Are the ‘Lesser’ Appellations in the Rhone Valley Really Second Rate?
While it is no secret that I adore all types of wines that stem from the Rhone, a weakening dollar and increasing global demand for wines from this region has caused me to take a closer look at the famed region’s less prestigious appellations to find value. My major criticisms regarding top wines originating from less heralded segments of the Rhone is that, while not short on character, they lack the polish, depth and textural refinement of their more prominent siblings. I hoped that this tasting would change my perception of these wines a bit, at least in regard to any pre-conceived notions I may have had concerning their quality. The good news is, it did shut me up, well, at least a little bit.
For theme purposes, the ‘lesser appellations’ were defined as any region of the Northern or Southern Rhone that is not Cote Rotie, Hermitage or Chateauneuf du Pape. We were all responsible for sourcing various wines of each region and tasted them blind. While there were certainly a few pedestrian, blasé pretenders in the lineup, a couple wines of the bunch absolutely had me completely fooled that they were not of ‘lesser’ pedigree at all (to the tune of ‘who snuck in a real Chateauneuf in here?!’). It likely won't shock anyone that Santa Duc proved to be the cream of the Southern Rhone's lesser crop, nor that Chapoutier was....well, Chapoutier, but there were a couple studly showings from names that may not currently be on your radar screen but are absolutely worth a closer look next time you find yourself on the lookout for value from the Rhone.
- I brought wine number 14 and decanted it for 2 hours (it is an ’05 and can show in an extremely tight fashion) and wine number 10 was popped and poured, sans breathing. So breathing (counter-intuitively) could have hurt this wine.
- Wines of such high production and varied distribution are subject to more dramatic variation from bottle to bottle (whether it’s at the producer level, distributing level or handling level, it seems to be a fact of life that is demonstrated painfully well by Las Rocas).
- We are crappy tasters and have no clue what we are doing! I rated the initial bottle 91+ points and the 2nd bottle w/ an 87…my notes were somewhat similar on both but I stated the wine 14 was simply un-interesting.
2004 Domaine de la Montagne d'Or Côtes du Rhône Villages Séguret Excellence - France, Rhône, Southern Rhône, Côtes du Rhône Villages Séguret
This was perhaps the most innocuous and superficial wine that we tasted all evening. It had a grapey, superficial disposition on the palate that was neither impressive nor offensive. There was a decent foundation of sweet, ripe fruit, but it was simply not accompanied by anything compelling nuance or character to distinguish itself. Personally, I’d find this to be a decent picnic drink, but tend to prefer rose on my outdoor excursions, 81 points.
2004 Franck Balthazar Cornas Chaillot - France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, Cornas
Hands down, the most Burg-friendly beverage we consumed yesterday from aromatics alone. An earthy, brett-ophiles delight, expelling cigar tobacco, cedar, truffle, damp underbrush and red currant scents that unfortunately were all about foreplay as they lead to an attenuated, tannic and somewhat hollow mid-palate that craved flesh for requisite balance. I think this is a case and point of what the high yields of ’04 correlate to, great noses and lean, ungenerous palates, 84 points.
2001 Patrick Lesec Vacqueyras Vieilles Vignes - France, Rhône, Southern Rhône, Vacqueyras
I found this wine to demonstrate the potential and promise of the appellation of Vacqueyras, but also expose its vulnerability in elevating the regional winemaking to the next level. A dazzling nose of iron, graphite, soy, bay leaf and currants that lead to yet another depth-less palate which disappoints me because there is no reason for this wine to not be outstanding. It is loaded w/ character and foundational elements, but simply can’t complete the package in terms of textural richness, depth and length, 86 points.
2003 Sequillo Cellars Sequillo - South Africa, Coastal Region, Swartland
A mirror image in quality to number 13, as this wine was technically sound, provided complex elements of intrigue, but lacked the excitement and intensity of its outstanding peers. The aromas of Indian spices (curry, cumin), figs, leather and black currants were a nice start, but the medium bodied, modestly constructed palate lacks length and is two dimensional wine in a three dimensional world. I consider this wine to be a solid framework to build on for future vintages (perhaps a metaphor for the Cape's potential w/ this varietal?), 85 points.
We saved the classiest wine of the bunch for last, as I could have easily mistaken this for a young, unevolved Chave. Copious amounts of black pepper, raspberry, fig compote, tarragon, violets and crushed rocks emerge in this tantalizingly pure effort that is just waiting to blossom. Hauntingly shaped, delicately nuanced and poised for a beautiful future, this ’05 gave Chapoutier a run for his money, 93+ points.
2003 Weinlaubenhof Alois Kracher Cuvée Beerenauslese - Austria, Burgenland, Neusiedlersee
In homage to a fallen pioneer, I hope to do him a touch of justice w/ my feeble impressions of his recent work. While I am unfamiliar w/ his wines, this mélange of botrytis inflected grapes had fermented to a formidable higher alcohol (12 plus percent) and was endowed w/ a gorgeous amount of acids to define its suave notes of bee pollen, honeysuckle blossom, apricot, brown sugar and white flowers. The palate was beautifully streamlined, cut and had such focus to its intensity of flavors that I think all of us had the pleasure of paying tribute to the great man last night. Cheers to him and all that he inspired with his passion and direction.