Oh Give Me A Rhone…

Rhone wine is a hot commodity these days, and with good reason: they taste great and they are often half the price of wines with equivalent quality from higher profile areas. For every $50 California Cab I can show you a handful of Rhone wines priced $25 and under, so if you’re looking to include some wines in your gift giving (even if that means giving to yourself), let me offer some pointers about one of my favorite wine regions.

First, the Rhone (or more properly, the Rhône) refers to both a river and the wine-growing region along the banks of the river’s long valley in the South of France. The Rhone begins in Switzerland, but the wine lover’s area of interest starts somewhere south of Lyon (very close to Burgundy) and heads south through the great cities of Arles and Avignon to empty into the Mediterranean around Marseilles. For us wine lovers there are two Rhones, the northern Rhone where Syrah predominates, and the southern Rhone. A classic Northern Rhone wine is Côte Rotie, made only from Syrah – its name means “roasted slope,” a reference to all the sun on the vineyards. Further south, Grenache, Mourvedre and other grapes put in an appearance, most notably in the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, so named because in the 13th century the papal court relocated to Avignon, thus the “new chateau of the pope.”

Last Christmas I was in Paris for a few days and stopped by a wonderful wine shop called “La Dernièr Goutte,” which means “the last drop.” It’s a quirky, personable shop owned by Juan Sanchez, who moved to Paris from Miami ten years ago and is now one of the city’s wine stars. The night I went three winemakers were in the small Caves, each conducting a tasting in a space hardly bigger than a closet. It was drizzling outside and one of them, Jean-Paul Jamet, offered me a glass of his Côte-Rôtie with the admonition, “It’s the perfect wine for winter.” He nodded sagely when I agreed and suggested it was pretty good just about any time of year. “Yes, Syrah offers much to love” he said and winked.

I can’t disagree, but I also like the elegant blends from the Southern Rhone. Benchmark wines like Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage and Châteauneuf-du-Pape have been attracting new levels of interest among wine lovers seeking a new tasting experience. I noticed that at the major Hong Kong wine auction earlier this month, Rhône wines brought in some of the highest prices of the event. Clearly, the Asian market is moving past its fascination with high-ticket wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy.

That isn’t to say there aren’t great deals to be found in the Rhône – there’s plenty for those of us with a normal wine budget, starting with the $10 price tag attached to many wines called “Côtes-du-Rhône.” These come from vineyards scattered over a huge area, and the quality depends on the person who blends the wines. Some of my favorite producers are Delas, Chapoutier and Jaboulet, whose Parallele 45 is a consistently successful blend of Syrah and Grenache and can be found for about $8 if you catch it on sale.

I like wines a bit more intense than the average Cotes-du-Rhône, so I look for the wonderful middle tier where the wines are named after specific villages, each with their own character. Vacqueras in the South is hard to say but easy to recognize on a shelf; St. Joseph and Cornas, both in the North, are easier to pronounce and just as appealing in the glass. Jean-Luc Colombo makes a Cornas priced under $40 that is a joyful addition to any holiday table.

Once you get into Rhone wines you will discover there are dozens of producers and while you can always rely on any wine from one of the super-negociants (or blenders) of the region like Guigal or Chapoutier, your best bet is to find a retailer you like, someone who is as good at listening to you as at telling you what you ought to like, and build a relationship. Create a dialogue, try wine and report back on what you liked and didn’t, and soon you’ll have a wine coach who knows your taste and makes recommendations of wonderful wines before anyone else encounters them. Finding that person might just be the best gift of the season for any wine lover.