|Charles Neal Selections||
Charles Neal Selections © 2018
|Charles Neal Selections||
Wines by Region / Southern Rhône
The Southern Rhône Valley
The Southern Rhône section of the Rhône River Valley is situated in southeastern France running along the Rhône River from Montélimar down to Pertuis. These vineyards were most likely planted around 500-600 B.C., and were producing copious amounts of wine under the Romans, and then even more so in the 13th century when the Popes temporarily relocated to Avignon. In a demonstration of the commercial power of the Catholic Church at that time, the Rhône wines began to give Burgundy a run for its money, so much so that the Duke of Burgundy temporarily forbade the import/export of Rhône wines.
The Southern Rhone is geographically larger than the Northern Rhone (with more than 30,000 hectares planted as opposed to around 2,800 in the North) and is responsible for more than 95% of the Rhône Valley’s total production. The highly approachable Southern Rhône wines are made possible by the sub-region’s hotter climate and milder, less rainy winters, as well as its flatter land often covered with garrigue. This type of terroir is hospitable to many different grape varietals, and many more are permitted in the Southern Rhône—including Marsanne, Bourboulenc, Picpoul and Ugni Blanc for the whites and Syrah, Carignan, Cinsault and Mourvèdre for the reds. A whopping 95% of the wine made here, however, is red, and the clear king is Grenache. There are many parcels of seriously old, gnarled vines, and many of them sit in soils so stony they must be seen to be believed. It is not surprising that their products are toasted by wine drinkers everywhere for providing some of France’s most user-friendly wines.
There are also young vines on more standard soils—the diversity of terroirs (along with winemaking styles) is what most characterizes the Southern Rhône, and there is something for everyone here. The appellations designated above Côtes du Rhône are:
Côtes du Rhône Villages AOP: no village named
Côtes du Rhône Villages AOP: several villages (such as Sablet, Signargues and Landun) that are allowed because of their unique personalities and higher quality to put their names next to the “Côtes du Rhône Villages” designation.
Grignan les Adhémar
Côtes du Viverais
Beaumes de Venise
Muscat de Beaumes de Venise
And separate appellations but often considered part of the Southern Rhône region are:
Costières de Nimes (which had previously been attached to the Languedoc-Roussillon region)
From several of these AOPs come our proud and hard-working Southern Rhône domaines, about which we will tell you a bit.
The village of Sablet stands proudly at the feet of the jagged Dentelles de Montmirail in the Vaucluse department of the Southern Rhône. Resting between the villages of Séguret and Gigondas on (as the name Sablet implies) sandstone, the Sablet vineyards were first developed under the protection of the Counts of Toulouse. In the 14th Century, this winemaking activity was continued by the Avignon Popes under whose control the region had by then passed. Sablet, having produced high quality Côtes du Rhône Villages wines for so long, was bestowed with the classification Côtes du Rhône Villages-Sablet in 1974. Domaine de Piaugier cultivates 30 hectares of vines along the slopes of the Briguières hill and brings us several great Sablet wines: Côtes du Rhône Le Grange de Piaugier Blanc (a white Rhône field blend), Sablet Blanc, Côtes du Rhône Le Grange de Piaugier Rouge (a blend of thypical Rhône grapes and one of our best selling wines), Sablet Rouge, Sablet Ténébi, Sablet Briguières, and a special Gigondas from a small parcel the family owns in that appellation.
Rasteau is a small village (population 696) located a short three miles east of Cairanne and 10 miles north of Gigondas. Until about 20 years ago, Rasteau was most known for Vin Doux Naturel (VDN) or sweet wines for which it gained appellation status in 1967. These were made from overripe Grenache, whose fermentation was stopped with the addition of alcohol, yielding a rich red wine like port. As Beaumes de Venise was known for its sweet white Muscat, Rasteau was known for its sweet red Grenache. Today it is still made in Rasteau but, even locally, is no longer very popular. Understandably, as the popularity in sweet wines has dwindled, the trend to make dry wines that can be sold the same year and be consumed in larger quantities has increased. The total area cultivated with grapes in Rasteau is 658 hectares, making it about half the size of Gigondas and about the same size as Lirac. The soil has a high percentage of clay and marl, with some red soil mixed in with sandstone. According to the appellation laws, Grenache must be used in at least 50% of the blend. Syrah and/or Mourvèdre must total at least 20%, while other grape varieties may be used to a maximum of 20%.
The winemakers of Rasteau’s neighbor Cairanne are proud to explain that the village, previously one of the Côtes du Rhône Villages allowed to attach its name, in 2015 was finally judged worthy of its own AOP. The three different types of soils here are chalky white clay, red clay and a river-deposited silty soil. According to the appellation laws, Grenache must be used in at least 50% of the blend. Syrah and/or Mourvèdre must total at least 20%, while other grape varieties may be used to a maximum of 20%. There are around 850 hectares planted in Cairanne and their approachable yet powerful red wines are demonstrating that they deserved their appellation status as much as any other Southern Rhône village.
Domaine Coteaux des Travers, our Rasteau and Cairanne producer, is located in Rasteau but has several parcels close by in Cairanne. This 4th generation family-run domaine makes excellent value wines, including our Côtes du Rhône Char a Vin (a play on words of the owner’s surname Charavin), Cairanne AOC, Cairanne Terra Rosa, Rasteau La Mondona, and Rasteau Le Traves.
Lirac is located about 15 kilometers from Avignon and 15 kilometers from Châteauneuf-du-Pape on the right bank of the Rhône River. It is separated from Tavel by a small road that runs between the vineyards. It obtained its AOC in 1947, and today there are 715 hectares under vine and about 2,500,000 bottles produced a year. About 85% of the wine is red, although white and rosé wines are also made. Three types of soil cover Lirac and influence the character of its wines: limestone scree along the appellation’s outer edge (giving wines of freshness and minerality), large rocks atop red clay on the slightly higher vineyards (giving wines that are powerful, structured and with excellent aging potential), and sandy terraces embedded with pebbles and gravel (creating fine wines with an elegant tannic structure).
Back in the 1200s as King Phillip le Bel passed Tavel while checking out his kingdom, he was presented with a goblet of Tavel rosé and, as he quenched his thirst by guzzling it down in one long, pleasurable gulp, proclaimed, “There is no good wine except for Tavel!” Located in the Gard department about 20 minutes from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Tavel is the only appellation in France devoted solely to rosé wine. Its 933 hectares have grapes that are grown on three different soil types: flat white stones that look like pieces of slate and made of lauze; galets roulets, the large, round stones also found in Lirac and Châteaneuf-du-Pape; and sandy soils with some small rocks mixed in. Tavel is one of the most full-bodied rosés of France, partially due to its terroir and climate but also because of its grapes. While 9 varieties are permitted, the chief grapes are Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah, Mourvedre and Clairette (a white grape). However, Picpoul, Carignan and Bourboulenc are sometimes employed.
Tavel has a unique landscape, surrounded by inhospitable garrigue, the odd scrub pine grove and the constant cadence of cicadas. Dry and sweltering in mid-summer, it’s not the type of place you’d want to be lost in without liquids. Yet from this austere environment comes one of the most distinctive rosés available. The fermentation of the grapes generally combines bleeding and direct pressing, and both red and white grapes go into the same tanks. As Tavel does not make red wine, the point of their saignée is not to gain concentration for another wine but to obtain a must with intense fruit flavors. The resulting rosé always has a deep hue, almost like a light red wine. Because a paler, Provençal color is now in vogue among wine consumers, Tavel has lost some fans over the recent years. But it is important to remember that Tavel is coming from similar terroir to most of the Southern Rhône’s biggest wines, and made with similar grapes. People in this area don’t drink much white wine (there isn’t much made) and during the hot summer months, especially when locals frequently grill and eat outside at night, Tavel is the perfect accompaniment.
Domaine Amido is our Lirac and Tavel domaine, based in Tavel and run by the younger generation of a family with great history in the area. They bring us one of the few Tavel wines left on the US market—a blend of Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah and Clairette and named Les Amandines (named after two female members of the family). We also bring in their Côtes du Rhône Villages-Signargues Les Galets (from the family’s 5 hectare plot in this village neighboring Lirac) and their Lirac AOP (a typical Grenache-Mourvedre-Syrah blend).
For anyone visiting the Southern Rhône valley, the image of Mount Ventoux looking in the distance is unforgettable. In the summer it looks like its peak is covered in snow, because the stark top of the mountain is composed of nearly pure white limestone. Cyclists know better, however, as this is often one of the most grueling climbs in the Tour de France, and the intense heat experienced during the long, steady climb to over 6,200 feet has made (or broken) many of the sport’s legends. At the base of Mount Ventoux, vineyards abound in an appellation once called Côtes de Ventoux and now simply Ventoux. From the central town of the appellation, Carpentras, it takes bout 20 minutes to drive to Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Like the other appellations of the Southern Rhône, Grenache is the principal grape, with Syrah, Cinsault, Mourvedre and Carignan playing minor roles. Ventoux, however, has loamier soils (with more sand and clay) than its well-known neighbors and temperatures that are also much cooler at night, factors that result in red wines that are slightly less heavy and can be more satisfying at the table. There is also a bit of white (mainly from Bourbolenc, Grenache Blanc, Clairette and Roussanne) and some rosé made. Our family domaine from the Ventoux, Domaine Terrasses d’Eole, employs lutte raisonée to farm their 24 hectares of vineyards (some at high altitude) at the foot of Mount Ventoux. Every year we try to satisfy the high demand for their fabulous value Ventoux Blanc, Rosé and Red wines.
The vineyards of Gigondas are some of the most ancient in the Southern Rhône. Since Roman times, olive trees and fruit trees have always been planted beside the vines. In 1956, a particularly severe spring frost destroyed nearly all the fruit trees, leaving just the vines and forcing the producers to concentrate only on their wines. After much hard work, Gigondas gained appellation status (rising from the lower Côtes du Rhône status) in 1966. With just over 1,200 hectares planted, the appellation has three main soil types: gravel and clay found more in the flat sections, gravel and sand at the bottom of the slopes, and rocky limestone/clay on the hillsides themselves. As elsewhere in the Southern Rhône, Grenache is the principal grape, and 50% of all wines must be Grenache. In the past, though most wine made here was red, white wine production was also permitted, but this is no longer the case. Some producers also make a little rosé.
Gigondas, when made well, can be very high quality, so much so that it is sometimes called “baby Châteauneuf-du-Pape” (in this case meaning excellent, but less complex and less costly). We work together with our Gigondas producer, Domaine du Grand Montmirail each year to develop a Gigondas cuvée made just for us and named Les Deux Juliette after both of our daughters. We do the same with a Vacqueyras cuvée (see below) and also bring in their Muscat de Beaumes de Venise (sweet, fortified wine that must come 100% from Muscat).
Vacqueyras is a small 12th century village that, like a few other small towns in the area, also has its own appellation with the same name. The AOP was established in 1990 and is in the Ouvèze valley just west of the Dentelles de Montmirail, whose limestone peaks are the primary geologic feature of the area. It lies about halfway between Gigondas and Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Vacqueyras has been famous for its wine (primarily from Grenache with some Mourvedre, Syrah and Cinsault) for a long time—perhaps even since the days when the town was ringed by a series of protective stone fortresses believed to have been built by the Knights Templar (who figure into many modern conspiracy theories as well as The Da Vinci Code). The name Vacqueyras itself comes from the term Val Queyras or Valley of the Stones, a reference to the glacial deposits that cover much of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and many other vineyards in the Côtes du Rhône. Like Gigondas, this AOP has become known for providing excellent value alternatives to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and our Gigondas producer Domaine du Grand Montmirail provides us with one of those. We work together each year to develop a Vacqueyras cuvée made just for us and named Les Soleil de Rosalie.
We also import the Vacqueyras wines from Domaine de la Verde, a small producer with vineyards on a single plot in the lieu dit La Verde. We bring in their Vacqueyras Prelude and Vacqueyras Òra.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape is perhaps the best-known appellation in the Southern Rhône. And for good reason—there are a number of striking details about Châteauneuf that differentiate it from its neighboring appellations. Its soil is composed of galets roulés—large round rocks that soak up the sun's heat during the day and give it to the vines at night. Grenache is the most widely planted grape, but 13 varietals are allowed within the blend, including five white varietals. The Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation, established in 1923, has the highest minimum alcohol content of any appellation in France: 12.5%. However, most Châteauneuf-du-Papes nowadays don't have a problem reaching 14.5% or 15% alcohol. Despite the allowed 13 varietals, Grenache still dominates here, and some producers are working with 80-100-year old vines grown in super stony soil. There are a variety of styles across the appellation, from traditional (less or no new oak, no de-stemming) to more modern (some new oak, riper picking and full de-stemming). What is certain is that Châteauneuf-du-Pape always has been, and remains today, one of France’s most exciting, personality-filled wine regions. Domaine Roger Perrin is our Châteauneuf producer, and makes a range of wines in different styles, while still hewing to the traditional practices of the domaine’s founder. These include a Côtes du Rhône Prestige Blanc and Rouge, a Côtes du Rhône Prestige VV Rouge, a Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc, a Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge, and a Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge Reserve Vielles Vignes.