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The Wines of Laudun: Under the Radar Now, but Not for Long
By Michael Apstein
Jul 12, 2023
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The French wine authorities, Institut National de l'Origine et de la Qualité (INAO), are notoriously rigid and immoveable.  However, they are poised to change the pecking order in the Rhône, putting the wines from Laudun on a level, administratively, at least, with Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas.  The INAO moves slowly since they are responsible for food, wine, agriculture in general, and forestry.  Frustrated wine growers in Pommard and Nuits St. Georges have been petitioning the INAO for decades to have a vineyard in each of those villages elevated to Grand Cru status.  No luck yet.  It took the growers in Pouilly-Fuissé well over a decade to get the INAO to recognize Premier Cru vineyards in that appellation.  Despite a decade-plus of lobbying, growers in Marsannay haven’t had the same success as those in Pouilly-Fuissé in attaining official recognition of their best sites.  Yet, in the Rhône the INAO is seemingly always re-arranging the hierarchy of the Rhône quality pyramid, adding villages to the Côte du Rhone-Villages category, and promoting others from that category to cru status.  That’s where Laudun comes in.  

Why should consumers be concerned with France's Byzantine classification system?  (You’re about to see in the next paragraph how complicated it is, too!)  Because the prices of wines from villages that get promoted will take a decade to catch up to their quality.  Just look to Gigondas, which was promoted to cru status from Côtes du Rhône Villages Gigondas in 1971.  As late as the mid-1980s, you could find a top Gigondas for about $10.  Now they’re closer to $60, a hefty increase even accounting for inflation.  So, if you want high-quality Rhône wines at good prices, look at those villages whose distinctiveness has recently been, or is about to be, codified.  Since the village of Laudun is now poised to be promoted to cru status, that’s a name to learn and remember.

There are four levels to the Rhône quality pyramid.  As you ascend, the regulations for wine making become stricter and the allowable yields lower to achieve higher quality wine.  At the base sits the vast Côtes du Rhône appellation, encompassing just under half of the Rhône’s entire output.  A step up sits Côtes du Rhone Villages, a group of 73 villages who have the potential to make more distinctive wine, but not so distinctive that they can put their village name itself on the label.  

Sitting above Côtes du Rhône-Villages are 22, as of last count, villages whose wines are distinctive enough to allow them to sport the name of the village on the label.  They are known as Côtes du Rhône Village with a geographical name.  The village of Nyons, which also has an AOC for olives, was the last village to be promoted to this category in 2022.  So, soon, consumers will see appellation Côtes du Rhône Villages Laudun, instead of the just the appellation Côtes du Rhône Villages, on the label.  Together, all the Côtes du Rhône Villages, with or without a specific name, account for about 11% of the Rhône’s total production.  

At the top of the pyramid, and accounting for about 15% of the Rhone’s total production, sit the top AOCs of the Rhône, the crus: eight in the northern Rhône (Château Grillet, Condrieu, Cornas, Côte Rôtie, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, St.  Joseph, and St. Péray) and nine in the south: (Beaumes-de-Venise, Cairanne, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Lirac, Rasteau, Tavel, Vacqueryas, and Vinsobres).  Cairanne was the last to make the jump from Côtes du Rhône Villages Cairanne to cru status (2016).  In general, the prices of wines from Cairanne have still not yet risen to reflect their quality.  Laudun is on track to make the jump to cru status in 2024.  If the pattern of price increases for the wines of Cairanne, Gigondas, and Vacqueryas is any judge, I predict it will take another decade for the prices of the wines from Laudun to reflect their quality.

Laudun, a village on the west bank of Rhône River, will join Tavel and Lirac as the only crus on that side of the river.  Wines from the cru on the west (right) bank of the Rhône are generally lighter, less muscular, and more finesse-filled compared to those of the east (left) bank.  Matt Walls, a Rhône wine authority, attributes the differences, in part, to sandier soil containing more patches of limestone with fewer of the heat-reflecting galets, emblematic of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  Additionally, Walls reminds us of the importance of exposure: east facing vineyards, such as those of the west bank, see the less intense morning sun and are protected from the hotter afternoon sun, resulting in less-ripe grapes with greater acidity.  

Laudun has a long history of making distinctive wines.  The Romans cultivated vines here two millennia ago.  It was included in the initial Côte du Rhône classification in 1937 and was one of the first to be promoted to Côtes du Rhone Villages status in 1953 along with Cairanne, Chusclan, and Gigondas.  It gained the Côtes du Rhone Villages Laudun moniker in 1967.  Laudun is unique in having a tradition of making fine white wine.  When Louis XIII visited the area in 1629, he was presented with a barrel of Laudun white.  Even today, 28% of Laudun’s production is white, compared to only about 10% for the Rhône in general.  Laudun’s production is relatively small, only about 2.2 million bottles annually from 18 private estates, 6 co-operatives, and a handful of Rhône-based négociants, which means it can take some effort to find them.  Believe me, it’s worth it.

The composition of the blend for both Laudun reds and whites will change when it is elevated to cru status.  Currently, in the case of the reds, two of the principal varieties, Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Syrah, must be included in, and comprise 60% of, the blend.  To increase complexity and quality, cru regulations will require all three of the principal red varieties to be included.  Currently for whites, three of the principal varieties—Bourboulenc, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, and Viognier—must be included in, and comprise 50% of, the blend.  Cru regulations will require the use of at least four principal white varieties.  Rosé will be prohibited by cru regulations.

Importantly, the hierarchy displayed in the Rhône pyramid reflects distinctiveness and potential for grandeur.  The levels do not necessarily reflect quality.  Some producers over-achieve with their Côtes du Rhône, surpassing less talented growers’ Côtes du Rhône Villages wines.  So, don’t be a slave to the appellation pyramid.  Remember my cardinal rule: Producer, producer, producer.

Here are a few reds and whites Laudun from three producers that I recommend enthusiastically:

Château Courac, with their 250 acres producing 150,000 bottles of red Laudun and 30,000 bottles of white, is one of the largest producers in the appellation.  They are also one of the best.  Floral but not flamboyant, their fresh and finesse-filled 2021 Côtes du Rhône Villages Laudun Blanc delights the palate with subtle peachy and nutty nuances offset by winsome white peppery notes.  Uplifting acidity in the finish amplifies its considerable appeal.  Clairette planted on sand over clay and comprising 80% of the blend—the remainder is Grenache Blanc—likely helps explains the wine’s finesse (93 pts.; $15).

Domaine Pélaquié’s lively and vibrant 2021 Côtes du Rhône Villages Laudun Blanc is more evidence of the quality of whites coming from this appellation.  Pélaquié, another of the region’s top producers, imbues this white with richness, minerality, and a seductive touch of tropical fruit but skillfully avoids even a hint of heaviness.  Spice and a hint of appealing bitterness in the finish add complexity and balance (92 pts.; $15).

With its alluring combination of black fruit and savory elements, Château Courac’s stunning 2020 Côtes du Rhône Villages Laudun Rouge 2020 will make you a fan of the appellation’s red wines.  It has a bit of everything—hints of tar, gorgeous spice, and minerals—without being boisterous or heavy.  A suave texture and a fresh finish leave a lasting impression (93 pts.; $13 for the 2018).

Domaine Pélaquié’s refined mid-weight red 2019 Côtes du Rhône Villages Laudun is as impressive as their white.  Subtle spice and herbal notes complement the dark cherry-like fruit in this finesse-filled charmer.  Though, thankfully, not an overwrought powerhouse, this elegant red makes a powerful presence.  You’d never guess it weighs in a 14.5% stated alcohol because there’s not a trace of heaviness or heat.  It’s perfect for this year’s grilling season (92 pts.; $14).

Maison Sinnae, the largest producer in the AOC, is a label from the very fine cooperative, Laudun Chusclan Vignerons.  Founded in 1925, it now has about 250 members and controls a staggering 7,000 acres.  They produce a fine array of Côtes du Rhône Laudun wines, both red and white.  Take, for example, their vibrant 2022 white Côtes du Rhône Villages Laudun, “Éléments” Luna.  It delivers enormous pleasure for the price.  An alluring and subtle bitterness in the finish offsets its initial pleasant bite and then amplifies the zingy peachy notes.  This energetic white makes a fine choice as a stand-alone aperitif or a match for spicy Asian fare (91 pts.; $15).  Similarly, their racy 2021 white Laudun, “Excellence,” with hints of white flowers, delicate stone fruit notes, and lively acidity, delivers more than you’d expect at the price.  A hint of bitter almonds in the finish reminds you this is not a heavy fruity wine (92 pts.  $15).  The sophisticated 2020 “Villa Sinnae,” with its heavier bottle and wax covered cork, is Maison Sinnae’s top Laudun white.  It manages to be plusher and slighter riper without losing any finesse or elegance.  It delivers, what for me is the telltale sign of refinement, a hint of bitterness in the finish as though to emphasize it’s not just about the fruit (93 pts., $20).  

Maison Sinnae also excels with their red Laudun Côtes du Rhône Villages Laudun.  The bright and juicy 2021 “Les Dolia” delivers black and red fruits accented by black peppery spice.  It takes a chill nicely because the tannins are refined, hardly noticeable, yet still provide needed structure.  Try it in place of a rosé this summer (92 pts.; $15).  A step up in power and structure is their flagship Laudun, “Villa Cesar.”  The muscular 2021 still has a patina of sweet oak and some wood tannins, so I wouldn’t chill this one.  I’d instead open this robust and balanced bottling a couple of hours before the garlic-laden lamb comes off the grill (91 pts.; $20).

I am grateful to Matt Walls who led a fabulous masterclass on the wines of Laudun earlier this year in Avignon.  Much of the technical information about Laudun in this article came from his class and his excellent book, Wines of the Rhône (The Classic Wine Library, 2021).

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E-mail me your thoughts about Rhône wines in general or those from Laudun in particular, at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter and Instagram @MichaelApstein.

July 12, 2023                       

More columns:    Michael Apstein