Monday, March 24, 2008

French Rhône Wine Class

Which event recently brought together four local wine bloggers? A wine class at Gordons Fine Wine and Culinary Center on French Rhone wines and their Evolution in the Face of Global Warming.

Over this weekend, I brought seventeen members of the North Shore Winers, including wine bloggers Tasters A & B from Smells Like Grape and Cathy from 365 Days of Wine, to this event. Nick Cobb, of Vineyard Road Distributors, led the class and wine tasting. We would taste nine different Rhône wines and learn much about the region and how the wines haved changed over the years due to climate change.

The class was held in Gordon's private tasting area and kitchen. This is an excellent venue for a class. The room was set up with three rows of tables and chairs, each row higher than the previous one so that everyone had a good view. There are also two large video screens where pictures and maps can be presented. At each table setting, there were five wine glasses, a bottle of water, pencil, 3 page hand-out, and a plate of cheese & crackers to split with the person next to you. The set-up would easily and comfortably sit about thirty people.

There is a wide variety of wines in the Rhône region of France, so it is impossible to try to typify such wines. The appellations are very loose, allowing a number of different grapes into their wines and thus there are a mulitude of possible combinations. There are also different terroirs, different wine-making philosophies and more. This is exciting as you certainly would never grow bored of all the different Rhône wines.

The ancient Greeks first colonized the Rhône region and planted many vineyards. So when the Romans eventually came to this area, they already found a thriving wine making industry. Thus, though you may not realize it, there are some similarities between Greek wines and those of the Rhône.

Rhône wines though have had to deal with a significant change in the last few decades, the fact that local temperatures have increased a bit. The primary effect has been increased sugar levels, thus often leading to a higher alcohol content. This has led some producers to make Rhône wines which are drinkable much sooner than in the past, wines ready almost immediately for consumption without the need to let them sit in your cellar for a few years. Some may not think this is a bad thing.

We began our tasting with the 2006 Vieille Julienne Rose ($9.59). Domaine de la Vieille Julienne is located in the northern end of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation and has 25 acres of vines. The Chateau is located a few yards across from the appelation so has less restrictions. This Rose is a blend of 30% Grenache, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, and 10% Syrah & Carignan. Because it has less restrictions than the appellation, you thus see the Cabernet and Merlot here.

This wine was very light pink in color, much lighter than other Roses I have had. It has an interesting strawberry nose. On the front of my palate, there were good red fruit flavors, strawberry and watermelon though it ended on a drier note. There was onlt a hint of sweetness and the flavors were more subtle. The finish lingered for a decent length. This would certainly be a good summer wine and is unlike many of the sweeter California Roses on the market. And at this price, it is a good value.

We then moved onto the 2005 Patrick Lesec Côtes du Rhône Richette ($8.79). Patrick Lesec is a négociant which means he buys grapes or even wine from others and then sells the result under his own name. Patrick's wine-making style can generally be divided into stemmed, destemmed or a combination. This determines whether the stems are removed from the grape bunches before fermentation. As the stem contains tannins, their presence or not has a significant effect on the finished wine.

The Richette is a blend of 70% Grenache and 20% Syrah. It has also been destemmed, so there are less tannins in the wine, and it was fermented in stainless steel, the more modern method of fermentation. It had a medium red color and a rich smell of dark fruit and licorice. On the palate, those flavors of dark fruit and licorice combined with some spicy tones. There is a touch of earthiness and a moderate finish. It is an easy-drinking wine, though probably better with food. And at this price, it is a very good value.

For our next wine, we tried a more traditional one, the 2005 Piaugier Côtes du Rhône "Grange" ($10.39). Domaine du Piaugier is owned by Jean-Marc and Sophie Autran and their estate covers the appellations Côtes du Rhône, Gigondas and Sablet. Their vineyards have many old vines. Though they work together, Jean-Marc and Sophie have some very different views on wine-making so each makes their own specific wines. The Grange is one of Sophie's making.

The Grange is a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault and Carignan. Whole clusters of grapes are used, thus increasing the tannins. The wine is fermented in cement, not stainless steel. Cement is a more traditional method of fermentation. It offers some advantages to stainless steel such as the lees stick to the sides of the cement better and the cement is more porous so allows a controlled amount of oxygen. The cement also holds in the hold naturally so there is no need for complex temperature controlled technology. Cement is a more gentle vehicle for fermentation and the wines generally taste older than they really are. The main problem with cement is that the wines are not as long lasting.

This wine has a medium red color and a fruity aroma of raspberry and cherry. Those fruit flavors came out in the taste and the tannins were fairly moderate. Nicely balanced, it had a decently long finish and was very smooth. An excellent easy drinking wine and a steal at this price. This is a wine to drink during the next couple years, not one to age. It is closer to the way Rhône wines used to taste.

We then returned to another more modern style wine, the 2005 Patrick Lesec Côtes du Rhône Rubis ($12.79). This wine was a blend of 60% Syrah and 40% Grenache and the whole clusters are used in stainless steel fermentation. It is not common for the Syrah to dominate in wines from this region. This wine was similar in some ways to the Richette but with its differences as well. It was a fruitier wine with a spicier finish. It also was a bit more tannic as well as earthier. It is also an easy drinking wine and another good wine for the price.

Next was the 2005 Vieille Julienne Côtes du Rhône "Clavin" ($19.99). They were the first biodynamic winery in the region and they have fully embraced these practices, including all of the more "mystical" aspects. The Clavin is a blend of 80% Grenache, 10% Syrah, 10% Cinsault & Mourvedre. It is 50% destemmed and fermented in the more traditional cement. It is then aged in oak for a time. Most Rhône do not use new oak in the barrels.

This wine really impressed me. It was a rich, powerful wine with lots of dark berry and spice flavors as well as a touch of smoke and leather. It had strong tannins but they were well balanced. It had a lingering finish, especially with spicy notes. There was a lot of complexity in this wine, especially at this price point. This is not a wine for the faint of heart. This wine calls out for food, maybe a nice steak or lamb. It was one of my favorite wines of the tasting.

The 2005 Domaine du Deurre Vinsobres ($15.99) was next. The Vinsobres region has the same geologic structure as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, including lots of white stones. This region used to be just a village but recently was awarded status as an appellation, such status even being granted retroactively for a few years. Their wines are more like old style Châteauneuf-du-Pape. This wine is one of the Domaine's best sellers.

The wine is a blend of 70% Greanche, 20% Syrah and 10% Mourvedre. This wine was destemmed and fermented in stainless steel. In fact, it is hand destemmed as well as hand sorted to separate the different quality grapes. With a medium red color, this wine has lots of licorice, spice on the nose. On the palate, the licorice and spice are joined by dark berries and plum. It also has a tinge of minerality, moderate tannins and is well balanced with a nice structure. It only has a 13.5% alcohol content and is an easy drinking, smooth wine. I can easily see why this wine sells so well.

The 2005 Lucien Barrot Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($27.99) returns to the traditional wine-making. It is a blend of 80% Grenache, 10% Syrah and 10% Cinsault & Mourvedre. The whoe cluster is fermented in cement and it sees some barrel aging. Like the previous Clavin, this wine is a rich, powerful wine. It has a dark red color and a nose of dark berry, vanilla and spice. It has a complex taste of dark berries, plum, hint of vanilla, spice, leather and a bit of earthiness. A nice, lingering finish completes this excellent wine. It does have an alcohol content of 15% but it is not really noticeable. A top notch wine that is well worth the price.

We returned for the final two wines to two more by Patrick Lesec. The first was the 2005 Patrick Lesec Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rubis ($30.39). This wine is a blend of 73% Grenache, 20% Mourvedre and 7% Syrah. It is 50% destemmed and 50% whole clusters as well as 50% steel fermented and 50% barrel. The wine has a medium red color with some sour cherry notes on the nose. It has a fruitier taste, though with some spice, especially on the long finish. It was made to be more approachable now, so there is no need to age it before it can be drank. This wine shows how the hotter temperatures allow wines to be made that are ready to drink sooner than later. It probably will not age that well though.

The 2005 Patrick Lesec Châteauneuf-du-Pape Pierres Dorees ($34.39) is a much more serious wine. It is a blend of 85% Grenache and 15% Mourvedre. The whole cluster is fermented in the traditional cement and it sees some barrel aging. It is darker red in color to the Rubis and I get more of blackberry and plum on the nose. On the palate, the dark fruit flavors are more subdued, balanced with spicy notes. There is actually a lot going on in this wine, a melange of complex flavors. There are some notes of oak but they do not overwhelm and the same applies to the tannins. This is a wine that needs about 3-5 years of aging before it is really ready to drink. I think it will be a superb wine then as it already is excellent. A great wine for wine lovers.

Overall this was an excellent class and the feedback I received from others who also attended was very positive. Kudos to Nick who did a great job of directing the class and I certainly learned some new things, especially about cement fermentation. The wines were all very good choices, and presented a nice contrast and comparison that really helped you see the differences that certain wine making practices bring out in the wines. If you thought all Rhone were the same, you were sadly mistaken. There is much diversity and that is good.

Gordon's was also an excellent venue for these type of wine classes and kudos must also go to Lindsay Cohen who set things up at the store. Lindsay is in charge of events at Gordon's and has done a great job at all of the events I have attended there. You can check out their website for a calendar of future events.

Gordons Fine Wine and Culinary Center
894 Main Street
Waltham, MA
Phone: 781-893-1900


Taster A said...

It was a great time. For interested readers, I have a high res photo of the wines (except for the Rose') on the OWC.

Anonymous said...

Stems and Tannins.
I love your blog! I think we all can benefit from being able to identify the origin of certain tannic qualities in the wines that we all enjoy. The backend tannins that grip your pallet, in my experience, are the ones involving a heavy, violent pressing or whole cluster fermentation. on the other hand, midpallet tannins are strictly from the tannins found in the skins of the grapes.

Anonymous said...

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