Berger on wine: Making a case for Rhône wines

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Of all the French wine regions that are widely considered iconic, perhaps the least acclaimed is the southern French district known as the Rhône Valley.

Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Alsace and the Loire Valley all have supporters, with the first three attaining near mythic status and lots attention on the world wine stage. Most of the wines from this trio of regions today command high prices.

The other regions are recognized for their distinctive wines, great values and idyllic country atmospheres.

Late to the party has come the Rhône, though its supporters display as much intensity as any of the others and as much animosity for the larger regions – in much the same way that rugby followers disdain soccer. And vice versa.

Most Bordeaux and Burgundy supporters might consider this homage to Rhône lovers mere hyperbole since few even think the Rhône Valley has much to recommend it. The wines are too rustic, they say; not classic, difficult to understand, obscure, and its grape varieties are unknown second-class citizens unworthy of 90 points.

Tell this fake-news synopsis to a true Rhône lover, and watch the smoke rise from the ears.

There are several sound reasons why the wines of this somewhat remote part of the wine world have received less than stellar reviews among wine shop owners, critics, columnists and others in the wine trade.

For one thing, other districts have more going for them. Burgundy’s top grapes are widely recognized as classics. Chardonnay and pinot noir make not only important wines but wines that are legendary as they age. And cabernet, well, the name rings bells.

In the Rhône, other than the revered syrah, the only other important grape is the white grape viognier, say Rhône disparagers.

Also, Bordeaux and the Loire have long had waterways to the Atlantic that allow for ease of shipping to the major wine buying centers of London, the Benelux countries, Germany and points west. So their wines are long-established in many markets.

The Rhône has no such geographic advantage, so in many ways it is an unknown relative newcomer to Europe. And many American wine lovers say its wines are expensive. Maybe to the unknowing.

What has made the wines of the Rhône more appealing to American consumers lately relates to how the wine world quietly shifts as buyers get more savvy or adventuresome, which describes many Millennials in the last few years.

Before the 1980s, Bordeaux was a red wine blend from the cabernet family of grapes. Several excellent vintages in the 1980s and early 1990s pushed prices out of reach of average buyers, so California cabernet became an important go-to red. So prices rose.

Then came excitement for red Burgundy. Its discovery by collectors did the same to prices for even mediocre red wines. And the best were, for all practical reasons, unavailable at any price.

By the mid-2000s, pinot noirs from Oregon, California, and New Zealand had crested another mini-wave of excitement – again with prices leaping ahead.

Through all this, the Rhône has offered numerous regional wines such as Côtes du Rhône, blended reds, whites, and rosés at fair prices and increasing quality.

The Southern Rhône grows many delightful white grapes that allow for blended wines featuring viognier with its floral/spicy aromatics, along with minerally grenache blanc, marsanne and rousanne – among others. Red blends in the south are largely reliant on superb grenache with additions of syrah, cinsault, carignan and others.

The Rhône’s best wines, from the Northern Rhône, are the all-syrah Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, some of which cost a lot more than some people think they should. But the best age for decades and are in high demand.

The name Chateauneuf-du-Pape in the south (literally “new home of the pope”) comes from the roughly 70-year period when political and ecclesiastical conflicts caused the papacy to be based not in Rome but in Avignon, France. The reds can be utterly sublime.

When it comes to the wines of the Rhône, Sonoma County restaurateur Sondra Bernstein has assumed a lifelong task of educating anyone who’ll listen about them.

At her girl & the fig restaurant in Sonoma and at her more casual fig café and wine bar in Glen Ellen, the only wines on the lists are from the Rhône or from Rhône grapes grown elsewhere.

She got started on this singular quest almost by accident two decades ago, when the number of such wines available in the U.S. was tiny and poorly marketed.

“We’ve worked hard to make sure the food we offer works well with the wines,” said Bernstein, who does many seminars on the Rhône and has a local wine club dedicated to Rhône varieties (thegirlandthefig.com.)

Also, two separate organizations have sprung up to support the category. The Rhône Rangers is mainly a consumer group, and Hospice du Rhône works a bit more closely with the industry. Both stage public Rhône wine events.

Discovery of the Week: 2014 M. Chapoutier Crozes-Hermitage, “Petite Ruche” ($21): The white grape marsanne makes an attractive base for a medium-weight wine that has a richer mouth-feel than many white Rhônes, not quite as rich as chardonnay. The aroma is a bit like lemon, fennel and green apple. Ample acidity to work with lighter seafood dishes.

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 am.

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