French Rhone wines come predominantly from two areas. The Northern Rhone begins just south of Lyon at Vienne and continues southerly to Valence. The northern tip of the much larger Southern Rhone is located around Montelimar and reaches down to Avignon before it forks westerly to Nimes and easterly to Cavaillon. Between the two is Clairette de Die. Janet and I will be vacationing in the region this spring and are yet to decide on the details of our trip so we decided to begin our adventure with you and taste wine from all of these areas. Let’s get started.
We will greet you with a selection of appetizers accompanied by a sparking wine from Clairette de Die The countryside known as the Diois is located in the Drôme Valley around Die (pronounced “Dee”), east of the Rhône in between Valence and Montélimar. It is also the home of the appellation Clairette de Die, derived from its former name, Dea Augusta, during the Roman Empire. Among the most well-known of Clairette de Die’s producers today is the tiny Domaine Achard-Vincent. Jean-Pierre Achard, and his son, Thomas, descend from five generations of growers. The domaine has farmed organically since Thomas’s grandparents were directing it, although it is now officially certified as both organic (since 1982) and biodynamic (since 2007). Though French certification agencies have stricter criteria than those of the United States, incompatible legislation between the two countries, believe it or not, has forced all mentions of their methodology off labels imported into the U.S.
Die is at the northern extreme of the Mediterranean climate, and therefore enjoys periods of extended, intense sunshine and warm weather mixed in with fast-developing mountain storms and rain showers. The soils are characterized by craggy outcrops of glacial rock formations and the high cliff faces of the Alpine foothills. The vineyards which produce the grapes for Crémant de Die and Clairette de Die wines are planted in soils which are the product of millennia of erosion – a combination of chalky clays and sedimentary rocks.
The Clairette de Die “Brut” that we are tasting is made using the méthode champenoise. It is comprised of 100% Clairette and is fermented dry at 11% alcohol. The Clairette de Die “Tradition” is a sweeter wine and uses the méthode dioise, an ancestral method that allows a secondary fermentation in the bottle without dosage, because the wine is bottled with residual sugar remaining, typically at 6-7% alcohol. The bottles are then decanted off of their lees and rebottled under pressure following the secondary fermentation. We’ll save this experience for another time.
We designed our Smoky Rogue salad for wine tasting as we eschewed vinegar in the olive oil based dressing and Janet tops the salad with green apples and filberts to match up to the wine. Here we drop down to the Southern Rhone and the famous estate of Perrin et Fils.
Perrin et Fils Reserve Cotes du Rhone Blanc 2010 The Perrin family owns vineyards within the best terroirs of the Southern Rhône Valley. Amongst these are the plots that produce such famous wines as the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Château de Beaucastel, Beaucastel’s Roussanne Vieilles Vignes, the Côtes du Rhône Coudoulet, the Vinsobres Les Cornuds, or the Château du Grand Prébois, which produces the bulk of the Côtes du Rhône Perrin Réserve. This is year-in-and-year-out one of the best Rhone values, red or white. Full, bright and very alive on the palate.
The grape blend used to produce this Reserve class white wine is 50% Grenache, 20% Viognier and the rest Marsanne and Roussanne. Awarded 87 points by both Wine Spectator and the Wine Advocate, the wine is recognized for its light, fresh style, with unadorned melon and honeysuckle notes and a breezy finish.
We usually like to follow the salad with an intermediate course using pasta or polenta and build up from lighter and medium bodied wines to a “big” wine to accompany the final course. The Crozes Hermitage we have selected to accompany this course made with pasta and local wild Black Trumpet mushrooms is nonetheless a very full and rich wine.
Hermitage and Crozes Hermitage According to legend, the Knight Gaspard de Stérimberg returned home wounded in 1224 from the Albigensian Crusade and was given permission by the Queen of France to build a small refuge to recover in, where he remained living as a hermit (ermite in French). The appellation fans out from the town of Tain l’Hermitage. The vines grow on the south west side of a steep granite hill facing the afternoon sun. Hermitage contains approximately 345 acres (1.40 km2) of vines growing in soil composed greatly of granite and gravels. Crozes-Hermitage, along with the rest of northern Rhône has a continental climate that differs from the Southern Rhone, which has a more Mediterranean climate. Winters are wet and marked by the cold le mistral winds that can last into the Spring. The appellation is fairly large by Northern Rhône standards, with its 1,238 hectares accounting for approximately half of the entire region’s 2,400 hectares. The appellation’s boundary begins around 10 km north of Tain-l’Hermitage, extends around the village of Gervans with its south- and south-western granite slopes and then spreads south around Larnage where the land flattens and consists of more clay. Approaching Tain and the village of Mercurol the land rises again and the appellation spreads east. In this region, the soil is mostly rocks, sand and clay.
Syrah is the primary red grape of Hermitage, mostly used on its own, although the appellation rules do allow the addition of 15% or less of Marsanne and/or Roussanne grapes. Hermitage reds tend toward being very earthy, with aromas of leather, red berries, earth, and cocoa/coffee. Because of the high levels of tannin they are usually aged longer than American or Australian Syrahs and are often cellared up to 40 years.
Domaine du Colombie Crozes-Hermitage 2009
Made from vines planted a stone’s throw from the Hill of Hermitage it is succulent, juicy and crunchy Syrah with lovely smoky, brambly fruit. Fleshy and ripe palate with silky tannins and excellent freshness and purity. The grapes are crushed, destemmed and fermented on their skins in stainless steel & cement tanks. After fermentation around 50% of the blend is aged in large, old 600 litre demi-muid casks. No new oak is used.
This 16 hectare estate was created by Florent Viale’s great grandfather over 80 years ago. The family sold their grapes and must to negoce, primarily to Guigal, until 1991 when, after Florent joined his father at the domaine, they began producing wine for sale under the domaine name. They invested in a vinfication cellar and all the necessary material and they now bottle almost 80% of their production.
Colombier are the only Crozes producer in the commune of Tain and are beacons of quality in an appellation bedeviled by inconsistency. The domaine is spread over the communes of Mercurol and Tain-l’Hermitage planted at high density on stony slopes in Syrah for the red, almost 14 ha, and Marsanne for the white. The domaine produces a Crozes Hermitage blanc, a Hermitage blanc, two cuvées of Crozes Hermitage rouge and a Hermitage rouge. They own 1.6 ha of vineyard in Hermitage. The grapes are harvested by hand. Fermentation is in tank are aged in demi-muids (600 l, 160 gal)
We wanted to finish with this wine because it is so very special. The 2007 vintage from the Rhone is believed by many to be one of the all-time great years. We have selected this because it is one of Janet’s very favorite wines and will accompany it with a final course of French Brew Beef brisket with 40 cloves of garlic.
“Another beauty from what is certainly the finest Gigondas vintage I have ever tasted, this 2007 boasts a deep ruby/purple color along with endearing notes of black and red currants, raspberries, and crushed rocks. The tannins are sweet and mature, and the wine is deep, full-bodied, and impressively layered and long. It will be even better with 1-2 years of bottle age, and should keep for 10-12 years.”
“Quite ripe, with fleshy, full-bodied fig sauce, mulled plum and blackberry paste notes that glide along, carried by graphite, black tea and chocolate ganache. The long finish hangs together nicely. Only 2,000 cases made.”
The wine is made using 75 % Grenache, 20 % Syrah and 5 % Mourvedre grapes.