Flavoursome French reds
I’m writing this column in the sunny south of France, or to be more precise, in the tiny hilltop village of St Maximin on the fringe of the southern Rhone. The purpose of my visit is to research a wine tour that I hope to lead in July next year. I’m carefully working my way through a list of favoured wineries some of which will be revisited when I return next year.
The region has many distractions. Brilliant cheeses, olives of course, all manner of delicious fruits and vegetables (asparagus and cherries are in season right now). Spring has given the terracotta landscape a splash of colour. The vine-carpeted hillsides are coated with tender, youthful grapevine leaves. It’s my favourite time in the vineyard calendar with flowering not too far away although the plump, juicy grapes won’t be harvested for at least another four months.
If you are unfamiliar with French wines but want to give them a go I recommend that for white wines you start with the wines of Alsace and for reds you begin with the southern Rhone valley. The wines of both are relatively inexpensive and, unlike wines from most other French regions, they generally feature the grape variety or varieties on the label. Alsace wines feature the grape variety on the front label (a trick acquired from their German neighbours) while you’ll have to search the back label for grape varieties on southern Rhone reds.
Southern Rhone reds are deliciously accessible wines bursting with fruit flavours. You can practically taste the sunshine that ripened the grapes until they were bursting with sugar. High grape sugar levels equates to high alcohol levels that can often reach 15% or more. Wines rich in alcohol have the sort of warmth and texture that makes them ideal for winter drinking. They are a brilliant match with slow-cooked meats such as lamb shanks and beef casseroles.
Start with red wine labelled as Cote du Rhone, the region’s widest and most basic category. The name means “hills or slopes of the Rhone” while the wines can be red, white or rose. Grenache is usually the dominant grape variety although the wines may be made from a wide range of grapes. For a few dollars more you can buy Cote du Rhone village, a wine made from superior sites and greater restriction over grape varieties (it must be at least 50% Grenache). Price is a fairly good guide to quality.
Wines labelled as Vacqueyras are higher in the quality scale featuring greater concentration and richness. Gigondas is a slightly more aristocratic red from higher altitude vineyards. It is tighter and often more astringent – great with a few year’s bottle age if you can manage it. Chateauneuf-du-Pape is the uncrowned king of the region, usually with a reassuringly expensive price tag. It is certainly the most famous wine of the region.
My selected wines are all available from the specialist Auckland French wine importer, Maison Vauron. If you feel like getting up close and personal with Rhone wines next July contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org. Bon appetit!
A trio of tasty Rhone reds
Alary 2012 Cotes du Rhone “La Gerboude” $23
A tasty blend of Grenache, Syrah and Carignan. Supple elegant wine in a very approachable style. A great, moderately priced introduction to southern Rhone wines. Delicately fruity wine with a hint of spice. Enjoy on its own or with red meat dishes.
Domaine de la Bouissierre 2011 Vacqueyras $42
A blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre. “GSM” blends are now popular in Australia although this is a tighter, more powerful and altogether more serious wine that anything the Aussies produce. I noted dark berry, mineral, spice and dark chocolate flavours. Wonderfully pure wine in a moderately rich style. Good now, better in a few years. Great with roast lamb.
Beauregard 2011 Chateauneuf-du-Pape $69
Very serious Rhone red in a full-bodied style. Complex yet supremely elegant wine with an array of berry, spice and mineral flavours. Although surprisingly accessible now the wine promises to age superbly. Great with a rich beef casserole.
First published in Your Home and Garden Magazine – Jul 2014.