Last week, we wrote about the wines of the northern Rhone Valley. Today, we write about the very different wines of the southern Rhone.
Some WINE WEDNESDAY columns are appearing late, due to the publisher’s illness. He made the decision to post them late and more frequently, to catch up with the authors. This one was intended for Oct. 7, 2020:
While the northern Rhone consists of dramatic steep hillsides, the southern Rhone is characterized by rolling hills. It features a distinctively milder climate than the northern Rhone with less rainfall as well.
Syrah is the only grape planted in northern Rhone, but more than ten grape varieties can be grown to make AOC-labeled wine in the southern Rhone.
The majority of the red wine produced in the south is labeled Cotes du Rhone — a bargain at $10 to $25 a bottle — and is dominated by the grenache grape with syrah, mourvedre, carignan and cinsault often added.
The superstar of the southern Rhone is Chateauneuf-du-Pape, where both red and white wines are produced from up to 18 grape varieties. The prices of the best versions can exceed $100 per bottle.
Across the Rhone River from Chateauneuf-du-Pape lies Tavel, an AOC whose one and only claim in the wine world is to produce rosé wine exclusively. Grenache and cinsault are the main characters in Tavel rosé although a panoply of other common red and white Rhone varietals can contribute to the blend.
You’ll generally pay $25 or more for Tavel rosés, but in turn get a complex and bold drinking experience. Tavel is one of the few rosés that can benefit from aging.
Gigondas Vacqueyras, Rasteau and Lirac are four other AOCs mostly producing red wine that command prices above those of Cotes du Rhone and offer greater complexity for those seeking bigger wines.
Grenache is dominant in Gigondas and Vacqueyras and with syrah playing a supporting role and adding power to the blends.
Our tasting began with the Chateau de Segries Tavel Rosé 2019 ($20-25). True to form, this Tavel rosé presented a fairly dark strawberry color — atypical today and setting it apart from the widely available pale Provence rosé selections. It is a very balanced wine with fruit and acid in harmony and offering notes of strawberry with a hint of spice, and more tannins than most rosés. A pretty substantial wine, this would pair well with many grilled foods.
Cotes du Rhone is the dominant AOC in the southern Rhone, and we tasted an example that proved an exception to the common mix of grape varieties. Oddly, the Chateau St. Cosme Cotes du Rhone Rouge 2018 ($16-20) is 100 percent syrah in an AOC field where grenache is usually the dominant grape. The result is an intense Cotes du Rhone presenting black cherry fruit notes and a distinctive black pepper accent.
We next tasted a Famille Perrin Cotes du Rhone Villages Rouge 2017 ($14-17). Cotes du Rhone Villages is an appellation of Cotes du Rhone and includes superior vineyards surrounding 22 villages. The wines must have at least 50 percent grenache and 20 percent syrah in the blend.
In general, the red wines from Cotes du Rhone Villages should provide more complexity than the standard Cotes du Rhone and for not much more money if any at all. This wine displayed delicious berry notes along with a classic black pepper element that created a very nice, drinkable table wine.
Our favorite of the southern Rhone tasting was the Arnoux et Fils Clocher Vacqueyras Rouge 2017 ($25). True to Vacqueyras’ reputation, this example from a blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre had pleasant plum, berry and cherry elements with ample tannins. A long finish with black pepper notes.
The royalty of the southern Rhone outing was the Brotte Les Hauts De Barville Chateauneuf-du Pape 2017 ($37-40). A relative bargain in the world of Chateauneuf-du-Papes, this example illustrated the classic experience of this regal wine. The up-to-19 varieties allowed in this AOC tend to create an experience of savoring a compote of very ripe summer fruits. Although Brotte only uses grenache, syrah and mourvedre, this elegantly smooth wine is true to profile with raspberry and cherry fruit notes dominating. Drinking beautifully now or for the next several years.
Fans of Argentine malbecs would be wise to explore the wines of Bodegas Caro, a partnership between the historic properties of Catena of Argentina and Domaines Barons de Rothschild of France. Producing wines since the 2003 vintage, the partnership combines two talented wine companies to bring malbec – a staple of Argentina – and cabernet sauvignon – a staple of Bordeaux – harmoniously together.
We recently joined Philippe Rolet, estate manager, for a virtual tasting of the three Bodegas Caro wines.
The winery, built in 1884, is in the heart of Mendoza and the vineyards are about 3,000 feet in altitude. The area didn’t develop as a wine region until a railroad was established around 1915 between Mendoza and Buenos Aires.
Although malbec is less important in Bordeaux today, it was introduced to Mendoza by the French. However, it is no longer the same malbec of France, thanks to replantings following the spread of phylloxera.
“Not all malbecs are the same,” Rolet said.
The 2018 Caro Aruma ($15) is one of the best malbecs we’ve tasted in a long time. Rich and dark in color, it has floral aromas, plum notes, medium body and tannins, and delicate finish. It is a great wine to sip or share with burgers or pasta.
The 2017 Caro Amancaya ($20), named after an elusive native Indian flower found in high altitudes of Mendoza, brings cabernet sauvignon into the blend. A great value, it is richer in style with earthy, dark cherry flavors and a hint of spice. Malbec makes up 67 percent of the blend.
The flagship of the partnership is the 2017 Caro CARO ($65), a full-bodied wine with richness and complexity. Intense plum flavors with layers of mocha, mint and dark chocolate. The grapes for this elegant wine are selected with a focus on terroir. The best blocks are from calcareous and limestone soils deposited from remnants of a river that flowed through the region. It is made only in the best seasons and aged for 18 months in French oak barrels from Lafite’s cooperage.
- Art of Earth Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2019 ($10). Using only organically grown montepulciano grapes, this Italian gem delivers a lot of depth and fruit-forward flavors for the money. Spice punctuates a red fruit flavor profile. Good tannin and a hint of tea.
- Le Volte dell’Ornellaia 2018 ($35). Made by Tuscany’s iconic Ornellaia winery, this medium body and vibrant blend is made up of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and the native sangiovese. Floral and herbal aromas set the stage for extracted plum and black cherry flavors.
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Tom Marquardt (email for questions) and Patrick Darr have been writing a wine column since 1985. They’ve traveled extensively to vineyards in France, Spain, Italy, Greece and the U.S.
Tom lives in Florida with his wife, Sue, where he conducts wine tastings. Patrick is in the wine retail business in Annapolis, Md.