Don't ever let anybody tell you that the best wine from France comes from Bordeaux or Burgundy. Based upon grapes from those regions (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc) being the most popular grape varietals not only from France but also worldwide, you'd believe that these were the only types of wine that mattered.
If you dig a little deeper, or really, a little further south in the French countryside, you would stumble upon the Rhone River valley. Nestled along the Mediterranean coast, the wines from this region include some of the most idiosyncratic wines in the world.
I love love love Northern Rhone wines, particularly those from the Hermitage and Cote Rotie regions. Red wines from Hermitage are 100 percent Syrah, and wines from Cote Rotie (which translates into English as the Roasted Slope) are allowed to contain small amounts of the heavily-perfumed white grape varietal Viognier. Single vineyard wines from either Cote Rotie or Hermitage can be absolutely divine. Ask me nicely and maybe I'll share a bottle with you.
I sampled the 2001 Cote Rotie by Michel and Stephane Ogier. It is a blend of grapes from the Cote Blonde (Blonde Hill) and Cote Brune (Brunette Hill). There are many explanations for how these names came about. The most romantic involves the two different areas were bequeathed to two daughters of a lord, and that the two daughters had two different hair colors and personalities. The blonde wines are prettier, more upfront and elegant, while the brown wines are bigger and more tannic.
The Ogier Cote Rotie showcased a deep garnet color, with aromas of berries, pepper, green olives and daisies. The 2001 vintage is considered good if unspectacular; however, this wine was showing magnificently, and should drink well for another 10 years.
You can also enjoy the throw in my glass that I failed to decant properly. The sparkles in my glass, pictured above, demonstrate my inability to serve wine like a gifted sommelier. Oh well...you can't win them all.
Southern Rhone wines can be every bit as interesting as their Northern cousins. The flagship wine of the Southern Rhone is Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The name refers to the time when the Papacy was located in the Rhone rather than in Italy.
The wines from Chateauneuf can legally consist of as many as 13 grape varietals. I once memorized these grape names in hopes of impressing a drunken Robert Parker at a wine event, but I never got a chance to rattle them off to the wine snob to the stars. Maybe next time. The most important grapes are Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault.
Chateaunef-du-Pape, after years of being lauded by the esteemed Mr. Parker, has increased in price as the ratings continued to skyrocket. A series of great vintages (1995, 1998 and 1999 in particular) put the prices in the stratosphere. Those of us with more pedestrian earning power, however, can still find a few nicely priced bottles of Cotes du Rhone, a wine made of similar grape varietals as the Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines, for a fraction of the price with many of the same flavors from the 2005 vintage.
I tried the 2005 Caves des Papes Heritage Cotes du Rhone. This wine was aged for 12 months in oak barrels, and consists of a blend of 70 percent Grenache, 25 percent Syrah and 5 percent Mourvedre. These wines are far lighter than Chateauneuf wines, but they still have tons of jammy fruit and a powerful character of pepper and spice that is often found in Southern Rhone wines. This is the type of wine that pairs well with spicy foods (I enjoyed mine with a great white bean chili pasta, and both were delicious). Also, as a side note, these wines are also owned by a member of the Ogier family like the first Cote Rotie.
Two of the Southern Rhone grape varietals have travelled quite well. Syrah, used in both the South and the North, is the most widely planted grape in Australia, where the natives call the grape Shiraz. Syrah is a muscular wine with berry fruit and spicy notes. Grenache is also widely planted in other areas worldwide. It is a more restrained varietal, lighter in both color and flavor.
Although less famous than other grape varietals, Grenache is one of the world's most planted grapes. It can be found in France, Spain, Italy, the United States and Australia. It has a garnet color, and it can possess aromas of strawberries, cherries and earth.
Turkey Flat in Australia produces one of the country's most heralded Grenache wines. The wine displays a bright violet color with bright strawberry fruit, notes of leather and graphite and a firmly tannic backbone that comes across in the finish. The wine would pair beautifully with a mushroom risotto.
Finally, you can rest easy if you believe that interesting wines made from Rhone grapes are only red. White wine drinkers can find interesting choices in white wine from Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Hermitage, Condrieu and Cotes du Rhone, amongst others. Some of the more well-travelled white grapes from the Rhone include Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Rousanne and Viognier.
D'Arenberg, another winemaker from Australia, specializes in Rhone grape varietals. I samled the 2006 Hermit Crab, a blend of Viognier (a peachy, floral wine with a vibrant acidity) and Marsanne (a classic Rhone blending grape with flavors of nuts and minerals). Together, the wine displays pretty tropical fruit notes with a waxy undercurrent. The wine is named after the Hermit crabs that inhabit the vineyard, with an approving nod to Hermitage, the homeland of Marsanne. It was also rated 90 points by the Wine Spectator and recognized as one of the top 100 wines of the year in 2007 for those who keep track of those petty details.
But these are just a few of the Rhone (and Rhone style) wines that are far more interesting than the cookie cutter Cabs and Chards churned out around the globe by wineries with little to no panache. Pop a cork on one of these wines, and taste something beautiful that is unlike anything else you've ever sampled before.