Rhone Valley wines: A new horizon for tasting pleasure
Jan. 10, 2001
Considering the problems of climate and soil, it is a surprise that the Rhone Valley produces any quality wines at all.
Divide the valley into the Northern Rhone and the Southern Rhone. Some conditions are common to both. Some vary from one to the other. Both are narrow strips of land, the north running from Vienne south of Lyon and running southward to to Valence. The Southern Rhone starts at Viviers, about 30 miles south of Valence and continues south to Avignon.
The weather features a wind called the mistral, cold, bitter and capable of blowing at 90 miles per hour. At its best, or worst as the case may be, it can strip a grape vine of its fruit and leaves in a day or even a few hours. Windy conditions can last on and off for a month in the summer or even up to six weeks. Both the Northern and the Southern Rhone are subject to these damaging windstorms.
To protect the plants many of the vineyards that are prone to mistrals are protected by grooves of poplar and cypress trees, planted specifically to break the wind and protect the vineyard. Fortunately, it works.
Then there's the soil. In the Northern Rhone that soil is mainly light and dry, granitic in nature.
The Southern Rhone is very Mediterranean-like, containing olive groves, lavender fields and scrub plants interspersed with rocky areas. The soil is stonier with limestone outcrops.
You wouldn't and couldn't plant cotton, soybeans or corn on that land.
But you can plant grape vines. Perhaps the struggle of the plants just to live results in the powerful and flavorful grapes that grow in these areas, grapes that make some of the world's best wine. The Northern Rhone is famous for its Syrah grapes. The South is notable for marvelous Grenache.
Northern Rhone wines are ink-black in color and classic. Hermitage, Cote Rotie and Cornas are some of the great wines of the Northern Rhone. They compare with the best of bordeaux. A fine selection is found in the major wine stores of New Orleans at prices ranging from $25 to $200 per bottle.
The majority of the wines are red but more and more white wines of quality are being made in the area. They are also expensive. A recent catalog listed Condrieu wines from the Northern Rhone at a low of $27 with white Hermitage ranging from $40 up.
Americans however prefer the Southern Rhones, particularly the world famous Chateauneuf du Pape. There are several interpretations of that name. The Chateau or "Home of the Pope" is one. "Pope's New Castle" is another. The designation dates back to the 14th century when Pope Clement V, a major wine lover of the time, moved his summer home to to Avignon and built a new residence. Pope Urban VI returned the residence back to Rome a number of years later but the name for the wine from the French area stuck.
Chateauneuf du Pape wines are big, lusty and packed with flavor. The 1989 Chateaufeuf du Pape from Chateau du Beaucastel is one of the best wines I have ever enjoyed. I bought an entire case of it when it first came on the market 10 years ago and I should be enjoying it now that it is reaching its peak. Unfortunately it was so good I drank it all up, finishing the last bottle three years ago while it was still in its youth. Oh well.
Other great wines from the Southern Rhone include a variety of Chateauneuf du Papes from other vintners along with several Cotes du Rhones and the Gigondas. Almost all of these wines are blends. The winemakers blend up to 13 different grapes for their finished product.
The joys of these Rhone wines will be featured in our next wine tasting at Princeton's scheduled for Jan. 25. We anticipate serving both reds and whites, although primarily reds. Sign up at your earliest opportunity. The price per place is only the usual $20. Mail your check and your request for the number of place settings you will need to Stan Torgerson, Post Office Box 5223, Meridian, MS 39302 or phone in your reservation at 482-0930. Make your check out to Princeton's. The tasting starts at 6:30 p.m..
Most of you settle for merlot, cabernet sauvignon or chiantis as your wines of choice. Try these Rhone wines and discover a new horizon for your tasting pleasure. They will join the Australian shiraz and the American red zinfandels as new wines you will love as much as your old favorites.
Stan Torgerson, a longtime Meridian resident, has written a wine column for several years.