SEPTEMBER 29, 1997
A view from the top
by Rene Corton
1995 Reds from the Southern Rhone Valley
The 1995 vintage wines are uniformly excellent throughout France. Bordeaux had the first really good year since 1990 and the red burgundies and rhones are excellent. Bordeaux prices will be high due to the hype, while the always expensive burgundies will be even more so in 95. Wines from the southern Rhone Valley, where 93 and 94 were also good years, will be more moderately priced, and this is where to look for high quality at reasonable prices. Wines from the Northern Rhone (Cote Rotie, Hermitage, St-Joseph, etc.) are also excellent in 1995 and will be covered in a future article.
The southern Rhone wine region is centered around Orange and Avignon in southeastern France and is typically referred to as Provence.
The climate there is hot, dry, and windy, and the scent of Provencal herbs and vines growing in the stony soil is pervasive. The four major food groups here are olive oil, garlic, rosemary-thyme, and lamb cooked in a bold fashion with strong dominant flavors which call for big robust, usually red, wines. And big robust wines they are with loads of fruit and often substantial tannin. Most of the wines are blends made from several grape varieties; predominately grenache with moderate amount of syrah, mourvedre, and cinsault and minor amounts of other obscure grapes. In terms of quality, Chateauneuf-du-Pape sits at the top followed by Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Lirac, the Cotes-du-Rhone-Villages (CDRV), and the Cotes-du-Rhone (CDR). Prices range from $7 to $12 for Cotes-du-Rhone to $20 to $35 for Chateauneut-du-Pape.
In a great year like 1995, generic CDR can be of excellent quality and value for consumption now or laying down for several years. Some producers making consistently good wines are: Coudelet de Beaucastel. Dom. Gramenon, Dom. Andre Brunel, Guigal, Rabasse-Charavin, Dom. St.-Gayan, Dom. Santa-Duc, and Chateau des Tours. The last domaine, owned by Bernard Reynaud and run by his son Emmanuel, make a CDR and an even lower priced Vin-du-Pays of amazing quality; clearly two of the best 1994s I tasted in my June visit. The 95s, still in cask, promise to be even better. They also make one of the best and most ageworthy Vacqueyras wines which is usually released late; the 94 had not been bottled at the time of our June visit.
Next on the quality scale come the CDRV, the best of which have the village attached to the name. Very few of these wines are known outside the region, and quality is high relative to the price. Wines available in the Northwest include the Cairanne from Brusset, de l'Oratoire St.-Martin, Rabasse-Charavin, and Marcel Richaud. I was also very impressed with Richaud's white Cairanne which became our house white on our June vacation in Vaison-la-Romaine. I will always remember the lovely afternoon tasting with Marie Richaud. In CDRV of Rasteau, the father and son team of Andre and Frederic Romero at Domaine De la Soumade make blockbuster red wines which excelled in 1995. Domaine Ste.-Anne in St.-Gervais and Domaine De Piauger in Sablet round out the cadre of high class CDRV producers available in this market.
Two Cotes-du-Rhone villages, Gigondas and Vacqueyras were elevated to full appellation controlee status in 1971 and 1990 respectively and produce big robust and sometimes rustic red wines of very high quality which compare very favorably with the much more famous reds of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. In Vacqueyras, Chateau des Tours, Domaine le Sang des Cailloux, Charbonniere, and Domaine des Amouriers make top rate wines which are usually available in the Seattle area.
Sadly the proprietor of des Amouriers, Jocelyn Chudzikiewicz, was killed in a motor accident shortly before our June 97 visit. His dedication and enthusiasm will be missed. Finally we come to Gigondas, my favorite village in the Rhone with its picturesque square, four tasting caves, and lovely restaurant, L'Oustalet, all nestled up against the base of the limestone mountains called the Dentelles de Montmirail. Gigondas has a number of excellent producers available in the Northwest market. I particularly like Domaines de Cayron, Daniel Brusset, Santa Duc, Raspail-Ay, St.-Gayan, and les Goubert. In a great vintage, like 1995, these are wines you buy by the case for drinking in 5 to 10 years.
Next time I will review the wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape; the greatest of the southern Rhones. In the mean time, for anyone wishing to lean more about these wines, the recently published "WINES OF THE RHONE VALLEY" by Robert Parker (Simon and Schuster, 1997) is a must read.