BY JUSTIN DILLON
My last column. Wow.
I’ve been writing this thing on and off for the past three years, and now it’s about to end. I’ll miss having a campus-wide platform that comes with virtually no editing. And although what was said about the column in the Parody is probably true, I hope you’ve still laughed at some of the jokes and perhaps even learned something. I’ve tried to use a light touch, except when the subject matter called for something heavier, as it did a couple of weeks ago. In any event, I hope you’ve enjoyed it.
Rather than belabor the valediction, I suppose I should just get started, which is what I’ll do now.
Fenno sat in the Hark-
(Oops, wrong column.) I love Rhone wines.
Whether you’re looking for lip-smacking fruit at $10 a bottle or raw, ageworthy muscle for more than 20 times that, the Rh?ne Valley has something for you. If, forsaking all others, I had to pick the wines of one region to drink for the rest of my life, I’d pick Rhones.
To use a baseball metaphor, if Bordeaux and Burgundies are the Yankees – unquestionably dominant, in terms of both talent and history – Rhones are the Braves – reliable and consistently excellent, even if, on average, they don’t usually manage to come out on top.
The Rhone Valley has two primary geographical divisions – the “Northern Rhone” and the “Southern Rhone.” (Okay, not everything about French wines is hard to remember.) For red wine, the most significant Northern Rhone regions are Cote Rotie, Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage, all of which make wines almost entirely from the Syrah grape. (In Australia, Syrah is called Shiraz, but they are exactly the same grape – big, spicy and rich.)
Both Cote Rotie and Hermitage tend to be fairly expensive – easily $40 and up – but can last for years and are worth it if you like brawny wines that smack you around a little. (Bargains can be found in the lesser appellation of Crozes-Hermitage, where prices start in the high teens.) They taste of dark, roasted fruit and sometimes have an almost meaty, barnyard-like quality on the nose. That isn’t as nasty as it sounds; it’s an earthiness that gives the wine some guts, and you don’t taste the barnyard when you drink it.
Vintage-wise, 1999 was among the best ever; 1995, 1997 and 1998 were also very good. As for whites in the Northern Rhone, check out Condrieu if you’re willing to splurge – it’s 100 percent Viognier, delicate and floral – and drink them within the first three years of the vintage. The Southern Rhone differs from the Northern Rhone in the diversity of both its grapes and its prices. The dominant grape in this region is Grenache, but other commonly found grapes include Syrah, Cinsault, Mourvedre and Carignan.
The Southern Rhone offers a range from which can produce inexpensive, fruit-bomb wines in the Cotes du Rhone, Cotes du Ventoux and Lirac, or more serious, ageworthy wines in Gigondas, Vacqueyras and – perhaps the king of all Rhone wines, Northern or Southern -Chateauneuf du Pape.
(In a recent issue of his newsletter, wine critic Robert M. Parker said that Chateauneuf du Pape, which can include up to 13 grape varietals, “produces one of the world’s most sumptuous wines that remains one of oenophilia’s best kept secrets.” Calling Parker a “wine critic,” by the way, is like calling Laura Cappiello “kinda pretty.”)
The less expensive Southern Rhones tend to be juicy, with lots of cherry fruit; the more expensive ones can have a black-cherry richness that’s infused with roasted herbs and brambly fruits. As for vintages, 1998 is widely considered the best year ever in the Southern Rhone; 1999 and 2000 are excellent as well. Upshot: if you buy a Rhone wine with 1998 or later on the bottle, you’re likely to be in for a treat.
Before I turn to the tasting notes, a quick word on some of the big Rhone names to look for. The following producers, listed roughly in order of preference, are all top-notch and should be widely available: Beaucastel, Guigal, Domaine du Caillou, Domaine de la Janasse, Paul Jaboulet-Aine, Chapoutier, and Vieux Telegraph.
Last week, I went to an In Vino Veritas wine tasting, where we tasted several wines from Chapoutier, a giant in the Rhone. Among the highlights of the evening, besides getting to sit next to Taryn Fielder all night, was the 1998 Cote Rotie Les Becasses ($94.99 retail), which had a huge barnyard of a nose, with tons of bacon fat and spice in the mouth. (Taryn didn’t like it, so I got to drink hers.) The 1999 Crozes-Hermitage Les Meysonniers Rouge ($27.99 retail) was also great, tasting of leather and roasted fruits. (Taryn: “I would drink this.”)
As for the Southern Rhone Chapoutiers, the 1999 Cotes du Rhone Belleruche Rouge ($10.99 retail), a 50/50 blend of Syrah and Grenache, was a straightforward, cherry-fruited wine with more structure and a longer finish than I expected for the price. The 1999 Chateauneuf du Pape La Bernadine Rouge ($44.99 retail) was a smoky, powerful wine with deep black cherry fruit, although it could definitely use more time in the bottle. (Taryn: “Maybe I’m getting drunk, but it’s a bit too much.”) Finally, a white: I found the nutty and citrusy 1999 Chateauneuf du Pape La Bernadine Blanc ($44.99 retail) to be tasty but not nearly worth the high price. (Taryn: “Yummy.” Funny, that’s what I’ve always said about her.)
As for other wines I’ve drunk in the past few weeks – all but one of which I bought at Marty’s – among the best was something I bought with my friend Josh Solomon (one of next year’s RECORD wine columnists) at the Public Interest Auction: a 1990 Guigal Hermitage (around $100 retail) that was inky black, huge, roasted and deep. Bacon fat, smoke and spice abounded. Simply wonderful. Also excellent – one of the best wines I’ve drunk all year – was the Chateau St. Cosme Gigondas 2000 ($22.99). Loaded with depth, brambly fruit, herbs and roasted herbs, it is an astonishing wine.
The Domaine La Garrigue Cuvee Speciale Vacqueyras 1999 ($11.99) was a classic Rhone wine; roasted black fruits, cassis and herbs de Provence abounded in this eminently gulpable wine. Less intense but with pretty good structure were two Cotes du Rhone, the Domaine Brusset Cairanne Cotes du Rhone Villages ($14.99), which had straight-ahead black cherry fruit as well as some saddle leather and smoke, and the Louis Bernard Cotes du Rhone Villages ($11.99), spicy and fairly big, but with slightly less body. In that price range, the juicy Chateau Pesquie Les Terrasses Cotes du Ventoux 2000 ($9.99), which burst with cherries and blackberries, may be a better buy.
Of two wines by the same producer from a region that borders the Rhone, one is recommended: the Mas de Gourgonnier Reserve du Mas Les Baux de Provence 2000 ($16.99) was a juicy, raspberry-filled delight with faint hints of spice, whereas the non-reserve Mas de Gourgonnier Les Baux de Provence 2000 ($11.99) was overly thin and light.
Finally, a white wine that will make you think: the Alain Voge Saint PÎray 1999 ($21.99) was voluptuous and complex; I tasted caramel popcorn, flowers, lemon and petrol and had I not needed to taste about eight other wines the night I drank it, I probably would have found more.
As for non-Rhones I’ve drunk recently, two great German whites deserve mention. First is the Dinstlgut Loiben Gruner Veltliner Spatlese 1999 ($10.99), which was surprisingly complex for the price. Fresh green apples dominated, but there were also notes of white pepper, banana, and even gunflint. Second, perhaps better overall but with less bang for the buck, was the Domaine Zind Humbrecht Clos Hauserer 1997 ($19.99), another fruit basket of a wine, boasting tropical fruits like papaya but also overtones of petrol that kept it from being unctuous.
Speaking of unctuous, avoid the overly syrupy Cham
bers Rosewood Vineyards Rutherglen Tokay ($15.99, 375 ml). I love dessert wines, but this one lacked balance – it was simply too cloying, especially after a heavy dinner. Other wines to avoid are the underfruited Morellino di Scansano Le Mandorlae 1998 ($10.99), the overoaked Capcanes Mas Collet 1999 ($9.99) and the bland Tardieu-Laurent Les Grands Augustins Vin de Pays D’Oc 2000 ($12.99).
Thanks for reading – and happy drinking!