There’s No Place Like Rhône
Nowhere in the world can match the countryside around the winding Rhône in the South of France for natural beauty and delectable wines, says Marlon Abela
I’VE ALWAYS HAD great love for Southern France — after London, where my family and work are based, I consider it to be my second home. I always remember when I was a young boy, growing up in our family bastide in Grasse, how fascinated I was exploring all the wonders that used to grow in our garden. I’m sure that is where my passion for food and wine was born. It is where the inspiration for opening Cassis Bistro on Brompton Road stems from — I wanted to bring a bit of that love to London.
I’m always amazed at what a rich and diverse area Southern France truly is. Perhaps my favourite part of the world is the belt that stretches from Vienne southwards towards Marseille and branches eastwards to Nice. The drive down L’Autoroute du Soleil which parallels the majestic Rhône river is a journey that could easily be enjoyed over a leisurely fortnight.
The landscape and views are spectacular — a vision for the eyes and the imagination. The region is littered with medieval villages and Roman ruins, fortresses are found in perfect balance, perching over the very top of mountain ridges. And of course a wine appellation — Châteauneuf-du-Pape — is named in homage to the Popes who blessed its lands and decided to make it their home so many centuries ago, shunning Rome.
I do realise that, strictly speaking, my article is amalgamating what are considered to be very distinct wine regions. I could (and will one day) write about the specific appellations found in this area in great detail. But this article is more about the love I have for the region as a whole and the immense diversity of great wines.
There is an endless treasure trove of some of the most perfect produce that nature has to offer, such as potatoes and asparagus from Pertuis, onions from the Cevennes, olives from Nyon and Nice, melons from Cavaillon, cherries from Venasque, chestnuts from Collobrières and, of course, the black truffle, which is found throughout the soil of Provence — not to mention the rolling fields of lavender and violets, a signature of the region.
There are an estimated 40 different grape varietals spanning from the top of the Rhône Valley down to the appellation of Bellet in the heights of Nice. There are thirteen officially recognised grape varietals in Châteauneuf-du-Pape (CDP) alone! I believe that such riches are unique to this area and are a testament to the diversity of its soil.
NO DOUBT SOME of the world’s most sought-after wines, and some of my favourites, are found in the northern Rhône Valley. The great Syrahs stemming from Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie are some of the most pure and complex wines I have tasted. Capable of ageing for many decades, these wines are often powerful and full of personality, but they are underpinned by a freshness and finesse that is rarely found elsewhere. Not long ago, I was fortunate enough to taste a bottle of Hermitage La Chapelle 1949, from Jaboulet Aîné. It was still drinking perfectly — proof that these wines, along with the finest of Bordeaux and Burgundy, are capable of withstanding the test of time. Today’s best red and white Hermitage is made by Jean-Louis Chave and Michel Chapoutier. In certain vintages they also produce an awesome sweet Hermitage Vin de Paille.
In my eyes, the star of the region is the Domaine Etienne Guigal, whose trio of flagship Côte-Rôties, La Mouline, La Landonne and La Turque, are some of the best-made wines on the planet; consistent year in and year out, they rarely disappoint. Jean-Michel Gerin’s more feminine style and Michel and Stéphane Ogier’s bolder Côte-Rôties are also wonderful domaines, demonstrating the different vinification styles to be found in the appellation.
On the more affordable scale, I am very fond of Alain Graillot’s chiselled and full-bodied Crozes-Hermitage, especially the un-stemmed cuvée La Guiraude. Domaine Pierre Gonon produces some very accomplished white and red Saint-Joseph.
Auguste Clape and Jean-Luc Colombo, the stalwarts in Cornas, continue to dominate, producing their age-worthy, spicy and full-bodied Syrah that is such a treat to enjoy with game. The domaine that never ceases to impress me is Georges Vernay, based in Condrieu, whose entire portfolio, from entry-level Vins de Pays des Collines-Rhodaniennes white and reds to superlative Condrieu, are outstanding. Vernay’s aromatic and chewy Condrieu made from the Viognier grape are some of the best white wines to be found and are a great companion to fish dishes en sauce, quenelle of pike or frogs legs à la Provençale. Domaine Yves Cuilleron and Guigal (Cuvée La Doriane) also produce some lovely Condrieu that should not be overlooked.
CDP IS IN fashion, with many wine collectors fighting over allocations of micro-cuvées produced by some of the top domaines, such as the Hommage à Jacques Perrin from Château de Beaucastel, the Cuvée des Célestins by Henri Bonneau and the Cuvée da Capo from Domaine du Pégaü. These wines are typically made in only the best vintages, the outcome often being very rich, dense, high-alcohol wines with notes of dried and stewed fruit and an inherent sweetness reminiscent of some Amarones from Italy, commanding exorbitant prices on the secondary market. Although these are undoubtedly lovely wines in their style, I find that they are sometimes a little over the top.
The classiest red CDP nowadays is Domaine Clos des Papes. Every aspect of this wine inspires elegance and harmony. Its purity is nearly Burgundian, but the features that make it a great CDP are present. The white is considered a league above its peers.
Domaine de Marcoux is also one of my all-time favourites — bolder in style than the above, but with an underlying femininity and elegance that is always present, a signature of the two sisters who produce the wine. Domaine de la Mordorée is another respected estate which produces some phenomenal Lirac and Tavel Rosé; great value for money to be found here.
South of Avignon in Provence (St Etienne du Grès), Domaine de Trévallon is one of the behemoths of the region. Some three decades ago the Dürrbach family were pioneers in planting the non-indigenous Cabernet Sauvignon grape and blending it in equal parts with Syrah to make their wine, something that was very avant-garde for the time. The outcome is a true success story. As expected the wines are full bodied and age-worthy but always maintain a freshness and balance, in keeping with Eloi Dürrbach’s intent when he created what has become an iconic domaine. The white is a blend of Marsanne, Roussanne and a small quantity of Chardonnay. It is a full-bodied wine, exuding aromas of candied fruit and boiled sweets, that I rather enjoy drinking young.
PROVENCE SEEMS TO have been revitalised in recent times, with some dynamic domaines introducing modern winemaking techniques and challenging the more traditional and hitherto dominant domaines. In Palette, where the renowned Château Simone is to be found, Henri Bonnaud is carrying the torch with his array of very well-made whites, rosés and reds. The more rustic reds of Domaine Tempier and Château de Pibarnon (whose rosé is still one of the best to be found) are being given a good run for their money by the more modern-styled Château Vannières and Domaine Rimauresq’s cuvée Quintessence de R, which make lovely drinking at a young age while still holding on to Provence’s soul. Investors also see potential, with Maison Roederer in Champagne acquiring Domaine d’Ott with obvious ambitions of turning it into a global brand and drastically improving the quality of the wines along the way.
St Tropez is also the place to be, with one of France’s most successful entrepreneurs taking over Domaine de la Croix. Domaine de Triennes in the Var is in the hands of a group of Burgundian winemakers who produce a remarkable and original white, Cuvée Les Auréliens, a blend of Viognier and Chardonnay.
In the most eastward appellation d’origine contrôlée of Bellet in Nice, Domaine Clos Saint Vincent and the Château de Bellet (which has been held by the same family since the 15th century) produce tiny quantities with predominantly indigenous varietals that are not found elsewhere. Their dextrous use of Braquet unveils some of the best rosés in the region, and their inclusion of Folle Noire in the reds would keep most sommeliers and wine connoisseurs guessing what it is that they are sipping from their glass.