Wine of the Week 68 – the wild one

The wild, sauvage, landscape of Cairanne.

The wild, sauvage, landscape of Cairanne.

It is a strange truth that one of the most famous, popular and sought after French wines is usually pretty disappointing – unless you spend a great deal of money. Many of you will instantly know that I am talking about Châteauneuf-du-Pape the French classic that everyone seems to know about, even of they have never heard of any other French wines.

Which is the nub of the problem really. That very popularity makes them sought after, but of course most people drink the cheaper versions, which are a mere shadow of what Châteauneuf can be. I say cheaper, but I tasted a pretty ropey one the other day and that retailed for nearly £25!

I have said it before on these pages, but it seems to me that if you like the style of Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines, but do not want to pay a fortune, then you often get better wines and much better value by buying a good Côtes du Rhône.

This is especially true of two types of wine: The Crus and the Côte du Rhône-Villages that can also put the particular village name on the label. A Cru in French wine parlance is a specific wine, sometimes a particular vineyard, but more commonly it refers to a village. So Châteuneuf-du-Pape is a Cru of the Southern Rhône, but there are others that offer much better value, Lirac, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Rasteau and Vinsobres are all well worth trying.

Wine map of the Southern Rhône - click for a larger view.

Wine map of the Southern Rhône – click for a larger view.

In theory the Crus should be better wines than my next category, but that is not always the case. This is the top tier of Côte du Rhône-Villages, the ones that can addd the name of their village to the label.

The hierarchy goes: Côtes du Rhône as the basic level.

Then Côte du Rhône-Villages, which is thought to be better and certainly the regulations are stricter and yields are lower.

Even better still are the Côte du Rhône-Villages wines that have their village name on the label as well. Again the regulations are stricter and the yields smaller. There are 18 such villages at present, although that does change as some get promoted to Cru status from time to time. Some of them are much better known than others, here is the list; Rousset-les-Vignes, Saint-Pantaléon-les-Vignes, Valréas, Visan, Saint-Maurice, Rochegude, Roaix, Séguret, Sablét, Saint-Gervais, Chusclan, Laudun, Gadagne, Massif d’Uchaux, Plan de Dieu, Puyméras, Signargues and most famously Cairanne – which is set to become a Cru itself very soon.

The classic stony soils of the southern Rhône Valley.

The classic stony soils of the southern Rhône Valley.

Well the other day I tasted a Cairanne that was quite superb, much better than that ropey, but much more expensive Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In fact it was so good I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Boutinot-La-Côte-Sauvage-7072012 La Côte Sauvage Cairanne
AC Côte du Rhône-Villages-Cairanne
Boutinot
Rhône Valley, France

This is a you might expect this is mainly Grenache with some Syrah and a little Mourvèdre and Carignan – a classic Southern Rhône blend just as you find in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The vines are pretty old and sit on a slope overlooking Cairanne Church, the soil is the classic stony soils of the region that absorb heat and reflect light into the vines. It was fermented using just the wild yeasts, which makes for more complex flavours and textures in the wine. The wine aged for 24 months in used ( second and third fill) French oak barrels and 600 litre vats.

This is a rich looking, opaque wine that reeks of rich cherry, deep plum, spices and wild herbs. The palate is opulent, rich and mouth filling with sweet ripe red fruit layered with spices, herbs, savoury meaty, mushroom flavours and seductive fine grain, supple tannins and mocha infused oak. This never falls into the trap of being gloopy, over alcoholic or clumsy. Actually it is focussed and elegant with great balance between the fruit and the power and the tannins and oak that give it structure and tension. The finish is long and deeply satisfying, what a wine – 91/100 points.

This really is a stunner and so easy to match with food, shepherd’s pie, sausage and mash would go perfectly, but so would roast lamb and cassoulet and it is fine enough to grace any table anywhere.

I have just discovered that they make magnums of this – available here – how good would that be for Christmas?

Available in the UK for around £13-£15 per bottle, from Wine Poole (2011), The Oxford Wine Company, All About Wine, The Ram’s Head at Denshaw, D&D, The Secret Cellar, Rannoch Scott Wines, Great Grog, Chester Beer & WineBlacker Hall Farm Shop WakefieldDavis Bell McCraith Wines.
For US stockists of the equally excellent 2011 vintage, click here.

Wine of the Week 23 – an inspiring tale & a treat from the Rhône

My new Wine of the Week is something I have been meaning to write about for quite a while. It is made by the guys at Chêne Bleu who craft some superb wines at their Domaine de la Verrière. This beautiful estate is in the rugged and isolated Mont Ventoux area just a few kilometres north of Gigondas and east of Séguret on the borders between the Côtes du Rhône and Ventoux.

la_verriere182

Domaine de la Verrière complete with the blue oak. Photo courtesy of the winery.

I have managed to taste most of the Chêne Bleu wines and they are hugely impressive and like all the best wineries it has a great story to tell. Once an early medieval priory that was known for its wines, it also later became famous for making glass, hence the la Verrière name, but by the 1960s the place was rundown and derelict. It stayed that way too, until Nicole and Xavier Rolet bought the property in the mid 1990s. At first they brought the house up to standard, but soon turned their attention to the vineyards. As the estate is hardly in a famous location for great wine they assumed a modest future of growing grapes for the local cooperative was all that was possible. However, as they were totally new to wine they called in soil experts who explained to them that this site actually had potential for great wine.

Fundamentally it was the altitude – between 550 and 630 metres above sea level – the complex soils, the powerful sun and the strong winds that made the place so promising. The estate can ripen the fruit, the altitude ensures finesse and acidity, while the other factors force the vines to spend so much effort surviving that they produce tiny crops of concentrated grapes.

Vineyards at Chêne Bleue. Photo courtesy of the winery.

Vineyards at Chêne Bleu. Photo courtesy of the winery.

Apparently it took twelve years of back breaking effort to coax life back into the land. Right from the start they aimed high to produce wines that spoke of this place, which is why some of their wines are blended across their land. Because the estate straddles 4 appellations – Côtes du Rhône, Gigondas, Séguret and Ventoux – some of their wines are made from grapes that belong to more than one appellation and so are simply labelled as Vin de Pays / IGP rather than appellation contrôlée. To restore balance to the vineyard, everything is done manually and naturally with no fertilisers or pesticides. In fact they are on their way to biodynamic and organic certification.

Wine map of the southern Rhône. Click for a larger view. High resolution non watermarked versions are available by agreement.

Wine map of the southern Rhône. Click for a larger view. High resolution non watermarked versions are available by agreement.

It may seem a little shallow of me, but part of the pleasure that I take in their wines is looking at their beautiful labels which look like intricate medieval wood-cuts. I have always loved David Gentleman‘s mural at Charring Cross tube station and I can take the same sort of delight in Chêne Bleu’s labels as I can in examining that. You can spend hours taking in all the details and finding the animals hidden in the patterns – apparently people try to count the rabbits – and at the heart is a drawing of the Chêne Bleu itself. As you can see in the photographs, there really is a blue oak at the estate. It is so old that they have had to treat it in order to preserve it and it was this that made it blue.

Chêne Bleu is an inspiring project and the positive way their wines have been received must give them immense gratification after so much hard work. The wines are very, very good though and they deserve their plaudits, but most of them are also far from cheap, although well worth trying if you want a treat.

However, luckily for us they have just launched a more affordable wine and that is my Wine of the Week:

CB- Mktg- A5 Brochures- UK- Astralabe 2009-  24.7.132009 Chêne Bleu Astralabe
A.C. Ventoux
Rhône Valley, France
This is a blend of 70% old vine Grenache and Syrah, the vines are between 30 and 40 years old and are grown at around 540 metres above sea level on a mixture of north and south-west facing slopes. The wine spends 7-8 months in barrel. It is named Astralabe in honour of the little known son of Abélard and Héloïse, which are the names of Chêne Bleu’s two top wines.
The nose is lifted, attractive and smoky with mineral, earthy and herbal notes. The fruit is dominated by plums, cooked strawberries and black cherry together with and a touch of prune in the background.
The palate is quite full-bodied and delivers delicious bright red fruit, as wells some deeper notes. There is a delicately peppery spice, gently firm tannins and some fresh acidity giving it a distinctive purity.
This is an elegant, balanced and joyous wine with concentrated fruit and a lovely mineral quality too – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK at £15.99 a bottle from Waitrose Cellar – £11.99 if you grab it before 28/10/2014

This is utterly perfect with a slow cooked shoulder of lamb cooked on a bed of garlic, thyme, rosemary and lemon peel. If you like Grenache and Syrah blends, wines from the Rhône, spicy or elegant wines, then you really should try this.