Winter White Wonderland


The Cotes Du Rhone wine region is a place of mystery to many American wine drinkers.  If pressed, your average wine lover might be able to specify that Rhone is actually an area in France but beyond that, details about this important wine region often get forgotten in the particulars of a more complicated appellation system and geography.  For anyone looking to get more acquainted with the Rhone, patience is key because it doesn’t take that long reaching an “A ha!” moment and everything comes together.
In brief, there are 37 appellations in the Rhone.  Starting with Cotes du Rhone and Cotes du Villages.  Consider these the base appellations.  Then you have your named Cotes du Rhone villages.  Thinks of them as brand names; there are 18 of these villages.  Some common ones you might see at a wine shop on a label are Rasteau or Sablet.  Then there are 17 Cru wine villages; these are your ‘luxury’ brands.  While Rhone wines in general are a great value, Cru wines are priced at a premium but worth every penny.  Some widely known villages are Chateauneuf du Pape, Cote Rotie and Crozes Hermitage.

And then there’s the juice.  The Rhone River might as well flow red wine for the Syrah and Grenache grapes that form the pillars of the region.  The blends of the Rhone are balanced and have a bounty of fresh red fruit.  The young wines are easy to drink and drink and drink…while older vintages, the Cotes Du Rhone named villages and Cru wines, are more spicey and complex.  These are wines to savor and are excellent with flavorful meals.

There are two secrets of the Rhone region that only a visit to the area will best reveal. The ancient roman architectural influences, sweeping views of vines, terra cotta roofs and easy nature of the locals are spell binding.  It’s hard to comprehend how more people don’t cancel their return flight back home to take up a new life as a wine maker. 

Many wine regions have the reputation of a star producer and the Cotes du Rhone A-list name is Chapoutier.  Visiting one of the Rhone region’s many wine routes you will encounter more mom and pop wine makers where you’ll likely see the son, or more often the daughter, these days, of the vintner working the bottling line or in some other area of production.  At one of these wineries a line might max 200 750 mL bottles an hour, a snail’s pace compared to a facility like that of Chapoutier or Guigal and Jaboulet, two other major producers in the region to note for becoming acquainted with the Rhone.  The charm and quality of the smaller producers rivals the modernization of the larger producers, and both are boosting the region into the much-deserved limelight.

The other secret to the Rhone is the white wine.  To fall head over heels in love with white wine is to drink a Rhone white.  The whites have perfect acidity, are lush yet light on the palate with a lingering finish, hints of oak and worthy of applause.  On a visit to Chapoutier, the head of exports, charming, French of course, but speaking perfect English and schooled at one of the best business institutions in Europe, will likely offer a “winter white” as part of the mix of a guided tasting at the producer’s academic style classroom in Tain l'Hermitage.  Remember to bring a pen and note it down along as winter whites are excellent by the fireplace or at the table with lobster claw in butter, a salad of bib lettuce with a slice of boucheron that’s been grilled or rabbit loin in a mustard sauce and white asparagus, a local side favored in the Rhone.

The end of summer usually means saying goodbye to watery Pinot Grigios and mediocre Chardonnays and hello again to red wine.  So for those who sometimes crave the freshness of a white wine with body in cooler weather should look no further than Rhone.  Many argue that the Cru village of Condrieu produces the best white wine in the world.  If you see a Condrieu on a menu or at a wine shop, run and get it.  And if it’s a Condrieu by Yves Cuilleron, share it only with dear friends but share it often.

By carrie crespo

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  • Good intro Carrie but I take issue with your suggestion that Chapoutier is the region's A-list name. One of the bigger players certainly, but not one to recommend as offering good value except, perhaps, at the top end where the whole concept becomes extremely subjective.

    Another set of secrets: the sweet wines - well-known Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise and the not so well known (but generally better) Rasteau vins doux naturels. These come in various hues - red, dore (golden) and, most interesting, Rancio. The first two are a bit like red and white Port; the last one, as the name suggests, has gone off, deliberately oxidised so the closest comparison is Madeira. These wines can sit around opened for weeks too.

    There is also a growing trend among the better producers to make late harvest wines from Grenache Blanc. Some of these can be exhilerating.

    Just one other suggestion: if you are going to share a Cuilleron Condrieu with friends, make sure they are all teetotal!

    James Bercovici, The Big Red Wine Company

    Oct 19, 2009 at 11:19 AM

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