When in Rhône

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 40, Autumn 2014

Page 37

do as the Romans did, says Bruce Palling. Buy and drink as much as you can

Rhône wine has long had admirers. Its popularity is first recorded in 92AD, when the Romans turned their backs on the local plonk in favor of luscious wines from the new colony of Gaul. Faced with a growing revolt from the vintners around the imperial capital, Emperor Domitian was forced to pass an edict to grub up half the vineyards in the colonies.

However, despite this distinguished history, wine from the Rhône has rarely received the acclaim of that from either Burgundy or Bordeaux. One of its obvious disadvantages is that the region is so spread out – it stretches nearly 200 miles south from Lyon to the mouth of river at Arles. It also has two styles. As John Livingstone Learmonth, one of the great authorities on Rhône, explains, "The Rhône has two mentalities. In the north: one red grape – the syrah – steep granite hills, tiny holdings, a doff of the cap towards Burgundy. In the south: many red grapes – principally grenache noir – river and ocean residues in the soil, large holdings, an immersion in the heat and culture of the Mediterranean."

Top Hermitage or Côte-Rôtie can rival the very best Bordeaux or Burgundy in complexity and elegance. The characteristics of southern Rhône wines are of intense fruit and bold flavors – and for house wine, there is little to touch well-produced Côte du Rhône of, say, producers like Guigal or Chave. While there are outstanding vintages, such as 1998 and 2007, there is less vintage variation than in either Burgundy or Bordeaux, due to the valley's more consistent sunshine.

Post-war, the prices of leading wines of the Rhône rarely approached a quarter of those for the leading Burgundy or Bordeaux. But in the 1980s, Rhône wines received a boost when Robert Parker, the influential wine critic, wrote about them: he was especially impressed with Châteauneuf du Pape. A number of fine wines from producers such as Château de Beaucastel, Clos des Papes and Roger Sabon are part of a private collection to be offered at Bonhams New Bond Street in September.

As a result of Parker's championing of the region, northern Rhône wines shot up in price: most notably Côte-Rôtie, which was already in demand as the entire appellation is considerably less than a square mile.

Hermitage wines – both white and red, plus Condrieu, a white wine tasting of violets made entirely of viognier – also soared in popularity. Apart from Condrieu, the northern Rhône relies primarily on the syrah grape, known as shiraz in other parts of the world.

But now the grape of southern Rhône, grenache, is becoming sought after. Because of its ability to produce high-quality fruit in hot climates, it is growing in importance in Australia and elsewhere. Robert Joseph, the wine writer, thinks that grenache will be important in the future. "The world is turning away from Bordeaux varieties as there is too much cabernet sauvignon in the wrong places. It means there is far greater scope for grenache – it's an incredibly versatile grape."

Bruce Palling writes about wine and food for Newsweek.

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