wines capable of showing two phases – springy, warm fruit, then more variety of cooked flavours, leather and spice if left to age for 4–5 years. The pure Syrah Joseph Torres is young, oak-raised for a year, a dark wine with roasted, intense black fruits, and likely to live 10 years. The Réserve du Château red (70% Grenache, 30% Syrah) is softer, sees no oak and has a classic southern Rhône warmth. The whites, notably the pure Roussanne Joseph Torres, are also winners.

Réserve du Château 2000

£5.49; Odd

Joseph Torres, red 1998

£8.99; Odd

Cuvée Diane, Costières de

Nîmes 2001

£5.09; SCo

Le Clos des Cazaux

This domaine has stepped up a gear under Jean-Michel Vache, and offers excellent value for money from its 18ha of Gigondas and 22ha of Vacqueyras. The bottled wines are from vines over 30 years old, supported by close-up, natural vineyard care. The reds are vat raised for two years – not a trace of wood. This enhances the sense of direct transfer from vine to glass. The Vacqueyras Templiers (50–70% Syrah) is all about ripe black fruits with some tannic support – very tasty in 2000. The Gigondas Tour Sarrazine, 70% Grenache, all vines over 50 years, is meaty, robust and fires out peppery-toned flavours – genuine, plenty wine. The domaine does good white Vacqueyras, too.

Tour Sarrazine, Gigondas 1998

£8.95–9.95; J&B, WSo

Vacqueyras 1998

£7.95; WSo

Vacq Templiers 1998, 1999,-2000

£9.50; Adn, J&B, L&W, Lay, Tan

Clos du Joncuas

The determined Dany Chastan started with her father Fernand in 1980, when women winemakers were rarely sighted in the Rhône. Their domaine makes organic wines of excellent consistency and sound purity, with overt support for the Grenache. ‘The Syrah takes away terroir,’ she says. Their Séguret, Domaine de la Garancière, is a tight, upright wine to drink from four years on. The Vacqueyras, Font de Papier, is in a classic style, with pure flavour and a suitable final tannic flourish. The Gigondas Clos du Joncuas is another terroir wine, that respects the vintage style – a chunky 1998, a savoury 1999, a fine-boned 2000, a full, chewy 2001.

Gigondas 1998/1999

£11.99; VRo, Vis

John Sarson Domaine

Daniel & Denis Alary

This immaculate estate gets right to the bottom of its soil – I taste the Cairannes and find they totally reflect the terroir nuances. The wines have great polish and an all-important purity of taste. Apart from a very good white Cairanne Font d’Estevenas, (30% Viognier in it), the red Estevenas, (65% Grenache-35% Syrah) is sappy and full, a delicious mix of cassis, violets and well-moulded tannins. The Jean de Verde, pure Grenache, bounds along with peppery ripe crop aromas, and is the most overtly big, fat southern wine from the domaine, a staying wine of great length and pedigree.

Font d’Estevenas 2000

£9.52; HBa

Domaine de l’Espigouette

Bernard Latour is a dark, chiselled-faced man whose red wines happily bear his imprint. His domaine is at Violès, with 19ha of Côtes du Rhône and Rhône Villages in the communes of Violès, Travaillan and Jonquières. The Côtes du Rhône (75% Grenache, plus Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault and Carignan) sets a great standard for this category. It is made from vines averaging 45 years, carries genuine depth of flavour, and is long and nicely individual. The Villages also starts with vat-raising, but is switched to barrel for six months; it is chewy, holds good core matter and its tannins need some time to soften.

Côtes du Rhône red 2001

£6.85; BBR

Domaine Font de Michelle

Some domaines are like a pair of old slippers – around for a long time and taken for granted. This 30ha domaine has long been close to the top flight at Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but the Gonnet brothers have ratcheted up the quality over the 1990s. Pricing has remained moderate, making this one of the best price-quality buys in the appellation. The extremely consistent Tradition (70% Grenache) has good depth, clear-cut fruit and solid warmth, benefiting from a low yields policy and mature vines. The special Etienne Gonnet is 70% Grenache of 90–100 years. Oak policy is conservative – a year-plus in mainly used barrels. Stylish whites also, and an interesting new Côtes du Rhône domaine in the Gard here.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape 1998

£13.50; J&B, Tan, WSo

Domaine Les Goubert

Jean-Pierre Cartier has been a man of independent spirit since first bottling in 1973. His 23ha vineyards are split between Gigondas, Sablet and Beaumes-de-Venise, and he promotes lesser varieties such as Picpoul and Terret Noir in his Côtes du Rhône. His red Sablet is 65% Grenache, with main support from Syrah and Mourvèdre, and is a well-structured wine, reflecting its light soil. There is a gentle pepperiness in it. All the wines have clear-cut flavours and an authentic feel. Look out, too, for his white Sablet and his Viognier – both are full, accomplished wines. The 2002s were also well made at this domaine.

Sablet red/white 2001

£7.25; SVS

Domaine de Grangeneuve

The Bour family left Algeria in the 1960s, and has set the standard in the Coteaux du Tricastin since then. Founder Odette Bour died in 2000, and the 85ha domaine is now run by son Henri and his sisters. They make four reds, and two stand out – the 90% Syrah-10% Grenache Cuvée Truffière (one year in cask) and the half-Syrah, half-Grenache Vieilles Vignes (vat raised). Tricastin’s cool evenings give the Syrah a chance to flourish and the Truffière flavour is dark and earthy, with overt richness. The latter is more spiced and chewy. The 2001s are 8–10-year wines, and rate well above their official standing.

Vieilles Vignes 2000

£6.55; BBR, Yap

Domaine du Joncier

Marine Roussel looks too delicate to make wine, but this relative newcomer has been a welcome addition to Lirac since joining her father in 1994 on their 32ha domaine. She also organises art exhibitions and a lightness of touch is apparent in these understated wines. Restricted yields and the introduction of old Cinsault and Carignan from 2001 have boosted their depth. Another domaine that raises the reds only in concrete vat for two years, these are sappy, refined wines with good purity. The 2001 has more guts than the 2000 vintage, with a smoky, tarry side that shows more tannin on the finale. There is good truth in this improving domaine’s wines.

Lirac 2001

£7.95; SVS

Domaine Montirius

This is a rising name at Vacqueyras, a 57ha domaine that has been biodynamic since 1996. Christine and Eric Saurel left the cooperative set-up after the 2001 harvest and are highly motivated.

Their regular Vacqueyras (70% Grenache/30%Syrah) is well packed, the Syrah influence making the wine open and a little tarry. It repays cellaring for 4–5 years, and also decanting. Great value comes with the vin de pays de Vaucluse Cadet de Montirius; this punches well above its weight. 45% each Grenache/Syrah with 5% Cinsault and Merlot, it shows full red berry fruits and a surprising structure for a wine of its alleged status. It should develop towards 2007.

Cadet de Montirius 2001

£5.95; SVS

Domaine de Piaugier

Hard-working Jean-Marc Autran has been at the heart of Sablet for more than 20 years. His wines are very clean, and well made. He doesn’t destalk and relies purely on natural yeasts. He was one of the first growers to offer Sablet made from specific sites, governed by their soil. The Montmartel, 80% Grenache-20% Mourvèdre from gravelly areas, is mainly Grenache and a favourite of mine. The Gigondas, led by Grenache and Mourvèdre, is always very thorough and shows great fruit and style in 2001. The Sablet white is also full and rewards drinking when four years or more old. All these wines are cracking value for money.

Sablet 2001

£6.20–6.49; Maj, Net

Gigondas 2001

£9.38–11.99; Maj, Net

Montmartel 2001

£8.60; Net

n Sablet white 1999/2000/2002

£7.40; Net

Domaine Sainte-Anne

This Rhône Villages domaine at St-Gervais in the Gard department has delivered immaculate wines for more than 20 years. They are blessed with more structure than most Rhône Villages wines, and reward patient cellaring. The Villages is 65% Grenache-30% Syrah. It is vat-raised, while the Syrah content of the St-Gervais, made from an unusual 50–60% of mature 1960s Mourvèdre, is oak-raised. The Villages carries clear dark fruits with some spice, while the St-Gervais steps up a gear: solid and sustained, it is full of decisive, oily black fruits and liquorice tannins – a serious wine way above its supposed standing. Good Côtes du Rhône red and Viognier and a striking, more expensive Syrah St-Gervais Morillons, as well.

Villages 2000

£7.53; HHC, Loe/2001 £8.20; WSo

St-Gervais 1998

£8.99; HHC, Loe

£10.30; WSo

Domaine Santa Duc

Yves Gras likes his wines wild and rocking. Committed and full of drive, he has been a free spirit at Gigondas, with his 2002 undergoing a 64-day vinification, for instance. He makes a punchy, fully powered Côtes du Rhône Les Quatres Terres from 7ha of vineyards at Vacqueyras, Roaix, Rasteau and Séguret – all prime spots. This is 70% Grenache with 25% Syrah support, and is raised in vat for a year. The mix of ripe fruit and some Grenache from 1901 brings intensity. His Gigondas Les Garrigues is another mighty wine – oily, earthy and chunky, with 40% new oak ageing for two years. Rampant flavours here – fasten seat belts before drinking.

Les Quatres Terres, Côtes du Rhône 2000/01

£8.71 (case); F&M, Gau, Hal, HBa

Domaine Versino/Bois de Boursan

Chatty, enthusiastic Jean-Paul Versino

is the third generation of this ex-Piedmontese family at Châteauneuf-du-Pape. His wines have moved into top gear since the early 1990s, and are some of the most punchy, traditionally full-blooded Châteauneufs to be found – high-octane wines with a 65% Grenache content, backed by 15% Syrah and Mourvèdre. With 27 plots spread across just 16ha, they are hand worked, with a solid 22-month large barrel ageing for the classic wine. The use of very ripe grapes gives them a heady, spiced tone. The special Félix is built around 65% Grenache-22% Mourvèdre, and

has notable length and a lifespan of 20 years. Both are genuine wines, perfect for autumn/winter dishes.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2001

£13.50; Adn, Arm (Bois de Boursan), J&B, Jer, Lay

Domaine du Vieux Chene

Jean-Claude and Béatrice Bouche are both conscientious and unassuming – a model for undervalued wines. Their 48ha domaine sits on the edge of the vast and windy Plan de Dieu vineyard. They have been organic since 1996, and work only with Grenache and Syrah, most of it 40–50 years old. Their wines are laissez-faire – the two Côtes du Rhônes are very good, mainly Grenache wines, the Capucines bearing soft red fruit and the slightly older-vine Haie aux Grives with refined black fruits and a helpful thread of tannin. Neither is oaked, both can live for 10 years and

in every vintage they are true to type. Excellent value, with a sense of small domaine care.

Capucines 2000

£5.95; J&B

Haie aux Grives 2000

£6.50; J&B

Les Vignerons d’Estezargues

The area between Avignon and Pont du Gard includes two prime Côtes du Rhône sources, Estézargues and Domazan. This is a mini cooperative of 10 domaines, eight of which bottle their own wines. A common theme is their clear fruit, and peppery tones. The policy moved towards later, very ripe harvesting from 1999, and cooler macerations have also encouraged aromas across the board. All 10 contribute to the Côtes du Rhône Grandes Vignes, where the white is pure Grenache Blanc, a stone-fruited, full wine. Other notable wines are the juicy, black-peppered Genestas Villages (one-third Grenache/ Syrah/Mourvèdre), the Montagnette Villages, a chewy Grenache-inspired wine and the largely Syrah Domaine de la Perillière, full of lithe plum fruit.

Les Grandes Vignes 2002

£5.72 (red & white); Del

Domaine de Perillière 2001

£5.98; Del

John Livingstone-Learmonth is the author of The Wines of the Rhône (Mitchell Beazley).

Written by John Livingstone Learmonth