Last Day of School – The Southern Rhône

November 23, 2009

Just like that, it was graduation day. The third and final class of my three week adventure of the wines of southern France at Jonathon Alsop’s Boston Wine School was to finish with a night on the wines of the Rhône, which was, and still is, my absolute favorite wine region in the world. The last day of class was wonderful, by far the best of the three week series, and it confirmed what I already know and love about the Rhône and also taught me a few things.

 

First, though, a slight digression. November was always one of my favorite months in school because it is full of holidays, and this year was no exception, though we did not have the day off. However the last day of class happened to fall on Beaujolais Nouveau Day, so we of course had to celebrate. If you’re anything like me, take a moment to check your preconceptions at the door and give this silly holiday the momentary benefit of the doubt. For those who are unfamiliar, a brief lesson: Beaujolais is a wine-producing region in southern Burgundy that makes a red wine from the Gamay grape (as opposed to Pinot Noir from which most red Burgundy is made). Some of it is actually quite good – Cru Beaujolais and Beaujolais villages, but it tends to have a reputation as cheap easy drinking fruit juice in the U.S., largely because of a phenomenon called Beaujolais Nouveau, popularized by George Duboeuf, that colorful bottle that is all over the place right before Thanksgiving. The concept is not unique to Beaujolais; apparently pretty much everyone does it – a celebration of the harvest where the current year’s grapes (i.e. 2009 right now) are fermented and made into a wine basically as soon as possible, and intended to be consumed again, basically as soon as possible. Beaujolais Nouveau day falls on the third Thursday in November, a week before Thanksgiving, and tradition says the wine should basically all be gone by the year’s end, though in actuality you’re better of treating it like a carton of milk and drinking it literally that week.

 

I consider myself to be part of the new generation of wine people – Gary Vaynerchuk is as much of an authority to me as Robert Parker, and The Second Glass as much as Wine Spectator (if you are not familiar with the first part of either of those comparisons stop reading right now and check out those links), i.e. unpretentious, but for me Beaujolais Nouveau quickly joined the ranks of things that I could not respect, along the lines of white zinfandel and putting ice cubes in your wine. However, for whatever reason I was feeling particularly open-minded on this particular evening. I still believe I could fool most people with a bottle of cheap vodka and at most three ingredients from the grocery store into thinking they were drinking Beaujolais Nouveau, but after trying two of the 2009’s before the last day of class, I at least have elevated this wine above that horrible mistake that created that sweet pink juice. First we tried the Duboeuf, the most famous Beaujolais Nouveau, followed by the Domaine Berrod. The wines were not awful; the most prominent flavor on both was a cranberry component, and they did taste almost watery, perhaps a result of the rushed fermentation process, but again, not terrible. The Berrod was slightly more complex, and actually had some secondary spice flavors going on. Also, and this perhaps is the whole point, there was this somewhat appealing characteristic of super-fresh fruit. Most interesting though, even if the wines sucked, which they actually didn’t, was the bit of education that I got from drinking such a young wine. I didn’t pick it up at first, and perhaps only did later because of the power of suggestion, but there was a pretty evident banana peel component on these wines, especially the Duboeuf. Apparently this is one of the first esters (chemical product of the reaction between an alcohol and an acid that is less dense than air and contributes to the aromas we pick up) to be created, and is thus characteristic of young wines. I have definitely noticed banana before, especially in Pinotage. Considering my background, the organic chemistry of wine is an area I now intend to learn more about and discuss further when I know what I’m talking about, and thus Beaujolais Nouveau Day served its purpose in at least prompting this discussion. Aside from that though, I respect the idea behind it, and the wines likewise serve their purpose as a celebration of the harvest; as long as you don’t expect too much from them I guess it’s a kind of cool tradition… just drink them before Thanksgiving.

 

With the holiday behind us, it was on to the Rhône, the last topic on this semester’s syllabus. Since I actually know a thing or two about the Rhône, some quick background. This Côtes-du-Rhône appellation runs along the Rhône river from Vienne in the north to Avignon in the south. It is divided into two distinct regions, the Northern Rhône, which produces predominantly Syrah based wines – Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage, Cornas; and the Southern Rhône, where the blends are more diverse, though the primary grape is usually Grenache – Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, and the various Côtes-du-Rhône villages. Division into the north and south is somewhat misleading, since the latter accounts for 95% of the region’s total production. The wines are mostly red, with good fruit and body but mostly defined by a characteristic spicy component. However as we will see, there are also some high quality serious white wines produced in this region as well.

 

We began with some pink, the 2007 Guigal Côtes-du-Rhône Rosé. Guigal is perhaps the largest producer in the Rhône, making everything from generic red, white, and rosé Côtes-du-Rhône to red and white Hermitage, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, the three famous single vineyard ‘La La’ Côte-Rôties that sell for $375 each, Condrieu (white), and many more. I found this particular rosé boring, with classic rosé flavors – basic red fruit flavors, but somewhat muted, and not much going on on the nose. However drinking the Guigal gave me two ideas – I want to compare this generic rosé to their Tavel, a southern Rhône appellation that produces exclusively rosé. Also, I intend to do a single-blind comparison of Gigondas and Vacqueyras, again two southern Rhône appellations, reds this time, that are similar but with key differences – I figure the same producer and same vintage would be a nice basis for understanding said differences.

 

On to the reds. First up was a Nîmes, an obscure southern Rhône appellation I had never heard of. The wine was okay to good, with a definite floral component on the nose and an almost meaty thing going on on the palette, but what was most interesting to me was that the blend was mostly Syrah, pretty much as far south as you can get, proving that the rules in the Rhône have their exceptions. Next were two generic Côtes-du-Rhônes from the village of Estézargues. Both of these wines were very good – they were fruit-driven, but had complex aromas ranging from cured meats to a redwood porch. I don’t remember specifics, but next to one I wrote “I don’t know what it is but this is everything I like about Southern Rhône wines,” and next to the other, simply “93.”

 

A Rhône tasting wouldn’t be complete without perhaps the hottest thing in the wine world right now, a 2007 Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Châteauneuf-du-Pape, CDP from here on out, is perhaps the most famous region in the Rhône, ever since the 1999 Guigal was Wine Spectator’s 2002 wine of the year. Robert Parker declared the 2007’s the best vintage in the southern Rhône that he’s ever tasted, and has already given out multiple 100 point scores. So CDP means the ‘new castle of the Pope,’ named after the town containing said castle during the dual papacy, when there was a Pope in Avignon as well as Rome. There are 13 grape varietals permitted, though usually Grenache dominates, often blended with Syrah and Mourvèdre, the others allowed being Picpoul, Terret Noir, Counoise, Muscardin, Vaccarèse, Picardan, Cinsault, Clairette, Rousanne, and Bourboulenc (yes, some of those are white grapes). The region contains large river rocks, which absorb a lot of solar radiation during the day and thus keep the vineyards warm during the night. Our representative CDP for the evening was the Domaine du Vieux Lazaret, which I thought was pretty typical of the style. It had a cooked or stewed fruit aspect as opposed to pure fresh fruit, tasting almost like a spicy fruity dessert, with a nice finish, lingering but not especially tannic.

 

Heading north, we then tasted a Crozes-Hermitage, which is southeast of the famous Hermitage appellation, and, according to Wine Spectator, related to it only in name. However much credence one gives that claim; certainly St. Joseph is stylistically closer to Hermitage, these northern Rhône wines are all inky deep black Syrah based wines, sometimes blended with white grapes for aromatics – Viognier in Côte-Rôtie and Marsanne and Rousanne in Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, and St. Joseph. The Côte-Rôtie that I had at The Wine Cellar on my 21st birthday, perhaps because it was of course the first alcoholic beverage I ever had, was one of the best wines that I’ve ever tasted, so I know the potential of this region, but this particular wine didn’t do anything for me.

 

The final wine of the evening was a special treat, a 1988 Guigal Hermitage Blanc, not quite the oldest wine I’ve tasted, but a wine that I is not much older than myself, a white nevertheless, that really attests to the ageability of these wines. It was a blend of Viognier, Marsanne, Rousanne, and Bourboulenc, a pretty typical blend for a white Rhône. What was interesting about this wine was at first it was kind of meh, and I was a little disappointed – aromatically challenged, and not too much on the palette either. However after about five minutes or so in the glass, the wine really began to come alive. As is typical of older wines, it really started to evolve rapidly, and seemed to be accelerating, almost like it was making up for 21 years of being trapped inside of a bottle. My first observation was that the absence of acidity. As the wine began to rapidly oxidize, aromas and flavors of pineapple, apple, honey, beeswax, and butterscotch began to develop, in approximately that order and the wine was delicious, though it did taste a little muted – perhaps it was at its best maybe five years ago. Nevertheless this was a great opportunity, especially when Jonathon revealed he just happened to find a bottle that he had laying around, that he had paid $8 for (current vintages go for close to $200).

 

I couldn’t think of a better way to end school than with the Rhône – this only reinforced my conviction that this is the absolute most exciting place in the world for wine, and we tasted some very good ones tonight. I will be keeping my eyes on the course offering schedule to see what’s in store for next semester, and if you’re in the Boston area I suggest you do the same. It’s never too late to go back to school, especially when you get to drink wine.

 

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