Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, Magical
Perhaps it was my inner Peter Mayle and a not-so-subconscious desire to live in the South of France, but in my early stages of vinophilia, the wines of the southern Rhone region seemed exceptionally enticing. They fit my budget and fueled my aspirations to travel through the prism of my wineglass. They made it easy to understand the concept of terroir, a French term of no precise translation that reflects a wine's ability to express a sense of time and place.
At their best, wines from the southern Rhone combine the three basic categories of animal, vegetable and mineral. Minerality comes from the stony soils of most vineyards, swept clean by the fierce winds of the mistral as it roars down the Rhone Valley at various times throughout the year and trains vines at impossible angles.
Syrah presents smoky bacon aromas, while mourvedre often has sensuous, animalistic hints of leather and musk. Grenache, the main grape of most southern Rhone blends, offers floral and herbal notes of violets, lavender, thyme, sage and rosemary.
Wine lovers call this character "garrigue," a word we like to use because we can pronounce it (gah-REEG) and for its power to conjure the colorful countryside and market towns of Provence.
Unfortunately, the southern Rhone's expression has been diluted by its popularity. The most prized wines of the region, from the small town of Chateauneuf-du-Pape north of Avignon, have become pricey collector's items. Others from Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Lirac and other hill towns whose wines have been granted "cru" status -- enabling them to be labeled with just their town name -- have become so expensive that they are now special-occasion wines.
Even the lower appellations of Cotes du Rhone and Cotes du Rhone-Villages have crept up in price to the point where many approach $25 or higher. And too often, they lack that expression of Rhone terroir -- the garrigue -- that makes the region's wines special.
There are two reasons for this dilution of character. Increased popularity drives up prices and prompts producers and importers to send more wine to the United States, sometimes emphasizing quantity over quality. In addition, many winemakers are experimenting with fashionable, modern techniques (such as new oak barrels) to make expensive cuvees. Those high-end wines might someday capture an ultimate expression of their terroir, but for now, many of them lack true Rhone character. Some are quite good but taste as if they could come from anywhere.
Luckily, we can still find Rhone wines capable of sending us to southern France without a stop in the poorhouse. Here are some hints for your next shopping trip:
· Look for lower-end wines from established producers, such as the Domaine Saint Gayan Cotes du Rhone 2006, a $15 stunner from a leading Gigondas producer that could enjoy a long life in your cellar; the wine actually improves a day after being opened.
· Look also for wines grown in areas immediately surrounding the more famous appellations. Domaine Charvin, a small producer of highly regarded Chateauneuf-du-Pape, produces a wine it calls "à côté," or "next door." Labeled Vin de Pays Principaute d'Orange, from the area just north of Chateauneuf, this simple-sounding "country wine" in the screw-cap bottle would be easy to pass over on a store shelf. That would be a mistake, for at $14 it does a good job of mimicking its heftier southern neighbor.
· Finally, look for wines from areas bordering the traditional Cotes du Rhone region. These appellations, such as Coteaux du Tricastin, Cotes du Ventoux and Cotes du Luberon, do not say "Rhone" on the label but show Rhone character in the wine. Le Paradou 2007 ($13), from the Cotes du Luberon, a rugged, mountainous area east of Avignon where Haute Provence stretches toward the Cote d'Azur, is beautifully floral, like a spring breeze wafting through an herb garden in bloom. The wine has enough body and tannin to bring these aromas down to earth, but it still might transport you to the South of France.