France’s Valley of Fine Wine on the Rhone
The Rhone Valley in southern France is the second largest wine producing region after Bordeaux. It certainly makes some spectacular wines and boasts its 2011 vintage as a standout.
Exports have soared in recent years, with a 9.3 percent rise in volume last year around the world.
On average three in 10 bottles produced in the region are exported.
The Rhone Valley exports to 145 countries around the world. Last year export growth in Asia was particularly strong with a 40 percent surge.
Red wine is the region’s specialty contributing to 86 percent of total production. Rose makes up 9 percent of the valley’s overall wine production.
Wine-making started in the valley on the Rhone river about 2,000 years ago and was further developed during the Roman occupation of France.
In 1737 the king of France ordered the base of barrels of wine from the Cotes du Rhone to be branded with the letters “CDR,” along with the vintage and the place of harvest — a tradition that continues to this day.
The Rhone can roughly be divided into the north and the south.
The north has granite soils and features iconic names like Cote-Rotie (literally the “roasted slopes” because of the high heat in the area), Crozes-Hermitage and Hermitage.
Syrah is the main red grape, while marsanne, roussanne and viognier are the principal white grapes.
Incidentally, hermitage was also another name for syrah in Australia for several years.
The grape’s name allegedly comes from a knight who became a hermit after his return from the Crusades in 1225. Legend says he planted grapes on the hill that became known as the town of Hermitage.
The south is characterized mostly by chalky soils and grows grenache, mourvedre and cinsault as well as syrah. Iconic names there include Gigondas and Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
The latter, whose name echoes the Papal connection in the region, can contain up to 13 grape varieties and produces extraordinary wines.
The two cases of 1998 Chateau de Beaucastel I purchased last year, while still young, are drinking superbly. It is like smelling and tasting ripe plums laced with liquorice and herbs like rosemary and lavender. One can almost taste the same sunshine that kisses the grapes as they ripen.
Many Cotes du Rhone reds from the AOC denomination (in the French system of classifying wines, AOC are at the higher end in terms of quality) are a blend of the main red grapes.
A typical Rhone-style red in Australia or the United States will be called a GSM, short for the blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre.
Ironically, the lesser quality or village wines must follow stricter rules of production. Whereas an AOC wine can have a wide variety of grapes (provided they are all Rhone varieties), a villages wine must be made from 97 percent syrah with a touch of grenache, mouvedre and cinsault.
Of the 2011 wines I tasted, I was particularly taken by the La Regence by Marlene and Nicolas Chevalier, an AOC from Crozes-Hermitage. It is 100 percent syrah and smells of ripe blackberries and violets, and tastes of spices like nutmeg.
Some Rhone wines can be cellared for half a century. Older Rhones will make ideal drinking for the Chinese New Year.
The Rhone Valley exports to 145 countries globally. Last year growth in Asia was particularly strong. AFP Photo/Marty Melville