Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Ruminating on the Rhone

Cooler temperatures lead to thoughts of the next rich, spicy red on the horizon. Look to the Rhone Valley of France. Here you'll find bargains and blockbusters. Northern Rhone reds are made entirely of Syrah. Southern Rhone reds are blends, usually including Grenache, Syrah, and possibly several other varieties such as Mourvèdre, Cinsault (san-so), Carignan and Counoise. The familiar designation Côtes-du-Rhone is a good one to look for. Even better are Côtes-du-Rhone Villages, which refer to about 95 sub-regions of the Southern Rhone and reflect more focused wine production. And better still, are the named villages. There are currently 18 of these and the one that has jumped to the head of the line for me is Cairanne.

A recent Rhone tasting featuring over a dozen wines included the captivating Coteaux des Travers Côtes-du-Rhone-Villages Cairanne 2007. The aromas jumped from the glass with intense raspberry and cherry pie filling. The tannins were present yet artfully cloaked by the flavors of strawberry, cinnamon and an intriguing smoky finish. I found myself thinking about this wine long after the day's end.
Today brought the much anticipated Domaine Les Grands Bois Cuvée Maximilien Cairanne 2007. Domaine Les Grands Bois has several wines, including a powerhouse wine from Rasteau, another named village, and their Trois Soeurs, so named for the owners' 3 daughters. These are complex, well-crafted wines that reflect the owners passion and attention to detail. But I wanted to open their Cairanne and be just as captivated as I was by the Coteaux des Travers.

And I was. First there's an aromatic blast of fresh cinnamon stick. Morello cherry jam follows, and then gradually an undercurrent of smoky bacon. That last bit was surprising. Bacon fat is something I associate with Northern Rhone Syrah. And this wine has only a touch of Syrah, 5%. It's a little over half Grenache and about a third Mourvèdre plus only 5% Carignan. The flavors are leathery cassis and lavender, briars and dried cranberries. Robert Parker gives this wine a 93 and describes it as "...sauteed porcini mushrooms intermixed with notes of spring flowers and damp earth..." It's a stellar fall accompaniment to hearty soups, crumbly aged cheeses and crusty bread. Bring on the frost.
Cairanne is currently lobbying for inclusion as one of the Rhone Valley Crus, a more select designation than the Villages label. There are 8 in the Northern Rhone and 7 in the Southern. I wish them well and believe they deserve the elevation. And the Rhone wines are such great values that even if they achieve their goal, the wines will most likely still be very affordable.

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