Wines of the Month



OCTOBER, 1999

A Rhône By Any Other Name...

When is a Rhône not a Rhône? When it's made somewhere else, of course. Winemakers (and wine drinkers) all over the world seem to have "rediscovered" the great red grapes of France's Rhône Valley. After a few years of hearing about Cabernet, Merlot and the occasional Zinfandel, suddenly Syrah (aka Shiraz), Grenache, Mourvedre (aka Mataro) and other Rhône varieties seem to be springing up on wine shelves everywhere I look. Sure, Australian Shiraz has been around for a long time, but lately, places like South Africa, California, Washington and even the South of France have been providing strong competition in the category. These wines often don't even attempt to imitate the Rhône reds, but try to blend the best characteristics of the grapes with the distinctive characters of their new homes.

In fact, these days, it's difficult to venture into a wine store, read a wine magazine, or even drop into an Internet wine discussion group without hearing about an awesome producer of Rhône-based reds, with a stellar lifetime record of achievements covering the grand total of one or two vintages, charging prices which would make producers in the Rhône Valley very happy indeed. Sure, some of these producers will likely turn out to be among the next century's greats, and their fans will be glad to have gotten in on the ground floor, but others will turn out to be nothing more than over-hyped, overpriced "flavors of the month". How do you tell the difference? It's not always easy, and that's why I've decided to take another approach in this article, featuring wines from producers with at least a few years under their belts. These wines definitely aren't as trendy as some, and they tend to get overlooked by the seekers of the latest and greatest thrills, but your wallet won't empty quite as quickly when buying them, either.

Peter Lehmann The Barossa Shiraz Barossa '95 -- Peter Lehmann has been making wine in Australia's Barossa valley for quite a while. In fact, back in the 70's, he helped independent grape growers in the Barossa through some very difficult times. This Shiraz has been one of my favorite values for years. Comparable in price to the Rosemount Diamond Label Shiraz, I think that this wine shows a bit more structure and has a little more personality. When poured, the aromas start with lush plum, chocolate, and toasty oak. After a few minutes in the glass, the nose becomes much bigger, with tobacco, plum, blueberry and spice notes. Rich plum, blueberry and cherry flavors along with tobacco, framed by a little toast. The overall impression is one of lush, full, sweet fruit, along with hints of anise and black pepper. Smooth as silk, with a few round tannins at the finish, which has generous plum and tobacco flavors, followed by red cherry and some vanilla notes. Seems to have more acidity than many Barossa reds, and matches very well with grilled beef. While the oak is evident, it has plenty of fruit to support it. Drinks very well now. Current releases are in the $11-12 range, and if they are like this one, will be better with a couple of years in the bottle; the tannins settle down, and the fruit remains.
A-

Edmunds St. John Les Cotes Sauvages California '93 -- Steve Edmunds has been making wine from Rhône grape varieties in California for quite a while now. He's best known for his Syrahs, particularly from the Durell Vineyard (I have notes from a 10-year vertical tasting of Durell Syrah from the 1998 Boston Wine Expo). This wine is a less-expensive blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Carignane which really delivers for the price (I recently found this in a bargain bin for $13). 1993 was not my favorite year for red wines from California, but this is one of the exceptions. Smells promising, with a big nose-full of earth, plum, spice and leather. The generous nose is followed by a mouthful of lush fruit, including plum, dark berry and black cherry, along with more earth, leather, pepper and a hint of anise. Long finish with a good backbone of smooth tannins. The remains of the bottle were just as good the second day (recorked and stored in the refrigerator). Made a good match with a slightly spicy Chinese beef dish.
A-

Chateau Val-Joanis Cotes du Luberon '89 -- Cotes du Luberon is a relatively new appellation (created in 1988), located in Provence, just across the border from the Rhône. Due to its proximity to the Rhône, perhaps it isn't quite fair to include this with other Rhône "outsiders", but the region has lately been getting more attention for wines from Rhône grapes. Besides, I did want to point out that you can also find good deals on "non-Rhône Rhônes" from France, and not only from the New World. This wine shows a complex nose of plum, leather and some earthy notes. Plenty of plum, dark cherry, meat and leather flavors, along with some complex secondary flavors. A medium-length finish, primarily of dark cherry and leather. Still has some tannin, and could go a few more years. I found this a few months ago at $11 retail, and consider it a real bargain for a 10-year old wine which is drinking well now.
B+

If you've enjoyed reading about these wines and you would like to read similar notes, you might try my report on wines from Rhône varieties from the 1998 Boston Wine Expo main floor.

As always, comments are welcome.


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Copyright 1999 by Marcel Lachenmann.