With the Rhône Valley hitting jackpot after jackpot vintage-wise we decided to send Rhône expert Dr Bart Feys to the four-day travelling wine fair Découvertes en Vallée du Rhône 2017. Armed with his tasting glass, Feys tasted from 9am until 6pm every day, trying the 2014, 2015 and 2016 vintages and making some exciting new discoveries from well known houses as well as from lesser known estates. This is part one of a two-part wine odyssey through the Rhône Valley.
Gigondas, Rasteau and the newly-formed AOC Duché D’Uzès are the regions of the Rhône Valley we focus on where some exciting developments are taking place.
There is nothing quite like tasting and discovering wines in the surroundings where they are being crafted.
It is quite something to be able to immerse oneself in a masterclass on the soil that imparts such unique and distinct characters to Northern Rhône wines and then be able to stroll outside the tasting room and survey how the morning sun is lighting up parts of the Hermitage hill in Tain l’Hermitage.
Soil to glass indeed!
Spread over four days with tastings and masterclasses in the Palais des Papes in Avignon, in Tain l’Hermitage and Ampuis, the Découvertes en Vallée du Rhône 2017 wine fair, organised by the generic body Inter Rhône, gives wine professionals and journalists the chance to experience first hand the current state of the nation with regards to Rhône Valley wines.
With around 600 exhibitors, many of whom are looking for distribution in the UK, it’s an exciting event for any self-confessed Rhône afficionado such as myself who has been voraciously buying, drinking and enthusing about Rhône wines for more than 25 years.
Those domaines showing wines include a diverse mix from well established family-run estates (with just a few hectares of vines) and young upstart winemakers who have earned their stripes at well known addresses, to big players such as Chapoutier, Guigal, Jaboulet and Delas,
During the first two days, the majestic setting of the Palais des Papes in Avignon played host to the wines of the Southern Rhône valley, including the various Côtes du Rhône Villages appellations and well known Côtes du Rhône crus such as Gigondas, Lirac, Rasteau and Vacqueyras.
Growers overwhelmingly showed the 2015 vintage, acknowledged as an impressive, concentrated year with the reds showing balance and sufficient freshness to keep the ripeness in check. Domaines where the quality across the whole range, red and white, was exemplary included Domaine du Caillou, Domaine Saint-Prefert, and Domaine de la Janasse in Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
Gigondas producers particularly proud of 2014 wines
In Gigondas, the first of the Côtes du Rhône villages appellations to be awarded Cru status more than 40 years ago, the dynamic Louis Barruol from Chateau de Saint Cosme continues to produce an eclectic range of beautifully crafted, authentic wines, ranging from the great value red Côtes du Rhône Les Deux Albions made with an unusually high percentage of 45% Syrah from Cairanne, to his standout single vineyard Gigondas bottlings such as La Poste.
He also showed a lovely perfumed and fresh 2016 Côtes du Rhône white blend from Viognier, Marsanne, Picpoul and Bourboulenc that is worth seeking out, especially from the more classic 2016 vintage.
Another Gigondas superstar is Domaine Santa Duc which has been producing exemplary Gigondas from old vines for many generations. In good vintages, these wines are more than a match for many a famous and much more expensive Chateauneuf-du-Pape prestige cuvée.
Interestingly, Santa Duc has more recently been acquiring vineyards in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, including vines on the sandy soils of the lieu-dit Les Saintes Vierges, not far from Château Rayas, and there is arguably a certain stylistic resemblance with the 2014 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Les Saintes Vierges showing aromatic complexity, a pristine red fruit compote and the faintest hint of liquorice, but above all a striking freshness.
The 2014 vintage at Santa Duc is considered a great success, as it showcases the individual terroirs and the wines possess a purity and freshness that is somewhat toned down in the 2015 vintage. In fact, many producers were particularly proud of the quality of their 2014s as it required more skill and effort in both vineyard management and winery to produce quality wines.
Wines worth seeking out in Rasteau
In Rasteau several Domaines are making exemplary quality reds based on Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre blends. None more so than Domaine la Soumade which is, since the mid 2000s making some very fine, balanced wines, no doubt reflecting the Burgundian touch of the Bordeaux-based consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt. These wines now show a polish and finesse without losing their generosity and deeply rooted, old vine Rhône essence.
From the entry level Rasteau showing freshness, allied to an intense and structured but rounded mouthfeel to the stunning old vine ‘Fleur de Confiance’ vineyard selection, based on 90% Grenache and 10% Syrah, these are genuine wines that speak of the region while mastering to imbue a certain fraicheur and poise to what were in the past sometimes rather ripe, rustic and overly alcoholic wines.
Domaine les Aphillanthes which makes a splendidly intense, yet elegant Rasteau ‘cuvee 1921’ from nearly century old Grenache vines, as well as a Grenache/Mourvedre blend Côtes du Rhône Villages Plan de Dieu Vieilles Vignes with great ageing potential, and Domaine du Trapadis are two other domaines worth seeking out in Rasteau.
Duché D’Uzès – attracting the young and experimental
It’s no surprise that the large area under vine in the southern Rhône attracts both young and upcoming winemakers as well as outsiders from other French wine regions who are able to secure small holdings or lease land at affordable prices, and want to bring fresh ideas to a classic wine region.
Duché D’Uzès, located near the foothills of the Cevennes, acquired AOC status as recently as 2012 and seems to be attracting a new influx of young and experimental winemakers such as the Alsatian Philippe Nusswitz (Les Vins Nusswitz), voted Best Sommelier in France in 1986, and who now makes the intriguing Orenia range of elegant wines in Duché D’Uzès.
Nicolas Souchon, previously cellarmaster at the well known Chateauneuf-du-Pape domaine Clos Saint-Jean moved to Duché D’Uzès and, with the help and advice from highly respected Rhône oenologist/consultant Philippe Cambie, set up his domaine Mas des Volques.
Souchon makes an elegant, mineral-infused 100% Chardonnay Les Portes de Dieu from vineyards that benefit from the higher altitude and cooling winds coming from the Cevennes hills. Indeed, elegance and freshness are two descriptors one could also use for his pure red fruited Grenache/Syrah/Cinsault-based Urnia rosé and his Alba Dolia Viognier/Rousanne/Grenache blanc/Clairette blend, both of which are testament to the potential of this new AOC and highly recommended.
Domaine Reynaud is another Duché D’Uzès producer crafting fresh, elegant wines such as the Viognier/Grenache blanc/Vermentino blend Cuvée Arpège, a perfect aperitif wine.
Dr Bart Feys also visited Northern Rhône, highlighting the appelations of Cornas, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu and picking out a selection of the top wines he tasted during the four-day wine trip. For his report on Northern Rhône read here