It’s hard to describe the sensation of traveling south from Lyons down through the Rhône Valley, whether you’re on the water or the autoroute that shadows the mighty river. In the span of a few short hours one descends from the edge of the Massif Central, like the relentless and maddening Mistral wind itself, out of the north’s tightly chiseled granite gorge, to emerge on the heaving plains of the south where scattered tracks of polished stones reveal the secret of the River’s earlier meanderings. The northern Rhône and the southern Rhône are linked only in name, connected by the thread of the River as isolated continents are linked by undersea cables. The two regions are as different as apples and oranges, or more appropriately, syrah and grenache.
In the northern Rhône, one looks up, up to the steep, craggy slopes that rise abruptly from the river’s edge, leaving only a thin sliver of land between slope and water where man has erected villages and highways. The vines of Côte Rôtie and the hill of Hermitage cling desperately to the rocky outcrops and look set to tumble down into the river at the very next souffle of the wind. The wines of the northern Rhône reflect this more severe landscape; they’re tighter and more austere, bound in on themselves as the inhabitants of the north are bound by the River and the hills.
But the south has a palpably different feel, one that overcomes you, tenderly though unmistakably, as you cross the threshold out of the narrow part of the valley into the open and undulating expanse of the south, spread out before you like a giant tablecloth at a picnic. The harsher northern climate gives way to gentle breezes, generous warmth and the ever present scent of garrigue, a heady mixture of wild scrubby herbs: rosemary, thyme, and lavender among others. The proper French of the Lyonnais slowly shifts into the oozing patois of Provence, marked by a friendly twang and words that lazily roll into one another as effortlessly as a bottle of pastis runs dry during a late afternoon round of boules. Even the quality of light seems to change, as though the sun itself feels less inclined to work hard to define the spectrum of colours and allows one shade to bleed into another in a dazzling range of soft pastels that has attracted artists for centuries.
Unsurprisingly, the wines of the southern Rhône, too, are a reflection of their landscape. Grenache is the dominant grape of over a dozen possible varieties, most often blended with meaty mourvèdre and peppery syrah. Grown in the broad plains, on gravelly mounds and gentle slopes grenache & co. deliver wines with soft edges and generous character, filling your mouth with a liberal dollop of sundrenched fruit and the perfume of the garrigue. They’re as easy-going and good-natured as the people of the southern Rhône, and as fun as a band of troubadours at a medieval party. This is, after all, a land saturated in poetry and philosophy, the land of Michel de Nostredame, nicknamed Nostradamus, whose very name, Latin for “we give what is ours”, reflects the generous spirit of the south.
And speaking of, had Nostradamus focused his eerily accurate foretelling of the future on grape growing, he would surely have presaged the confluence of factors that has made 2007 one of the most memorable vintages since he was born in 1503. Record sunshine hours (in a region that’s hardly ever short), low rainfall (but just enough) and heat without excess (consistently warm, but rarely above the temperature at which vines and workers decide to pack it in and take a siesta, delaying ripeness and road works) combined to give wines of extraordinary ripeness, intensity and depth. Even at the basic Côte du Rhône level, these wines are very good. In fact, when I was putting together the top ten smart buys it was looking like an all-Rhône show, so I opted to pull them out and create a top ten 2007 southern Rhône list, and save some space to highlight some other smart buys from the release.
Only a handful of the Rhône releases were substandard in my view; the rest are definitely worth a look. I’d like to point out the excellent 2007 PEYRE BLANCHE CAIRANNE CÔTES DU RHÔNE-VILLAGES $17.95 from the ever-reliable Perrin family of Beaucastel fame, as well as this release’s benchmark wine (the LCBO got it right here), 2007 LES HAUTS DU CASTELLAS VACQUEYRAS $18.95. It’s solid and concentrated and certainly age-worthy.
For Sheer value it’s tough to beat the both 2007 CHÂTEAU SAINT MAURICE LES GRÈS LAUDUN CÔTES DU RHÔNE-VILLAGES $14.95 and the 2007 RÉSERVE DES ARMOIRIES CÔTES DU RHÔNE $12.95. Both are great representations of the southern Rhône at very fair prices. All in all, this was a very good feature release.
If you still have some disposable income after you’ve pillaged the Rhône Valley Greco-Roman style, there are a few other releases worth pointing out. Unstoppable Argentine malbec, Canada’s latest love affair, has a great representative coming out on September 4th in the 2007 VALENTÍN BIANCHI FAMIGLIA MALBEC $14.95 . I enjoyed this wine, as it was neither cynically commercial with gobs of oak and jam, nor a $10 wine masquerading as a $15 wine. It’s just pure, honest, elegant wine that’s delicious and delightful to drink. If you do like it big, then step up to the 2008 THORN-CLARKE TERRA BAROSSA SHIRAZ South Australia $15.95, a full on Barossa shiraz experience that’s equal to many at twice the price.
Eastern Europe provides a couple of fine values, namely the 2008 BÉRES HÁRSLEVELU LATE HARVEST TOKAJI 88 $12.95 *** from the world’s first region to produce botrytis affected wine, and the exotic, at least in name, 2009 FIREBIRD LEGEND PINOT GRIGIO Vulcaneshti 87 $9.95 ***. It has a kitschy label and looks very cheap, and it is, but it tastes good for under a tenner. For more special occasions try the superb 2007 HUFF ESTATES SOUTH BAY CHARDONNAYVQA Prince Edward County $29.95, rapidly becoming one of the country’s best chardonnays in my view from French winemaker Frédéric Picard (we don’t hold it against him). And for lovers of Barolo like me you’ll want to grab a bottle or three of the 2005 MARZIANO ABBONA TERLO RAVERA BAROLO DOCG $36.95. Those in the know know that most good Barolo starts around $50, so to find a cru (single vineyard) wine for under $40 is a treat (thanks to Greece and the collapsing Euro). Both the 2005 vintage and the Ravera cru, located in the commune of Verduno, lend themselves to a more elegant, refined style of nebbiolo that’s just about ready to enjoy or hold mid-term.
And finally, of the mini-theme this week, Beautiful British Columbia, my top pick is the seductive2007 CEDARCREEK ESTATE CABERNET/MERLOT VQA Okanagan Valley $23.95 .
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John Szabo, MS