You can read the entire article at Michel's blog or by looking up the article in the NYT (publish date: July 8, 2012. IHT publish date: July 6, 2012) or read on...
PS: I high-lighted two of the wines cited in the article because I had written about them in April.
Rising Stars of French
By ERIC PFANNER, International Herald Tribune and New York Times
July 6, 2012
But in one area, the southern part of the
, there is no argument. Even though there’s nothing wrong
with 2009, 2010 is clearly better, maybe even one of the best vintages ever for
the great red wines of the region. Rhône Valley
That’s saying something, because the southern Rhône has been on a roll. Over the past decade, only two vintages, 2002 and 2008, were disappointing, and most of the rest were at least very good. One, 2007, was praised to the heavens.
Now, many growers say their 2010s, only recently bottled, are superior to the 2007s. After recent visits to the southern Rhône, taking in the most famous winemaking town in the region, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and two lesser-known villages, Rasteau and Cairanne, I wouldn’t necessarily disagree.
I’ll look at Châteauneuf-du-Pape, whose vineyards lie just alongside the river, between the cities of
and Avignon , in a future column. First, it’s worth making a side trip
to Cairanne and Rasteau, which are nestled in the scrub-covered hills below
Mont Ventoux and the serrated peaks of the Dentelles de Montmirail, a few
kilometers northeast of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Orange
Why Cairanne and Rasteau? These are two of the new stars of the southern Rhône, the climatically distinct, Mediterranean portion of a river that is lined with vineyards much of the way back to its source in a much cooler place, the Rhône Glacier in the Swiss Alps.
For a long time, the southern part of the valley was known mainly for Châteauneuf-du-Pape and for bargeloads of rustic Côtes-du-Rhône from the sprawling vineyards all around it. Eventually, the French winemaking authorities elevated other individual villages to “cru” status, starting in 1971 with Gigondas. This meant they, like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, could display their own names on the label, unaccompanied by the humbler regional designation.
The most recent to be promoted was Rasteau, in 2010. (Rasteau was previously a standalone cru for a small amount of fortified wine, but the new designation covers the village’s main output — dry red table wine.)
Cairanne, a few kilometers to the west, has applied for promotion and, if all goes well, could receive it within a few years. (For now, it is a so-called Côtes-du-Rhône Villages, an in-between designation.)
Now that we’ve dispensed with the bureaucratic formalities, let’s get down to what really matters: the hedonistic appeal, and the great value, of these wines. The reds of Cairanne and Rasteau, while subtly different, are archetypal southern Rhône wines — fruity, heady and powerful. They are infused with the region’s signature herbal, spicy notes, redolent of the fragrant garrigue, or underbrush, that covers the parched, Provençal hills anywhere where no vineyards or vacation homes have been planted.
These wines are at their best in vintages like 2010, when the jammy fruit and substantial doses of alcohol — 15 percent or more is not unusual — are balanced by fresh acidity and complemented by ripe, refined tannins. Unlike the 2009s from the southern Rhône, which sometimes seem a bit too big, a bit too dry, the 2010s are all about elegance. Yet there are none of the negative connotations — thinness, a lack of ripeness — that “elegance” sometimes implies.
2010 was helped, paradoxically, by a malady called coulure, in which the grapes fail to develop properly after flowering in the spring. As a result, the harvest was tiny — down by one-third or more for many southern Rhône growers.
“We didn’t count the bunches, we counted the grapes,” said Romain Duvernay, a producer and merchant in the region.
The remaining grapes ripened beautifully, helped by hot days — but not too hot — and cool nights, which preserved freshness. The 2010s are exceptionally polished, banishing any notion that Rhône wines are rustic or simple. The only flaw is the lack of quantity.
“It’s a vintage that will make wine drinkers very happy, vignerons less so,” said Robert Charavin of Domaine des Côteaux des Travers in Rasteau.
That is because producers in the southern Rhône, unlike some of their counterparts in regions like
or Bordeaux , are
not able to raise prices much to compensate for a small harvest, even when
quality is exceptional. This is an area that makes a lot of wine, and while
exports and sales are robust, there has been no speculative hoarding. There are
plenty of good wines from Rasteau and Cairanne at less than €10, and only a few
bottles cost more than €20. Burgundy
Which to choose, Cairanne or Rasteau? The vignerons typically describe Rasteau as more powerful, or “masculine,” and Cairanne as more elegant, or “feminine.” (When growers say they favor a traditional approach, they aren’t referring only to their winemaking techniques.)
The differences stem largely from the terroir. The Rasteau vineyards stretch across several south-facing canyons with various kinds of clayey soils, whose vineyards bake in the Mediterranean sun. In Cairanne, the expositions and the soils are more varied, with some sandy plots alongside the clay.
But, as is often the case with neighboring — and sometime rival — wine villages in
strikes me that the vignerons may overstate these differences. Both villages
feature largely the same grape varieties, with grenache playing the key role in
the red wines, complemented by syrah, mourvèdre, carignan and other varieties. France
Rasteau is the quintessential grenache village, with large stocks of ancient, gnarly vines bearing this variety, which provides the brambly garrigue flavors. Many of these vines were once used for vin doux naturel, a kind of fortified wine, but now give the red wine of Rasteau its alcoholic kick.
In separate tastings of roughly three dozen wines from each village, I found the wines of Rasteau to be more consistent in quality than those of Cairanne. Yet Rasteau showed a greater variety of winemaking styles, from traditional and slightly austere to fruit-driven and forward to modern and richly oaky.
Compared with other
winemaking regions, this is still something of a frontier area.
“When my grandfather bought this property in 1953, nobody wanted to make wine here,” said Gilles Ferran of Domaine des Escaravailles, which is perched atop a hill, near the highest point in the Rasteau apellation. At 320 meters’ altitude, or about
1,000 feet, the
land was considered too rustic.
Now Mr. Ferran makes some of the most polished red wine in the appellation, with a striking purity of fruit and great freshness. The wines have found favor around the world, and more than 70 percent are exported.
Other Rasteau producers, like La Soumade, Côteaux des Travers, Bressy Masson and Trapadis, have also built up a strong reputation. One estate, Gourt de Mautens, has attracted a cult following, with critical acclaim and prices that match the big names of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. (The 2010 red from Gourt de Mautens had not yet been bottled when I visited).
Cairanne is still working on raising its profile, and the wines are more heterogeneous in quality than those of Rasteau. But a handful of producers, led by l’Oratoire
Saint Martin and
Marcel Richaud, have received deserved international recognition. Some
newcomers, like Domaine Roche, created in 2009, have quickly made an
The 2010s from l’Oratoire
Saint Martin are
something special. The estate has a lot of mourvèdre in its vineyards; this
gives its higher-end cuvées a savory aroma and a multilayered texture that
reminds me of Cháteauneuf-du- Pape.
If Cairanne gets the same labeling rights as its neighbor, it is easy to imagine the wines catching up in quality with those of Rasteau and other nearby villages, like Vacqueyras and Gigondas. The application for cru status includes new steps to improve quality, like a ban on mechanical harvesting.
“Of course we’d rather be in the first division than first in the second division, but it’s not the end of the story,” said Fréderic Alary of Domaine de l’Oratoire
In other words, 2010 might still be topped by future vintages. But that will take some doing.