I love the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. However, so does much of the world, pushing prices up to luxury levels across the board in good vintages, and perennially for certain favored names.Thinking about this problem from the standpoint of the smart money, it’s worth noting that the Châteauneuf-du-Pape AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) exists within the broader southern Rhône region. Surely there are other areas within this vast grape-growing center where wines of similar breed, albeit with their own expressions of the region’s key grapes (grenache, syrah, mourvèdre, carignan, and cinsault, to name only the reds) are to be found.
A clue to finding these areas might come from this question: Where are Châteauneuf-du-Pape producers investing in new properties?
One answer is: in plain sight of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, just on the opposite bank of the Rhône, in Lirac. Thomas Giubbi, director and co-president of the syndicate of the Lirac appellation, reels off the names of Châteauneuf-du-Pape wineries that have branched out here. They are seeking to replicate the proven model of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and Lirac has similar terroir as well as logistical proximity. Alain Jaume is one vintner who has produced impressive results by moving into Lirac. His family, which has owned Domaine Grand Veneur in Châteauneuf-du-Pape since 1979 (though the family has grown grapes there since 1826), bought 16 hectares (about 40 acres) in Lirac in 2003 and created Domaine du Clos de Sixte. The estate has more than doubled in size, he says, “as we believe the Lirac soil is unique and is matching some of the Châteauneuf soils.”
The world’s most influential wine critic, Robert Parker, seems to agree. He rated the 2013 vintages of Domaine Grand Veneur Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Origines and Domaine du Clos de Sixte Lirac 92/100 and 90/100, respectively — close scores, but the former is twice the price of the latter ($58 vs. $27). Perhaps even more interesting is the similarity in Parker’s qualitative notes on the two wines. On the Châteauneuf-du-Pape he wrote: “Graphite, lead pencil shavings, black raspberry, cassis, and hints of licorice all emerge from this medium- to full-bodied, elegant, and surprisingly sweetly fruited Châteauneuf-du-Pape.” Of the Lirac: “Deep ruby/purple in color, with lots of cassis, black raspberry, licorice, toasted spice and a touch of graphite, it is medium to full-bodied, pure, elegant, and layered, with high quality tannin.” They aren’t exactly the same, but the kinship is apparent.
Another Lirac producer to look for is Domaine Coudoulis. Wine Enthusiast scored their 2012 Lirac Rouge, a blend of grenache, syrah, mourvèdre, and cinsault, at 88/100. Retail price is about $15. I tasted the 2015 vintage last October alongside the aforementioned 2013 Domaine du Clos de Sixte at Alain Jaume’s restaurant, La Table d’Alain Jaume (so neither wine had travelled far from the cellar). The Coudoulis was soft without being flabby, and easy to drink now. The nose was characterized by subtle earthy and fruity notes dancing with each other in the senses. The Clos de Sixte showed its additional age, was more structured, and will reward aging for five to 10 years.
To be spoken of in the same breath as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, in fact, Lirac wines have to show a comparable ability to age. At Château de Montfaucon, ebullient owner Rodolphe de Pins, Thomas Giubbi’s co-president of the Lirac syndicate, served me his 2005 Baron Louis Côtes du Rhône — actually a Lirac that de Pins labelled with what was then the more recognizable Côtes du Rhône name. (Baron Louis, meanwhile, is the man who restored the medieval castle of Montfaucon in the nineteenth century.) It reflected the skilled winemaking of someone who had learned his craft at agricultural school in France and at the University of California, Davis, before further honing his skills at Henschke in Australia’s Barossa Valley and Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. All the edges in the 11-year-old wine had been filed smooth by time, and the tannins and fruit were fully resolved into a soft, harmonious, complex core. This was just like good Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Vincent de Bez, who owns and runs Château d’Aquéria near Orange with his brother, Bruno, makes a Lirac from grenache noir, mourvèdre, and syrah that scored 89/100 from Wine Spectator and sells for $15 retail. The winery is on the border of Lirac and Tavel and produces wines from both appellations. Of all the appellations in the southern Rhône, Tavel is distinctive, as all of its appellation wine is rosé. (To the best of my knowledge, this is the only AOP for which this is true.) The wines stand comparison with rosés from the most rosé-centric region of France, Provence. I have found them to have astonishing ageing capability — some still tasting fresh and fruity after 20 years. The Château d’Aqueria Tavel is typical in its cépage being the familiar red grapes of the region (grenache noir, clairette, cinsault, mourvèdre, syrah) plus two locally common whites (bourboulenc and picpoul). The 2015 vintage scored 90/100 from Robert Parker.
In February of last year, Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité (INAO), which regulates wine and other French agricultural products, promoted Cairanne from Côtes du Rhône Villages to cru status. The Syndicat des Vignerons de Cairanne filed the application for cru status in 2008, and approval had been widely rumored to be imminent for years, as the wines of the area have improved so markedly in the last decade. Labels will be able to use the new designation from the 2015 vintage on. Under AOP rules, at least 50 percent of the grapes in the red wines (which account for 94 percent of production) must be grenache and 20 percent either syrah or mourvèdre. The rules also ban machine-harvesting. I visited Domaine l’Ameillaud for a tasting that included the 2015 Cairanne — grenache, syrah, and carignan. It was certainly the most purple wine of the trip. Winemaker Nick Thompson and his wife, Sabine, bought the winery and vineyards 20 years ago, and now balance out the variable fortunes of the wine business with holiday rentals in the winery.
Two miles east of Cairanne is the village of Rasteau, promoted from Côtes du Rhône Villages to cru status in 2010. Here the red wines are typically 100 percent grenache, making for a masculine style with peppery notes in the nose. The vineyards are generally south-facing, positioning that offers protection from the mistral wind and provides more sun. Soils are mainly clay. Producers to try are Maison Lavau, Domaine La Luminaille, and Domaine des Coteaux des Travers. The 2015 Coteaux des Travers “La Mondona” Rasteau — 70 percent grenache, 20 percent syrah, and 10 percent mourvèdre — is a massive, chewy blend of cherry, wild plum, and raspberry jam. It has the structure to suggest that it will age. When I visited the tasting room, vigneron Robert Charavin dispelled any doubts about the age-worthiness of his wines by opening a 2006 Coteaux des Travers Cuvée Paul. This wine, named after his son, born in 1990, predated cru status and so carried a Côtes du Rhône Villages appellation. Nowadays, it is AOP Rasteau. The blend of around 80 percent grenache and 10 percent each syrah and mourvèdre showed refined maturity set with ameliorated tannins and a perfumy nose in which fruit, wood, and herbal notes were all balanced. The aging process was a magnifying glass into how beautifully Rasteau can develop.
The small town of Beaumes-de-Venise gives its name to two AOPs. The better known Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, an unctuously sweet fortified wine made exclusively of muscat (to be precise, muscat à petit grains noir and blanc), saw tremendous sales growth in the last quarter of the twentieth century as a lower-priced alternative to Sauternes. What is less appreciated is that Beaumes-de-Venise is a bona fide red wine region as well. AOP Beaumes-de-Venise rules stipulate that red wines must contain at least 50 percent grenache and 25 percent syrah. Other permitted grapes are mourvèdre, cinsault, carignan, and counoise, and up to five percent of the blend may be white grapes. Good examples of producers in the area are Domaine de Fenouillet, Rhonéa, Vidal-Fleury, and La Ferme Saint Martin.
Vacqueyras is better known as a producer of red Rhône wine than Beaumes-de-Venise, but has nonetheless remained somewhat underappreciated. Some wineries practice biodynamic agriculture selectively, but the appellation’s Domaine Montirius is totally committed to a strict interpretation of Rudolf Steiner’s theories of biodynamic agriculture, even down to digging channels for running water on the property, which is believed to increase the harmony of the setting. The domaine’s wines — red, white, and rosé alike — are very well and very precisely made, as though the full severity of Steiner’s doctrines has made its way into the bottles.
Over lunch I discovered Domaine Pierre Amadieu and Maison Arnoux, whose wines have helped popularize Vacqueyras outside the Rhône. Robert Parker scored Arnoux’s “1717” Vacqueyras between 91 and 94 points in the vintages from 2007 to 2012, suggesting a consistent run of quality, and described the Pierre Amadieu wines as “solid value.” Another interesting property in the AOP is Domaine de Chantegut, which is both a winery and a silkworm farm. Fortunately, the two are kept separate.
Perhaps the best-known AOP in the southern Rhône after Châteauneuf-du-Pape is Gigondas. It has been called a “little brother of Châteauneuf,” and some major négociant-producers have made investments here. The Gigondas AOP grows only red grapes and vinifies them only as red or rosé wine. The blend must be a maximum 80 percent grenache with a minimum of 15 percent syrah and/or mourvèdre and a maximum of 10 percent from other Rhône varietals (cinsault, terret noir, counoise, and picardan — but not carignan). The appellation is divided into two by a small mountain chain, the Dentelles de Montmirail. One part is warmer than the other and rises in places to over 2,000 feet in elevation. Soils are varied but rich in clay, which absorbs water runoff from the mountains. This adds up to wines with a reputation for power rather than elegance. Based on my tastings, I think there’s definitely more than just power here. Certainly the wines have high alcohol, but they carry it well. Look for examples from Château Saint Cosme, Maison Gabriel Meffre, and Domaine des Bosquets.
Overall, the AOP wines of the southern Rhône are better than ever, deserving consideration right alongside Châteauneuf-du-Pape — yet they sell for a fraction of the price of their more famous relative. This makes them a tremendous value. Also, amid signs that grenache may be the next grape variety to become trendy, bear in mind that grenache is the dominant grape in these wines — and the growers and winemakers of the southern Rhône obviously know what to do with it.