Of the many impressions and conclusions that I derived from a full week of intensive tastings in France’s Rhône Valley last month, the most important one is this: The relative merits of the leading appellations in the Southern Rhône have changed so dramatically during the past two decades that all of us need to reconsider our notions of how they rank in relation to one another. To be more specific, generations of wine writers and consumers have regarded Châteauneuf du Pape as running so far in front of other appellations in the area that they can be lumped together as “Also Rans.” For a very long time, this presumption was not incorrect. But it is incorrect now, and appellations such as Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Lirac are currently turning out wines that are highly competitive with the more expensive wines of Châteauneuf. Read on to learn how this change came about, and how you can benefit from it.
For starters, we should consult the Rhône’s most important advocate of all time to assess how utterly Châteauneuf du Pape has eclipsed other appellations even recently. The writer in question is, of course, Robert M. Parker, Jr., who has been by far the most widely impactful champion and critic of the wines of the Rhône generally and its southern portion in particular. In his second book on the region, Wines of the Rhône Valley, published in 1997, he wrote this regarding Châteauneuf:
Let me make this short and simple--I love a great Châteauneuf du Pape. For nearly 20 years in my wine journal, The Wine Advocate, I have proselytized the virtues of the best wines from this sun-drenched region of Provence. In the first edition of this book…I said ‘Châteauneuf du Pape has the potential to consistently produce some of the finest and longest-lived red wines in the world.’…Like hunger, fear, and lust, Châteauneuf du Pape, when it is great, has an almost addictive attraction to one’s basic instincts. In spite of having an amazingly diverse taste for so many different kinds of wine, I drink more Châteauneuf du Pape than any other type of wine.
By contrast, his 1997 take on the Gigondas--which is almost universally regarded as the second-best appellation in the Southern Rhône--is an illuminating study in contrast:
I have been visiting Gigondas for nearly twenty years, each year doing a tasting of virtually all of the estate wines, as well as selections from the village’s cooperative. In one sense this has been frustrating, because so often the stunning raw materials that emerge from the vineyards are spoiled by defective upbringings in old, musty Gigondas cellars. Too many wines begin life with fabulous potential, great purity of fruit, and an unmistakable character that would give them great international appeal, but are (1) spoiled in part by unsanitary cellar conditions, (2) bottled too late, and/or (3) excessively fined and filtered at the command of oenologists whose only objective is stability, without any regard for the consumer’s search for pleasure.
Parker was right to draw this contrast in 1997, and I can verify this because I was tasting a lot of the wines in question at that time, thanks to being in my third year as wine writer for The Washington Post (full disclosure: Parker was instrumental in getting me that job by recommending me, but I think enough time has passed that my judgment isn’t biased). There really were a lot of musty, dirty renditions of Gigondas, as well as a lot of rather thin and unsatisfying efforts from producers who weren’t striving to make the most of the potential of their vineyards.
However, there’s been an important development since 1997, and it will be useful to mimic Parker’s 1-2-3 account to set it forth: (1) Parker was right to see a vast quality gap between Châteauneuf and Gigondas at that point; (2) that gap has been closed very impressively in the intervening years; (3) most consumers still regard Châteauneuf as being vastly better than Gigondas when this is no longer true. Consequently, and lamentably, wine lovers continue to miss out on Gigondas wines that show quality exceeding their reputation, and value exceeding their price.
As I alluded in my opening, this isn’t true just of Gigondas, but also of Vacqueyras and Lirac (with Rasteau and Beaumes de Venise also showing signs of readiness for the Big Leagues).
I’ll review a slew of excellent wines from Vacqueyras and Lirac in upcoming columns to provide evidence for my broad point, which you can then test for yourself by trying some of the wines. I have little doubt that they’ll change the way you regard these appellations in terms of their merits relative to Châteauneuf.
But still, an interesting question persists: How can it happen that these other appellations could catch up to Châteauneuf so quickly, when it was regarded by almost everybody for decades as being vastly superior to them?
The answer is actually surprisingly simple when measured against the curious reality that it explains. It can be introduced with a time-tested maxim: Nothing succeeds like success. In this case, what that means is that--for decades on end--producers in Châteauneuf du Pape were able to charge higher prices for their famous wines, and could consequently afford to buy better barrels and newer winemaking technology, hire more talented consultants, and decrease yields from their vineyards to make more concentrated wines.
Conversely, because consumers long regarded everything besides Châteauneuf in the south as little more than Côtes-du-Rhône With Lipstick, this became a self-fulfilling prophesy: Producers couldn’t get much money for their wines, and consequently couldn’t expend what was required to update cellars and lower yields to actualize the potential of their vineyards.
It seems clear to me that the natural potential of Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Lirac and a few other terroirs has always been much closer to Châteauneuf than was evident from the actual quality shown by the finished wines. Now, however, that gap has closed dramatically, and savvy consumers who aren’t overawed by Châteauneuf’s reputation can take advantage of this fact (at least until the fact becomes more widely known...and the price gap closes as well).
We might ask how and why the quality gap closed so rapidly during recent years, and here again the answers are pretty simple. One is that growers in Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Lirac eyed the selling price of Châteauneuf enviously and decided to invest to get serious as challengers. Another answer is that Parker had a hugely beneficial influence by (1) praising the potential of the fruit material produced in these appellations; (2) criticizing producers for not making the most of it, and (3) encouraging consumers to break the vicious cycle and buy the wines of exemplary producers.
Parker has plenty of detractors, and they are not always mistaken. In this case, however, the fact is that his influence is responsible in part for erasing much of the quality gap to which he pointed himself (in passages such as the two quoted above).
Regardless of the "how" and "why" of the quality gap closure, the reality of it is a fact proved by my recent tastings in France. Below you’ll find some impressive cases in point from Gigondas, with more to follow from other appellations. Prices are approximate, and some of the 2013 vintage wines aren’t yet available in all markets, but all of these are worth a patient search. Wines appear in order of preference, and in alphabetical order if bearing the same score:
Château de Saint-Cosme (Gigondas, Rhône Valley, France) “Hominis Fides” 2013 ($95): Obviously this wine isn’t going to undercut many wines from Châteauneuf du Pape on price (since it rings up for about $100), but it is an indisputably great wine and an object lesson in how strikingly superb Gigondas can be. Sweet scents with spicy accents get it off to a great aromatic start, and the palate more than follows through, showing sappy concentration and exceedingly deep flavors that are almost unfathomable. Yet, despite a serious lashing of oak and very imposing power, the wine exhibits essentially perfect proportions and an open character that makes it almost irresistible already--even before it has been released in most overseas markets. There’s lots of alcohol in this monster of a wine, but there’s also so much fruit slathered over the wine’s other components that it doesn’t seem hot or harsh at all. Truly great wine that I may have under-scored. 96
Domaine Brusset (Gigondas, Rhône Valley, France) “Les Hauts de Montmirail” 2013 ($38): This sensational wine is a blend of 50% Grenache, 30% Syrah and 20% Mourvèdre that underwent elevage in 70% new French oak and 30% stainless steel. It shows the density and power of the 2013 vintage in Gigondas (which was marked by miniscule yields after poor spring flowering), yet the wine is nevertheless admirably graceful, as the marvelous fruit material has already soaked up much of the spice and toast notes from the oak to achieve excellent integration. Many bottles of this wine will be drunk far too young for it to achieve its optimal maturity, but it offers up so much kick-down-the-door deliciousness that nobody could be blamed for cracking in early. 94
Domaine de la Tête Noir (Gigondas, Rhône Valley, France) 2013 ($30): This is a huge and hugely expressive wine, with very dark and ripe fruit but no hint of raisining or over-extraction. On the contrary, it is admirably fresh, with remarkably pure fruit despite its glass-staining, mouth-coating profile. Intense and grippy, but graceful too, with fruit that never yields to the oak or tannins, this is a fantastic wine that will only get better for a decade. 94
Domaine Les Pallières (Gigondas, Rhône Valley, France) “Terrasse du Diable” 2012 ($36, imported by Kermit Lynch): This is a wildly, wonderfully expressive wine that many others would love even more than I did, as I knocked it down a couple of points on account of a whiff of alcoholic heat in the finish that I found distracting. This might well have gone un-noticed if I had been able to try the wine in the midst of a meal, but in any case, it is definitely not a vitiating flaw, and it is more than counterbalanced by superb depth of flavor and a powerful, complex profile. Full of fruit but also edged with fascinating leathery, meaty accents, this is muscular but not rough, and is quite the thrill ride. Pass the grilled lamb chops. 93
Famille Perrin (Gigondas, Rhône Valley, France) “La Gille” 2012 ($40, Vineyard Brands): This is one of the most impressive renditions of this wine that I’ve ever tasted, and that’s especially true in the context of the 2012 vintage, which is long on charm but often a little short on grip--at least to my personal taste. It shows deep, dark, gutsy fruit but no rusticity, and likewise it displays plenty of structure but no overt woodiness or astringency. It has years of positive development ahead of it, but could certainly be enjoyed now with food. An outstanding performance for this wine. 93
Famille Quiot/Château du Trignon (Gigondas, Rhône Valley, France) 2010 ($29): A wonderful wine from a historically strong vintage, this shows full ripeness but also striking freshness for a wine now approaching five years of age. This combination of characteristics is entirely in keeping with the profile of 2010, and the strong raw materials easily counterbalance a notable edge of spicy oak to offer a very well balanced finished product. A pleasantly earthy edge lends additional interest to the dark fruit and spice notes, and all of the aromatic and flavor notes express themselves in harmony. Terrific now but destined for at least another five years of positive development. 93
Santa Duc (Gigondas, Rhône Valley, France) “Les Hautes Garrigues” 2012 ($48, Robert Kacher Selections): An ultra-serious Gigondas that shows very deep color and excellent concentration. Despite these impressive attributes and a serious dose of new oak, there’s no hint of over-ripeness, over-extraction, or over-oaking, and the wine really comes off as wonderfully balanced and proportional. Blended from 65% Grenache and 35% Mourvèdre, this is faintly earthy but definitely clean and free of any taint of brettanomyces. Although it is very expressive and full of character, all of its most notable aspects stem directly from superb fruit material. 93
Domaine du Terme (Gigondas, Rhône Valley, France) 2010 ($30): I’ve seen this wine reviewed (by talented tasters) with scores that are quite significantly lower than what the wine now deserves, and can only assume that it was tight when first released (which isn’t surprising, given the relatively high acidity of wines from the 2010 vintage). Be that as it may, the wine has now really blossomed into something beautiful, with a degree of density that makes it almost sappy in mouthfeel while still showing remarkable lift and freshness thanks to all of that 2010 acidity. Big and rich and very deeply flavored, it nevertheless seems downright lithe--which is a bit uncanny, but the wine remains natural-seeming, very pure, and utterly convincing. This is not yet at its apex, and after a couple of additional years in bottle, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that my score was also too low. 93
Domaine Tourbillon (Gigondas, Rhône Valley, France) Vieilles Vignes 2012 ($35): This is a terrific wine that will prove very pleasing to lovers of the “traditional” style of Gigondas on account of a pleasantly earthy, rustic edge while also pleasing modernists due to the fact that there’s plenty of pure fruit riding alongside the gamy streak. Ripe and robust in concentration, yet neither chunky nor over-blown, this is already delicious but sure to become even more complex with another couple of years in bottle. 93
Domaine du Grand Montmirail (Gigondas, Rhône Valley, France) 2012 ($30): This excellent producer almost always seems to turn out wines that show excellent density and power but also fine freshness (a characteristic that seems traceable to vineyards perched near the top of the appellation that ripen fruit notably later than those of most other growers). This rendition from 2012 shows impressive complexity on both the nose and palate, with excellent balance between fruit, acidity, tannin and wood. Already very enjoyable, it will nevertheless improve for years to come. And stay tuned for the 2013, which is very concentrated and impressive. I tasted the final but as yet un-bottled blend, and though I choose not to score it yet, I’ve made a note to buy it upon release. 92
Domaine Grand Romane (Gigondas, Rhône Valley, France) 2012 ($32): In some vintages, I would find the presence of oak scents in this wine’s bouquet and wood tannins in its finish to be problematic, but in the context of the soft 2012 vintage, I found these aspects working to the wine’s advantage. 92
Domaine du Grapillon d’Or (Gigondas, Rhône Valley, France) “1806” 2013 ($27): One of two fine releases from Grapillon d’Or, this “1806” bottling shows lovely, lifted aromatics that feature red cherry and berry notes that seem sourced predominantly from Grenache. Oak edging is notable but very nicely attuned to the fruit profile, with some faint undertones of leather and garrigue already emerging. This has a few years to go before it will really hit its stride, but it is damned sure off to a good start. 92
Domaine du Grapillon d’Or (Gigondas, Rhône Valley, France) “Excellence” 2012 ($30): This 2012 “Excellence” bottling from Domaine du Grapillon d’Or shows less oak than the 2013 “1806” bottling, yet it displays even more depth, density and guts. The fruit profile is also notably different, centered on dark cherries and berries rather than red fruits. The aromas and flavors are quite open and expressive right now, though the wine may shut down somewhat before hitting optimal maturity in another five years or so. Delicious and enduringly interesting. 92
Ogier (Gigondas, Rhône Valley, France) “Oratorio” 2012 ($31): Serious in appearance as well as performance, this is packaged in a heavy bottle and packs a heavy wallop of rich, ripe fruit. However, it isn’t overly dense and isn’t astringent either, though oak edging is evident. Hold this for several years if you can. 92
Domaine Les Pallières (Gigondas, Rhône Valley, France) “Les Racines” 2011 ($38, Kermit Lynch): Made from fruit yielded by vines averaging 65 years of age, this is packed with power and built for the cellar. The blend is based on 80% Grenache, with the remaining 20% comprised of Syrah, Cinsault and Clairette. Meaty and robust, with gutsy tannins but plenty of fruit to balance them out beautifully, this will be terrific for those patient enough to age it for another five years. 92
Domaine la Roubine (Gigondas, Rhône Valley, France 2012 ($28): Made from biodynamically-raised fruit, this excellent wine shows serious ripeness but also admirable purity and expressiveness. Open and delicious already, it is very generously flavored but not obvious or chunky. A meaty quality underlying the fruit lends special interest, and the finish is wonderfully symmetrical and persistent. 92
Domaine Les Semelles de Vent (Gigondas, Rhône Valley, France) 2012 ($32): This wine shows very impressively on the sheer quality of its fruit, with very little in the way of woody cosmetics or other cellar tricks being in evidence. Although it displays impressive density and depth of flavor, it also shows the easy charm of the 2012 vintage, without any hard edge to the finish. It will benefit from additional time in bottle to let tertiary notes emerge, but it doesn’t need time to become soft enough to enjoy. 92+
Domaine Brusset (Gigondas, Rhône Valley, France) “Tradition le Grand Montmirail” 2013 ($30): A blend of 70% Grenache with 10% each of Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault, this is a pure rendition of Gigondas with little oak influence but winning fruit flavors. I’m quick to add, however, that this isn’t just a simple and fruity wine, as it shows serious structure from plenty of grippy tannins and a nice leathery undertone. Hold for a couple of years if possible. 91
Domaine de Fontavin (Gigondas, Rhône Valley, France) “Combe Sauvage” 2013 ($25): This shows lovely purity and freshness, though it also packs a lot of power and tannin (as is the case for most Gigondas releases from the low-yield but high-promise 2013 vintage). The intense fruit is edged with emerging leathery accents that suggest that this will become much more complex with additional time in bottle. 91+
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