Obscure Rhone hunting
If in doubt while perusing a strange wine list, choose a bottle from France’s red wine powerhouse
One of the most frequent questions that comes up for wine writers is: “Which wine should I order when presented with a strange wine list?” (I know this all seems a bit theoretical at the moment but I am trying to be optimistic.) To be honest, I don’t have a good track record in this regard; I know enough to create the illusion of knowledge but not enough to choose well. You could put yourself in the hands of the waiter, but what if he knows even less than you, or worse, he’s a natural wine fundamentalist and is going to pick something that smells of old farts?
The Rhone Valley is France’s red wine powerhouse
The safest thing to do is order something from the Rhone Valley. This huge region is France’s red wine powerhouse. It makes so much wine that I am sure that much of it is lousy but the bad stuff doesn’t seem to reach British restaurants. In the southern part, that fat boozy variety grenache is king, spiced up with some Syrah, Carignan, Cinsault and Mourvèdre; in the north, Syrah rules producing leaner, more elegant wines. There are also delicious and underrated whites which we can explore another time.
Now this is where a little knowledge comes in handy. I’d recommend arming yourself with Matt Walls’s newly released Wines of the Rhone to learn more about this diverse region. His first tip is to buy the cheap wine from a big name. Guigal and Chave not only make some of the most sought-after wines in Côte Rôtie and Hermitage respectively, but they both run negociant businesses turning out superb Côtes du Rhône. No matter the vintage, you can’t go wrong.
Walls’ next tip is: “The smallest appellations contain some of the most characterful wine.” You’ve probably heard of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas, but what about Lirac or Sablet? The latter is a named village under the Côtes du Rhone Villages umbrella. Other up-and-coming villages include Valréas, Saint-Andéol and the wonderfully named Massif d’Uchaux. You see one of these on the menu, and it’s a sign that there’s an enthusiast putting the wine list together.
Jason Yapp, whose father pioneered selling just these sorts of wines, recommends looking for the IGPs. These are the areas that used to be called vin de pays but that was too memorable so the French changed the name. These are often right next to more illustrious areas but made from the same grape varieties by the same producers. For example, a red IGP Collines Rhodaniennes (or Colin Rhodes, as I call it in an attempt to keep it in my brain) is very similar to Côte Rôtie but for a third of the price.
So, there you have it: a little knowledge can be a useful thing. Buy a copy of Walls’s book, learn to pronounce those obscure names, and no matter how expensive the government makes it to import wine, at least you’ll be able to drink well.
Côtes du Rhône ‘Le Pavillon’ Château Beauchêne 2019 (Private Cellar £11.86)
Here’s the theory in practice: top Châteauneuf-du-Pape producer makes something for everyday drinking and naturally it’s absolutely bloody brilliant. This is all about perfume and red fruit. I’d suggest never not having this wine in the house.
Domaine Georges Vernay ‘Fleurs de Mai’ Syrah 2019 (Yapp Bros £22.75)
A Côte Rôtie from this chap will set you back £60; but go for the IGP Collines Rhodaniennes and you get as much sophistication for around £20. This is pure classic Northern Rhone Syrah packed with stalky floral notes and raspberries.
Grignan-les-Adhémar, Delas Frères 2019 (The Wine Society £9.50)
This is what used to be known as Côteaux du Tricastin but they changed it because it was too easy for the British to pronounce. This is the Rhone at its lightest and prettiest. It’s always a lovely wine but seemed particularly good in this vintage.
Duché d’Uzès ‘Les Perrasières’ Domaine Camp Galhan 2019 (The Wine Society £10.50)
The appellation Duché d’Uzès was a new one for me. It’s amusing to say it in the style of Del Boy. Mainly Syrah with some grenache in support this is magnificently floral with a scent like sweet lavender. It’s like visiting the south of France.
Saint-Andéol Côtes du Rhône Villages, Vignerons de l’Ardeche 2019 (Yapp Bros £12.75)
When I think of Côtes-du-Rhone, this is the kind of wine that spring to mind. There are herbs like rosemary and thyme, ripe strawberries and dark spices, with big warming flavours of spices and nuts. Oh, and plenty of alcohol. It’s a real winter warmer.
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