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Re-Thinking the Southern Rhône Hierarchy
By Michael Franz
May 30, 2017
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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.  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 an upcoming column (along with ones from Cairanne, the south’s newest AOC) 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 2015 vintage wines aren’t yet available in all markets, but all of these are worth a patient search.  All of these wines were tasted in the Rhône last month, and the results mirror exactly the findings suggested by a comparable week of tastings I conducted there two years ago.  Wines appear in order of preference, and in alphabetical order if bearing the same score:

Château de Saint Cosme Gigondas “Le Claux” 2014:  An indisputably impressive wine that is very powerful and interestingly accented with leathery, meaty undertones--but still vinous rather than overblown.  95

Domaine du Grand Bourjassot Gigondas “Cuvée Cécile” 2015:  This is the more modestly styled (and priced) of two superb 2015s from this producer, with terrific complexity and no excess weight.  94

Domaine du Grand Bourjassot Gigondas “Goutte Noire” 2015:  This sports a bigger bottle and more age-worthiness than the “Cuvée Cécile” from this producer, but in terms of overall appeal, it seems like a toss-up.  Very dense, but thankfully with almost no overt wood character.  94

Domaine Brusset Gigondas “Les Hauts de Montmirail” 2015:  Dark, dense and firm, yet still fresh…which is an accomplishment of note for such a big wine from the 2015 vintage.  94.  As an aside, those who aren’t afraid of encountering frustration when seeking out small-production wines should have a look for this producer’s “Les Secrets de Montmirail” bottling from 2015, which is the first edition since the 2012.  It shows a lot of wood influence and is obviously built for cellaring, which will likely yield a wine meriting 95-96 points.  The color is astonishingly dark and concentrated, and I don’t doubt that the fruit will integrate the oak.  At some point, more is too much, but I believe this will wind up on the right side of that line.

Domaine des Espiers Gigondas “Les Grames” 2015:  The producer’s website only shows one special cuvee, “Des Blanches,” but I trust my notes more than the producer’s updating.  In any case, this was excellent, with exuberant red fruit notes from Grenache and lovely savory undertones.  93

Domaine des Font-Sane Gigondas “Terrasses des Dentelles” 2015:  Impressive concentration and depth of pigmentation but admirably fresh.  93

Domaine Grapillon d’Or Gigondas “1806” 2015:  Complex and convincing, this shows the combination of fruity and meaty qualities that marks the top Gigondas offerings from 2015.  93

Domaine d’Ouréa Gigondas 2015:  Very dark color and excellent concentration suggest that this will be a bruiser from the glass, but the wine turns out to be very pure and graceful.  93

Domaine Raspail-Ay Gigondas 2014:  Among the very best wines from 2014 that I tasted, this is shows a marvelously complex bouquet with ripe fruit notes interwoven with a host of savory accents.  92

Domaine Saint-Damien “La Louisiane” 2014:  An excellent vintage for this wine, which occasionally shows some over-ripe heat, though not in 2014.  Earthy but not dirty, this is complex and exciting.  93

Domaine Tourbillon Gigondas Vieilles Vignes 2014:  Here’s an object lesson in the wisdom of avoiding fixation on wines from the highly-touted 2015 and 2016 vintages.  Balanced ripeness and very complex aromas with more savory notes than fruity ones.  Terrific.  93

Domaine de Foutavin Gigondas “Cuvée Combe Sauvage” 2015:  Leaner and more tannic than the norm in 2015, this is still an excellent wine, though one that will require a bit more patience than most of its counterparts.  92+

Domaine la Bouissiere Gigondas “Tradition” 2015:  Not as dense as many 2015s, this makes up for that with terrific aromas of garrigue, mushroom and carpaccio.  92

Domaine Burle Gigondas “Les Pallieroudas” 2014:  This shows excellent balance between freshness and savory, earthy notes.  92

Domaine de la Tourade Gigondas “Font des Aieux” 2015:  Beautifully ripened, with near-perfect balance between sweet fruit notes and fresh acidity.  92