Most people have some degree of familiarity with the Rhône wines of Southern France. They have typically heard of Grenache, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, or Côtes du Rhône. However, many people may not be aware of some of the other red wine regions, such as Vacqueyras, that can produce amazing reds for great value. This blog will try to explain a little about the history and basics of the southern Rhône and the wines that come from the Southern Rhône Valley region. Hopefully this will inspire you to discover and enjoy the Rhône as much as I do!The Rhône Valley is a wine region in southeast France and is named for the Rhône River that runs through the region on its way to the Mediterranean Sea. The Rhône River separates the Alps from the Massif Central, an elevated and mountainous part of southern France. The north is mountainous ancient granitic rock. The south is partially an ancient seabed with calcareous clay and limestone. The river has deposited sand, flinty pebbles, and clay silt as well. This gives growers a wide variety of different soils and terroir to choose from in the Rhône. And given the range of soils as well as the variance of elevations in the region and the diversity of available grape varieties, styles of wine vary greatly from big, long-aged Syrahs to bright and cheery rosés.Rhône wines are some of the most ancient in France. Evidence has suggested that the Greeks were growing grapes in the fourth century BCE in Marseille and in the first century BCE in the northern part of the Rhône Valley. A good deal of the success was due to the presence of sandstone clay deposits allowing the Greeks and Romans to easily make their earthenware jars, amphorae or dolia, which were used to transport wines as well as the famous roman fish sauce.The Romans had a lasting impression on the area. They established many of the towns and vineyard sites that still exist today. At the height of the Roman Empire, the Rhône Valley wines were rivaling those from Italy in terms of quality and production. Yet after the fall of the empire, the export markets for Rhône wines dried up and great interest wasn’t renewed again until the Catholic Church rediscovered the amazing wines of the Rhône in the middle ages.As with many wine regions in France, the Catholic Church has had a role in forming the wines made in the present day and establishing some of the best vineyards. In the late 13th century, the French king Louis VIII granted a parcel of land to the Catholic church around the town of Avignon called Comtat Venaissin. Also in the late 13th century, riots and general unrest ushered in a chaotic time for Rome. Politically speaking, the church had lost the respect and control of the nobles around Rome to the point where they no longer granted military protection. Following the election of French bishop Clement V to the papacy, he moved the papacy to the Southern Rhône region around the town of Avignon. A general rumor at the time was that the goal was to cozy up to the King Philip of France for political power. Regardless of the explanation, this ushered in the Avignon Papacy that lasted from 1305 until 1378. While this blog is not about Châteauneuf-du-Pape (French for “new castle of the Pope”), it is worth noting that the church ushered in a renaissance of Rhône wines and invigorated the region. The quality summarily increased, vineyard sites were replanted, and the export markets began to grow again.Even though the popes eventually moved back to Rome, the Rhône was on the map and the wines were firmly established. Trade was flourishing due to the high reputation of the wines, and local ports were busy. Due to increased popularity, local wine regulations were introduced in 1650 to guarantee provenance and quality. First known as Côste du Rhône, the famous name of Côtes du Rhône was established in the mid-18th century and validated by the courts in 1936.Baron Le Roy, a grower in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, championed the establishment of a governing body to maintain and regiment wine appellations. The Baron also successfully lobbied for the first AOC in the Rhône in 1933. The terms and limits he set forth became the standard for all subsequent AOC regions (appellation d’origine contrôlée, or controlled area of origin). To this day, the entrants follow limits on growing area, grape varieties, local practices, cultivation methods, minimum alcohol content, and harvest periods. Baron Le Roy later became involved in the founding of the INAO (Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité), the governing body that eventually took over the governing of all AOC regions and entrants, and presided over it from 1947 to 1967.The Southern Rhône accounts for nearly 95% of the total Rhône wine production, and the majority of that is red. Most of those are wines based on blends with Grenache as the star player. The popular blend is called a GSM, as it consists of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre, and Cinsault is frequently included as well.Côtes du RhôneThe Côtes du Rhône is the largest appellation and the base designation for wines for the entire Rhône. While it’s possible that a Northern Rhône Syrah could be de-classified down to the Côtes du Rhône level, it is more than likely to be a Grenache-based wine from around one of 17 different villages or a blend of all the villages intended to achieve a certain style. Usually lower in price than the more prestigious regions, the quality for the price is very high. A great example that we like is:Guigal Cotes du Rhône Rouge 201190 Points. “A perennial favorite, it’s reassuring to see that the quality continues to remain high even from Guigal’s least expensive cuvee. Red fruits—cherries and raspberries—marry easily with hints of clove, cracked pepper, black olive and espresso. It’s round on the mid-palate, showing more focus and ample length on the finish.”– Wine Enthusiast90 Points. “Deep ruby. Smoky cherry and blueberry aromas display very good clarity and a touch of cracked pepper. Showing its Syrah component, with sappy black and blue fruit flavors sharpened by a spicy nuance. A sexy floral note comes up on a gently tannic finish that lingers with very good persistence. As usual, this wine punches well above its category and should reward at least another four or five years of patience.”– Antonio Galloni’s VinousCôtes du Rhône-VillagesImagine a large pyramid: at the bottom of the pyramid is the base (and obviously the largest part)—this is the space reserved for Côtes du Rhône. The next level up is referred to as the village level. As of 2016, there are 17 villages or communes, and the label must bear the name of the village as well as the title Côtes du Rhône. In this case, Seguret is that village. If it is a blend from more than one village, the village names will be left off and just “Villages” will be present.A great example we like is:Domaine de Mourchon Côtes du Rhône Villages Seguret Grande Reserve 201193 Points. “In the same ball park and another incredible effort from this producer, the 2011 Côtes du Rhône Villages Grand Reserve is a blend of two-thirds Grenache and one-third Syrah that was aged in 60% barrel and 40% tank. Awesome on all accounts, with a thrilling bouquet of raspberry liqueur, crushed flowers, spice, licorice and herbs de Provence, this medium to full-bodied beauty has no hard edges, beautiful purity of fruit and a heady, lengthy finish that pumps out loads of fruit while staying fresh and clean. It’s a superb effort that should not be missed.” – Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate90 Points. “This is solid, with a nice core of crushed plum, blackberry and boysenberry fruit, lined with lightly briary tannins and framed by a graphite note on the finish.” – Wine SpectatorGigondasSome of the communes and villages have been awarded their own AOC designations or named areas, and these make up the next-highest level in the quality pyramid. Gigondas is made from at least 50% Grenache, and compares to its more famous cousin Châteauneuf-du-Pape in a lot of ways including soil type, ageing, and winemaking.A great example we like is:Famille Perrin Gigondas Clos des Tourelles 201294 Points: “Ratcheting the quality level up a notch, the 2012 Gigondas Domaine du Clos des Tourelles comes from a property, purchased in 2008, that’s located just outside the village of Gigondas and that’s completely enclosed by a stone wall (hence the use of Clos in the name). It’s also the only wine not vinified at the Famille Perrin winery (which is located just north of Beaucastel) and is vinified in Gigondas. Serious on all accounts, with stunning aromas of sweet black and red fruits, bouquet garni, dried flowers and dusty soil notes, it hits the palate with medium to full-bodied richness, loads of textured and chewy tannin. Improving in the glass, this beautiful Gigondas will benefit from short-term cellaring and have 12-15 years of total evolution. Drink 2016-2027.” – Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate92 Points: “A ripe, silky style, with lush boysenberry and plum confiture notes that glide along, maintaining definition as hints of fruitcake, anise and chocolate move throughout. Drink now through 2022.” – Wine SpectatorVacqueyrasLarger than Gigondas and known to be a bit more rustic, the same rules apply, as does the similarity to more famous regions with better value. This region can have more variable quality due to its size but if you look carefully, you can find some great wines.A great example we like is:Dom. La Garrigue Vacqueyras La Canterelle 201292 Points “Bright violet color. Sexy aromas of black raspberry, cherry compote, potpourri and incense. Supple, pliant and focused on the palate, offering intense red and dark berry fruit and floral pastille flavors that deepen with air. The long, sweet, intensely spicy finish features silky tannins and a suave, lingering suggestion of candied flowers. These vines reportedly range from 80 to over 100 years of age.”– Antonio Galloni’s VinousLirac & CairanneSimilar to Gigondas and Vacqueyras in that Grenache is the star but not as well-known, these regions produce great value wines (but not necessarily cheap). They sit above the village level and are a great choice for lovers of richer, new-world-style wines.A great Lirac we like is:Domaine de la Mordoree Lirac La Reine des Bois 201293 Points “Even better, and a smoking Lirac that vies for the top wine of the appellation, the 2012 Lirac La Reine des Bois has gorgeous crème de cassis, licorice, pan drippings, wood spice and hints of graphite. Offering knockout purity, full-bodied richness and ultra-fine tannin, it tastes like a top flight Châteauneuf-du-Pape and will drink nicely for over a decade.” – Robert Parker’s The Wine AdvocateA great Cairanne we like is:Domaine Roche Cairanne 201290 Points: “A sexy wine made under the auspices of globe-trotting oenologist Philippe Cambie, this 2012 Côtes du Rhône-Villages Cairanne was produced from 40 to 105-year-old vines. The blend was 70% Grenache (aged in concrete) and 30% Syrah (aged in barrique) from yields of 20 to 30 hectoliters per hectare. It exhibits a delicious, up-front, front end-loaded, richly fruity style with lots of raspberry, black cherry, roasted herb, loamy soil and underbrush notes. This corpulent, fleshy red can be enjoyed over the next 4-5 years.” – Robert Parker’s The Wine AdvocateI hope you enjoy your wine travels through the Rhône. There is so much more still that has not been mentioned here, including the amazing whites, rosés and dessert wines to try. Cheers!
A Winery FocusNiven Family Wine Estates
Recently Christian Roguenant, the famed winemaker of Niven Family Wine Estates, visited Wine.com and led a Master Class on Albariño. Not only did I learn a lot about Albariño, I was humbled by the amount I didn’t know, and the differences in terroir and subregions within the larger Rias Baixas DO(Spanish wine region). He then compared his Albariño to the the Spanish styles to show that Tangent Edna Valley Albariño was a true balance between California fruit and Spanish soul.Niven Family Wine Estates is a truly unique winery. They have several labels, each with a focus on purity. They use different labels, but not for lower quality, rather for differentiation. Most larger wineries have 2nd labels for lower price options for the grapes that don’t classify for their reserve or Grand Cru offerings. Niven Family Wine Estates currently has 6 labels, yet none are lesser than the others, they each have a unique offering and design, some even pay homage to the traditional homeland where the grape originates. Though price range differs, each label is special and unique for its own specific qualities, vineyard block, appellation or grape.Niven Family Wine Estates started over 40 years ago by Jack Niven, who pioneered Chardonnay grape-growing n the Edna Valley at Paragon Vineyard. Now, the family boasts 6 appellation-specific wine labels and each with their own focus. Jack Niven unfortunately has passed away but the next generation has ensured that the Niven Family Estates will continue to be family run and even SIP certified sustainable, so that future generations can continue with their success. In the late 90’s they brought in world-renowned winemaker Christian Roguenant and gave him carte blanche to construct the winery of his dreams. With the family running the day to day operations, and a Burgundian winemaker in the cellar, they have started to set the world of wine on fire!Here are all the offerings we currently carry, Enjoy!True Myth
Representing a tightly focused modern option for the famous Chardonnay and Cabernet grapes, these wines celebrate the Central Coast. The Chardonnay fruit comes from the the Edna valley, the coolest wine region in the state, while the Cabernet comes the warmer Paso Robles region about 30 miles to the north. Both wines are rich and delicious, representative of each of their appellations, and show the diversity in San Luis Obispo County.2014 True Myth Chardonnay – Edna Valley, Paragon Vineyard $14.99A classically styled Chardonnay from the Edna Valley showcasing aromas of pear, white peach, pineapple and wet stone. Flavors of beautiful tropical fruit with mineral undertones and textured creaminess are balanced with refreshing acidity, a hallmark of Paragon Vineyard, that keeps the wine lively and fresh from start to finish. All topped off with the perfect complement of vanilla bean and toasted oak.2013 True Myth Cabernet Sauvignon – Paso Robles $19.99Sourced from 20+ year old vines grown on calcareous soils in a region with the greatest temperature swing from day to night in California comes a bold and rich Cabernet, loaded with blackberry jam, cherry, black currant, exotic spices and cola, with notes of caramelized oak…classic, yet individual.Tangent
A true Chardonnay-free zone, this label focuses on alternative white grapes and Sauvignon Blanc, all grown in the cool Edna Valley. A project developed to be food driven, these clean, lively wines are fresh, crisp and vibrant. Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Albariño, Pinot Gris, and Viognier.2014 Tangent Pinot Gris – Edna Valley, Paragon Vineyard $16.99Aromatics of orange blossom, pineapple, grapefruit and a hint of pepper are followed by concentrated flavors of ripe peaches, tangerine and green apple. Medium-bodied with crisp acidity and a creamy mouth feel, it pairs well with a wide range of foods including seafood, pasta with light sauces, even grilled sausage.2014 Tangent Albariño – Edna Valley, Paragon Vineyard $13.9990 Points “An excellent example of New World Albariño, the 2014 Tangent has keep the wine’s purity just as one would expect a first-class vintner would do. One can close their eyes and imagine themselves in Galicia while enjoy a glass this one. Medium straw in color; bright aromas of ripe citrus and a hint of mineral; medium bodied, smooth on the palate; dry, medium acidity, well balanced; bright citrus peel and core fruit flavors; medium finish, lively, smooth aftertaste. – Wilfred Wong of Wine.com2014 Tangent Sauvignon Blanc – Edna Valley, Paragon Vineyard$12.9990 Points “Classic and yet distinctive in aromatics, this bottling from the Niven family’s cool-climate vineyard shows cut grass, wet cement and a touch of struck match on the narrowly focused nose. The palate intrigues, with fresh-cut thyme and oregano lifted by a white pepper element” – Wine Enthusiast2013 Tangent Viognier – Edna Valley, Paragon Vineyard $13.9992 Points: “This wine has renewed my faith that California vintners can make a superior Viognier, the very exciting 2013 Tangent Viognier makes it way past most others as it gives the palate plenty of rewards; aromas and flavors of apple and peaches are joined with light flowers and mineral; finish with an almost pixy straw/lime citrus note. Since I am a big lover of
Vietnamese cuisine, I thought of The Slanted Door Charles Phan and his Clams with Butter-Lime Sauce. Now doesn’t that make your mouth water?” – Wilfred Wong of Wine.com2012 Tangent Grenache Blanc – Edna Valley, Paragon Vineyard $13.9990 Points: “More juicy and fresh, with better acidity and overall integration, the 2012 Grenache Blanc is well done. Offering up big crushed stone-like minerality, green herbs and citrus aromas and flavors, it’s a medium-bodied, lively and pure white that’s perfect for a hot summer day. It’s also a superb value and should be purchased in multiple bottle lots.”
– Robert Parker’s The Wine AdvocateBaileyana
In the late 70’s Catharine Niven, Jack’s wife, planted her own 3 acre vineyard on their home property in the Edna Valley, she dove head first into the male-dominated wine world. Named for a place that she met her husband. It produces cool climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. They are rich, complex, beautifully balanced and refined. 30 years later they have moved out of the project phase and has become the family’s legacy wines!2013 Baileyana Firepeak Chardonnay – Edna Valley $20.9990 Points: “A classic, rich San Luis Obispo County Chardonnay, the 2013 Baileyana Firepeak Chardonnay is rich with tropical and core fruit flavors, nicely balanced with sweet French oak. Stays steady and cohesive with all of its elements creating a fine aromatic, textural and full experience. This wine stands up well with richly sauced seafood dishes.” Wilfred Wong of Wine.com
90 Points: “Smooth and juicy with minerals, pineapple and rich pear; soft, lush and showing a core of crisp acidity; long and balanced. Sustainable.” – Tasting PanelBaileyana Firepeak Pinot Noir 2013 – Edna Valley $22.9991 Points: “The 2013 Baileyana Firepeak Pinot Noir drinks so well. Yes this is yum wine that is sure to please a wide range of wine drinkers (Old World-New World, wine aficionados and wine novices alike. Just grill some lamb and see how quickly the wine is imbibed. Medium to deep garnet in color; aromatic, red fruit aromas, light note of flower; medium bodied and nicely textured on the palate; medium acidity, fine balance; pleasing and delicate red fruit flavors; medium to long finish, supple aftertaste.” – Wilfred Wong of Wine.com92 Points: “Juicy and lush with bright, ripe cherry and tangy Burgundian style; round and fresh with sweet oak, balance and a long, elegant finish.” – Tasting Panel90 Points: “The Niven family winemaker, Christian Roguenant, teases smoked meats, blackberry paste, dark slate, aromatic red cherries and concentrated hibiscus from the nose of this wine. The palate shows plenty of ripe, red fruit, but is made interesting by woody herbs, including oregano and marjoram” – Wine EnthusiastZocker
It means the gambler in German and this label is one of their biggest gambles yet – but it payed off big! The Zocker label captures the central european wine styles with two very distinctive varieties; Gruner Veltliner and Riesling. This is just another example of how the Niven Family is breaking the molds and showing that they are up for a bit of a risk, or in this case, a gamble!2014 Zocker Gruner Veltliner – Edna Valley, Paragon Vineyard $21.99Rich and round but with great acid structure, this wine is steely with pronounced minerality. It has a bit of an earthy characteristic, a strong white pepper note, and flavors of ripe melon and fruit cocktail.2012 Zocker Riesling – Edna Valley, Paragon Vineyard $19.9990 Points: “A riesling with style and character, the well-defined 2012 Zocker Riesling exhibits a hint of fusel along with its green apple aromas and flavors; firm and well built on the palate, the wine sails nicely into a crisp and well defined finish. A generous riesling, a fine choice with shellfish, perhaps a bouillabaisse with a glass or two of this wine in your future! Yes, why not?” – Wilfred Wong of Wine.com91 Points: “This shows petrol, honey and brie cheese rind notes on the nose, and is quite creamy once sipped, yet the edges are punctuated with orange peel bitterness. The tartness ensures cellaring potential, so drink 2018–2025.” – Wine Enthusiast90 Points: “Even better, with beautiful lychee, citrus blossom and floral notes, the 2012 Riesling is medium-bodied, balanced, fresh and clean, with a hard-to-resist quality that will have the glass empty before you know it. It’s worthy of a multi-bottle purchase and should drink nicely for a couple years.” – Robert Parker’s The Wine AdvocateI hope you have a chance to explore the wines and visit their tasting room!
Niven Family Wines
On a continent that typically brings to mind dry, hot deserts and rainforest jungles, it’s easy to forget that there is also wine. But on the very southern tip of South Africa, vineyards thrive and produce a wide variety of grapes. Though the wines were slow to market due to the embargo on South Africa during apartheid, the country has managed to solidify its presence as a quality wine producer over the past few decades. As a huge fan of South African wines, I wanted to share a few tips on what to try!Reds are smokey-meaty:
This is a good thing — fire up the grill! Something about the land in South Africa brings out a gamey character in red wines, like bacon fat or smoked meat, especially in Syrah. Of course, this has nothing to do with the wild game that runs about in the country, but it is a happy coincidence — South African red wines are some of our favorites for roasted meats, stews, dishes from the grill, or anything wrapped in bacon (and what is not amazing wrapped in bacon?!?!?).Sauvignon Blanc rivals that of New Zealand:
Crisp, grassy, tropical, zingy — all words that perfectly describe this alternate Southern Hemisphere thirst quencher.But Chenin Blanc should be your new go-to wine for summer:
Chenin Blanc (until recently, the most abundantly planted grape in South Africa) is made in a dry style here, and is quite different from its Loire Valley counterparts. It has crisp acidity, a mineral component, and a wonderful texture — in a blind tasting, someone once took one of these for a Macon-Villages (which is Burgundian Chardonnay). So if you love refreshing whites with character at great values, stock up!At least try Pinotage:
If you’ve heard of Pinotage, congratulations. If you love Pinotage, well… you’re in the minority! The “flagship” crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsault that was concocted in a laboratory in 1925 hardly made the wine world swoon when it was first introduced. But wait! There is plenty of high-quality, GOOD Pinotage, despite the general public opinion. It’s certainly worth a try, especially the excellent example from Southern Right.