Grapevine: Rhone, the region to know
Place names can equally help and hinder the approachability of a wine sitting on the shelf.
Many people would have discovered Sancerre before they knew it was made from Sauvignon Blanc or Chablis before they knew it was made from Chardonnay.
The style of wine produced in these places is quite different from the stereotype of the grape varieties that are used to make them. Equally, though, simply having the name of a place on the label can put up a barrier that prevents them being picked up and tried without knowing what is in them.
Where it does tend to make things a little easier and more accessible is for unfamiliar blends – to pick up a bottle of 15 per cent Grenache, 40 per cent Mourvedre, 45 per cent Shiraz and conceptualise how it will taste is difficult, not to mention trying to find a similar wine on the next shopping trip.
But to be introduced to, say, Cotes-du-Rhone and know to look for that on a label instead can make life a lot simpler, as it provides a good anchor for the style of wine you are likely to get despite the number and proportion of varieties changing somewhat between producers.
The permitted area for production of Cotes-du-Rhone stretches across the Northern and Southern Rhone valleys, thus the style can vary depending on the source. The Northern Rhone is dominated by Shiraz for reds that is known as Syrah – driven by earth and savoury notes more than fruit as the variety tends to be driven by in Australian regions, this is why you may see Australian wines labelled as Syrah in an effort to indicate the style of Shiraz you are likely to get. The Southern Rhone by comparison has 21 allowed varieties – usually dominated by Grenache where the wines can be fuller-bodied, boozy and hedonistic.
The 2017 vintage in the Rhone Valley could have been a disaster. Vines were two to three weeks ahead of a normal vintage due to drought conditions when a frost hit causing significant damage across the region was coupled with coulure; where bunches lose flowers and thus grapes don’t grow in their place. The result was loss or damage to 30-50 per cent of the crop for many in the southern Rhone.
The extended dry conditions then meant that ripening was easy, albeit a little early and disease pressure was kept to a minimum. Many growers reported that despite the significant hits to quantity, the quality was high with small ripe berries with ripe, thick skins.
For the entry-level wines such as Cotes-du-Rhone, these years can offer great value drinking as there was plenty of material in the grapes to extract where merely a gentle extraction could yield ample flavour without pushing too hard and hitting harsher, bitter tannin.
Chapoutier ‘Belleruche’ Cotes-du-Rhone ($22) Grenache – 60% Shiraz – 40%
A delicious fruit-driven style of Cotes-du-Rhone. Fermented in cement vats and then aged in stainless steel, so there is no influence of oak in the flavours or structure. Generous, juicy berry driven fruits of blackberry, raspberry and cherry followed by a subtle earth and white-pepper finish. It’s quite vibrant and fleshy with ripe tannins resulting in a smooth mouthfeel.