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Monday, September 10, 2007

Romanticizing on the Rhone

Back in the saddle again! After a two week hiatus of drinking nothing but Turkish Raki & diluted beer, I am back to savoring the flavor of yeast smacked grape juice. I have been immersed in the Rhone and apparently neither hell nor high water will break my stride. Few other wine regions of the world have such an amalgamation of jagged topography, extreme viticulture, dramatic exposures and torridly stressed grapes. When one notices how all these landscapes are undercut by a Mistral of Provencal sensibilities, how can it not feel like home? A healthy dose of garrigue has become mother’s milk to me, and I don’t think peanut butter and jelly will ever taste the same after enjoying an adulthood of the Rhone’s homecookin’.

The renaissance of the past couple decades, that has been characterized by a shift from negociant control to more artisan-oriented domain bottling, has pierced me w/ an incising arrow of Francophilian dimension. Is there any region of the world w/ a greater abundance of uncompromising, progressively talented individuals than that of the Rhone? Perhaps, but my blindness is currently too enjoyable to not allow myself to simply bathe in it.

Bordeaux has the left and right banks. In Burgundy, there is the cross section of the Cote d’Or. Arguably, the sprawling east to west acreage of the Loire makes a convincing case to be France’s most diverse realm of quality minded appellations…but there’s just something about the microcosm that the Rhone world encapsulates which drives me to obsession.

The dichotomy of the north & the south imbues an explorer w/ such varied terrains that stretch from the nearly vertical inclines of Cote Rotie, to the nestled bush vine territory amidst the rolled stones of La Crau. The paradoxical logic that’s derived from co-fermenting white and red grapes to, gasp, darken the color of the savory, decadent examples of Roasted Slope Syrah (don’t forget the Viognier) seem to agitate such a irresistible sense of disorder in my vinous desires. This bi-polar sense of harmony is seen distinctly, but equally in the south, a virtual desert of old vine Grenache that bakes in the arid, penetrating sunlight. Discussions of terroir always highlight the features of heat-retentive rocks, radiating their daylight warmth throughout the night, to key up the ripeness even greater. Ironically, the clay subsoils that tame the ripeness may be the true key to Chateauneuf du Pape’s quality…but that fact is rarely mentioned in most wine related publications.

With 13 plus varietals allowed in the South, why are less than 5% of the acres under vine dedicated to white grapes? Probably the same reason why Kendall Jackson is so financially viable…they don’t plant any Chardonnay. If everybody liked Bourboulenc and if Roussanne were commercially suitable, I’d probably not be writing about them right now. Limited availability and singularity tend to make the wine geek’s appetite all the more ravenous….I can’t get enough of this blends of Clairette and Picpoul…by the way, what’s a Picpoul?! Obscurity makes one feel even more eccentric about their obsessions I suppose.

I think some other facets that inevitably attract me to Rhone territory can be expressed in twofold fashion:

  1. The best producers ability to preserve a traditional core while evolving towards the contemporary.

Case in point: Marcel Guigal’s single vineyard La Las probably have the most aggressive regimen of New Oak known to man, but the heart of the process is to preserve the essence of the fruit and the distinctive terroirs that each parcel provides. Call him a control freak, but don’t call him an obsessive seasoner!

Another for good measure: New wave Chateauneuf producer Domain Cristia not only makes multiple cuvees (Cuvee Renaissance representing their flagship juice), they also utilize smaller barrels for their Mourvedre & add relatively large proportions of Syrah to the final cepage (depending upon the vintage). While I certainly do not find these practices objectionable, critics will claim darker, oak treated wines do not represent the essence of Chateauneuf. While resistance is understandable, the wines speak for themselves in not only their richness, but their core of terroir driven flavors that always seem to shine through any ‘technique’ in time. I find their modernity to be additive instead of obstructive.

  1. The focus on a broader, meaningful sense of place. The proliferation of single vineyard designated cuvees throughout the wine universe has become a bit tiresome, as has talking about it for that matter. While the New World is attempting to uncover its sweet spots through thousands of relatively innocuous vineyard designated wines, the Old World tends to shun pieces of land that haven’t been historically classified as hallowed ground. I don’t see the Rhone as immune to the single vineyard vice (as some luxury priced single parcel cuvees certainly exist), but an emphasis on more expansive, significant scopes of land seems to prevail. Perhaps this is chiefly due to how sprawling most domain’s vineyard holdings are…a piece here, a piece there. In the case of the Rhone, I find appellations such as Gigondas, Lirac, Condrieu or Crozes-Hermitage have plenty to say by themselves, w/ plenty of specificity. If a producer tends to utilize more sandy soils in Chateauneuf vs. stony, you’ll be able to sense that in the perfume and structure of the wine…but it will still undeniably be a Chateauneuf. Sometimes distinctions between trivial specks of land can be fascinating, but the inundation in the wine world w/ the acronym S.V.D. has become quite tedious…
Ahhh, what better way to punctuate a Rhone stream of consciousness than w/ a couple beautiful examples of the goods?! Hope you enjoy.
Domaine Courbis St. Joseph Blanc 2005

Scents of lilac, crushed stones and dried pineapple rind have a terrific focus, while maintaining a serious sense of subtlety. Relatively plump in the mouth, cut by rocky minerality and flavors of salty cashew. While somewhat austere, this white is structured and well put together and epitomizes its somewhat obscure, but unique nook of white Rhone terroir. 88 points.

Unlike the precocious, tucked away appellations to the south (the cuvees that rely on Grenache Blanc in particular), whites from St. Joseph of this nature are sturdier and constructed to live longer. Do not hesitate to tuck bottles of this nature away for 4-6 years…while not a Hermitage Blanc, it provides an interesting window to an alternate world of white.

I can't imagine a better finale than that of the 2003 Domaine Saint Prefert Collecion Charles Giraud. While this vintage is certainly a polarizing one to the Chateauneuf faithful, this is a producer that certainly harnessed it all in stride. Perhaps the harshly severe climactic conditions were quelled by the feminine sensibilities of Isabel Ferrando? Either way, the women of the Rhone certainly have exhibited a deft touch w/ old vine Grenache (as well as Mourvedre).
The wine is very deep in color and supremely endowed aromatically, chock full of raspberry ganache, fig and kirsch flavors that brew a seductive concoction of pure, heady delight. Ultra-rich and plush on the palate, a gorgeously intense effort the exhibits a sense of feminine muscularity. Pure, striking aspects of minerality, garrigue and Valhrona chocolate gush on the admirably generous finish. Wow, what a wine! A gorgeous ride indeed…I cannot get enough of Isabel’s wines…my cellar is inundated w/ them- but I fear my appetite for gratification will outlast my sensible fortitude, preventing me from ever watching them evolve! Fantastic, profusely delicious wine! 97 points.

A Rhone red is a meal in itself folks…don’t forget your silverware!
Bon appetite.


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