FOCUS ON THE RHONE Another month and another topic to become Under the Influence of! This time we are focusing on the Rhone. Many a punter has swirled a glass of Shiraz and waxed lyrical about the Rhone characteristics of the wine. Just what are they talking about? This is what we aim to present to you, a simple, yet pure understanding of the Rhone region in France and how this style of wine making, and the grapes from this superb place, have influenced the rest of the world. So, open up the ridiculously long sounding name of a wine, the Chapoutier des Estubiers Tricastin Rouge and read on. Or, toss the book aside and enjoy the wine, it is your choice! The background to the Rhone The Rhone valley is situated in the South of France along the Rhone river, which begins in Switzerland and makes its way down the length of France reaching the Mediterranean near Marseilles. It splits the area into neatly into the Northern and Southern Rhone, each with very differing characteristics. Not long ago the wines from the Rhone were seen as stock standard fair, which is quite an irony because they were often added to Bordeaux and Burgundy, to give colour and richness in flavour. Red wines dominate this region with Syrah, which is what the French call Shiraz, being the sole read grape of the north and the south being made up of blends of grenache and mourvedre. If Burgundy is austere and complex, Bordeaux powerful and engaging, Rhone wines are an extravaganza on the palate and the nose, giving intense and contrasting flavours of earthiness, sweatness and spices.
MAP OF THE RHONE
Northern Rhone characteristics
Southern Rhone characteristics
• Cooler continental climate moderated
• Warm, lavender scented,
by the le mistral wind. • Rarest and most expensive wines • Syrah only red grape. Viognier, marsanne and roussanne are white grapes.
Mediterranean climate • Grenache is leading red grape, with another 11 red grapes permitted and for white grapes a total of 11 grapes permitted.
NORTHERN RHONE The best vineyards in this region cling to narrow and rocky terraces that peer over the river. The soils are ancient granite and shale, which drain beautifully and have little fertility, perfect for the production of fine wines! Ancient, hand built walls keep these vineyards precariously in place, but when they collapse they are patiently reworked by hauling up the soil and plant material back off the bottom of the valley. So, the soil ensures the vineyards struggle, imparting more character in the wines, especially for older vines. What does the climate do for flavour? Well, it is a continental climate, so warm summers and cold and wet winters. Late spring and early autumn mean the vineyards need to be facing the sun. In summer, an icy wind rushes down the valley, from the airconditioning unit of the Swiss Alps. It cools the vineyards, extending the ripening period, increasing acidity and complexity in the wines. It also dries out the vineyards from mildew and rot. The end result is syrah based wines that are show typical white pepper flavours, with earthy notes and cherry and blue berry fruit with a handful of wild, gamey flavours. A truly memorable experience! Here is a look at the major appellations, wines and grapes of the northern rhone: Appellation
Principal Red Grape
Principal White Grape (s)
red and white
red and white
Crozes-Hermitage red and white
SOUTHERN RHONE The south produces a mixed bag, to say the least! This is a warmer climate, where grapes ripen quickly. The saving grace for vignerons is le mistral wind which rips down the valley and cools everything down, extending the ripening period in this otherwise hot climate. The locals claim that this wind causes evaporation, which actually concentrates sugars and flavour in the grape. Not a bad theory considering the intense end result! Where in the north the vineyards don’t venture too far from the river, in the south rolling hills of vines are found 50 kms away. Soil types are more alluvial, clay, limestone or gravel or in the picture above; pebbles. Why all the blending here? Well, the warmer climate doesn't create stellar performances out of any particular grape, rather a team effort is required to create the right balance. So, a wine from Châteauneuf-du-Pape could have as many as 13 varietals in it! Appellation
Principal Red Grape
Red and white
Grenache, syrah, Grenache blanc, mourvedre, cinsault clairette, bourboulenc
Red and rose
Grenache, syrah, None mourvedre, cinsault
Red, white and rose Grenache, syrah, Grenache blanc, mourvedre, cinsault clairette, bourboulenc
Côtes-du-Rhône and Côtes-duRhône –Villages
Red, white and rose Grenache, syrah, mourvedre, cinsault, carignan
Grenache blanc, clairette, bourboulenc, roussane, viognier
White (fortified; sweet)
Principal White Grape (s)
RHONE STYLE The wines of the Rhone have led a revolution world wide for varietals that can thrive in warmer climates. Australia, South Africa and Chile are not exactly shrinking violets when it comes to climate and these varietals have really taken hold. The Australians have taken it to a new level, both mass marketing Syrah based wines and creating limited release masterpieces. Many top winemakers in South Africa feel that South Africa’s future, in terms of wine production, should be focused around wines produced from the Rhone valley. South Africa has the climate to produce wines of distinction in this arena, as proved by Eben Sadie in the Swartland. Who knows, perhaps the steeper banks of the Berg river might become our version of CôteRôtie!
But, what does it do for flavour? Your Chapoutier Tricastin Rouge hails from the Southern Rhone in the region of Coteaux du Tricastin. Just what is the difference between this wine and other Rhone style blends, including the Lammershoek we have included this month? The grapes do tell a lot about the story. Syrah is a spice bomb with intense dark fruit, Grenache has elegant cherry and raspberry flavours, mourvedre gives structure, acidity and gamey flavours and carignan adds heaps of character, especially from older vines. A dash of Viognier adds perfume to a red wine. While we say that the Rhone is a warmer climate, it is still old world and old world wines typically speak of the place they are coming from. In a more direct explanation, these wines often have a dusty or earthy character, whereas in South Africa the intense fruit usually overlays this. The Rhone is an exceptional place for a South African wine drinker to start exploring wines from Europe. They display the bombastic characteristics that we are used to, but with a slightly more elegant and earthy nature. Truly beautiful wines!