Reappraising the wines of the Rhone

Date:28-10-2013 08:58:23 read:1

Reappraising the wines of the Rhone

Exploring the northern reaches of south-eastern France’s great river yields some pleasant – and surprising – results

Northern lights: the selection of Rhone wines at Haynes, Hanson & Clarke  

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Some time over the last couple of years, the northern Rhone began to glow on my internal radar as a region whose wines Needed to Be Paid More Attention. This was probably the result of a literal drip drip, a seep into my subconscious as, at tasting after tasting, the wines kept over-performing, or surprising with their unexpected edge of sharpness and vitality.

Then I had breakfast with the two buyers at a small London shop called Haynes, Hanson & Clark, and Jim Eustace said how much he was enjoying St Joseph reds at the moment – “They have such beautiful freshness” – and that glow became even brighter. Right, I said, time to devote some space to them.

First, back to basics. Grenache is the king of the southern Rhone, where it makes wines that taste like pale tongues of fire, often high in alcohol, flaring out, all red berries or confit strawberries, carrying a scent that is reminiscent of the dried herbs on scrubby hillsides. In the north, you’re looking at syrah: dark and intense, more introverted, less accessible, good for long ageing. Also, usually not the cheapest you’ll find in the Rhone; but on a dark, damp night – and I am writing this looking out at driving rain and red autumn leaves – it doesn’t half hit the spot.

OK, so it’s the same grape as Australian shiraz, but I don’t even keep northern Rhone syrah in the same mental filing cabinet. The Old World version often tastes of blackened old fence posts and feels like falling into a black hole and finding smooth pebbles and cool herbs somewhere in there; the New is more likely to range from liquorice to baked raspberries to stewing mulberries.

The Rhone appellations have their own characteristics. Cornas, usually spoken of as being one of the more rustic, reminds me of an old pair of Doc Marten steel-toecap shoes. It can have a certain toughness and gruffness, it’s less sophisticated than its neighbours. Immediately to the north, on the east bank of the river, you have Crozes-Hermitage, with the much, much smaller hill of Hermitage, where Chave is the god of producers, tucked away at its heart, making wines that are similar and yet more imposing. Facing it across the river on the steep west bank, there is the long straggle of vineyards, some of them planted on granite, that is St Joseph. The best St Joseph wines are mineral and as well-defined as a pencil drawing. At its northerly edge, St Joseph shades into perfumed Condrieu: there is an intersection on the Venn diagram before you are in viognier country. And then, in the very north, you have Côte Rôtie, where a little viognier is sometimes mixed in with the syrah.

You hear all sorts of explanations as to why a splash of viognier is sometimes used in Côte Rôtie. The more romantic one is to say that it lifts the black fruit out of the glass on a perfumed waft, in the same way that a rise of warm air carries a scent to your nose. The more prosaic one is to say that producers did it to make the wine go further. The odd thing is that the syrah grown here can smell so floral that sometimes, tasting, I get confused and think there may be some viognier there when there isn’t. Conversely, the viognier – when it is there – can make the wine feel a bit gloopy and obvious.

Increasingly, some of the better producers are branching out beyond the traditional appellations and making IGP (what used to be vin de pays) wines that have real style and finesse. These tend to be wines for drinking now rather than for stashing away in a cellar for the long haul, and I like them all the more for it.

The wines on the right are gathered from tastings in my notebook over the last few weeks and months. After my chat with Siobhan Astbury and Jim Eustace at Haynes, Hanson & Clarke I also went back to the teeny basement of their South Kensington shop especially to try some of their northern Rhone wines. Unusually, Siobhan and Jim buy as a pair, tasting and discussing, before reaching a decision on any wine. They have a particular buying style – elegant, understated, precise – that works very well for northern Rhone wines. If you’re nearby, it’s worth popping in for the fragrant yet still slightly meaty Jean-Claude Marsanne St Joseph 2010 (£20.60) as well as the one on the right. As I left I mentioned that I planned to walk past nearby Bywater St and say hello to George Smiley who supposedly lives at No 9. I’ve always thought it odd of John le Carré to give him an address that actually exists in real life, and wondered why he did it and why he chose that particular spot.

“Oh,” said Jim. “Well he’s my uncle, so I’ll have to ask him.”

Jim, we are still waiting to hear…

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