Discover more from Tannic Panic!
Tannic Panic! Issue #19: More Rhônes, Less Bones
Southern Rhône: Where Grenache Brings the Panache
Rise and shine you THIRSTY little winos: IT’S SOUTHERN RHÔNE SEASON
Follow along as we blindly stumble through the rocky vineyards and historic appellations of this famed wine region in search of hidden gems.
The Southern Rhône – a prestigious sub-region in the southeastern nook of the cranny that is “France” – is renowned as a treasure trove of viticultural richness and diversity, producing some of the most complex and delectable blends on the market. Here, the vines flap their hairy little leaves in the angry howl of the Mistral wind, and bask in the generous rays of Mr. Golden Sun (the shiny guy).
YARRR! Known predominantly for its robust and spicy reds, the Southern Rhône be a haven for wine enthusiasts seeking the harmonious symphony of flavors that only blends from this region can offer, with Grenache usually playing lead fiddle, supported by an ensemble of varieties, like Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, and others.
Perhaps you are familiar with (or have heard of) Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a wine from a little village situated in the far south of the Rhône Valley, near the town of Avignon.
DID YOU KNOW… Châteauneuf-du-Pape has a very special place in the hearts of French “wine history” lovers because it was the first area to be granted Appellation Contrôlée status (THE GOOD KIND). Châteauneuf-du-Pape translates to "New Castle of the Pope," named after Pope John XXII, who established his summer residence in the region in the 14th century. I think it’s safe to assume the man knew his way around a goblet of Zeus juice.
Well, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is cool and all, but let’s not beat around the bush – the bottles ain’t cheap. So the focus of this week's reviews are bottles sourced from better bargain regions that are also cranking out some top notch red blends: Gigondas, Vacqueyras, and the humble Côtes du Rhône.
Côtes du Rhône is a broad designation that technically stretches the entire Rhône Valley region, though in practice it almost always indicates that the wine comes from the Southern Rhône. It is responsible for more than half of all of the wine produced in the Southern Rhône and tends to produce wines that are lighter and easier drinking in style, with less concentrated flavors and less complexity. As you will see when you read our reviews, however, this is not always the case – you can find extremely good value in Côtes du Rhône if you squint your beady little eyes hard enough (and boy, oh boy, did we squint hard).
Gigondas is sometimes referred to as “baby Châteauneuf-du-Pape” and sells for far less on average, while still delivering that yummy-in-my-tummy Papedopian zing. The wines are made in a similar full-bodied and spicy style to big Papi, and many are on par in terms of quality.
Vacqueyras – let’s just call this, the “other baby,” and as such, ALSO A VALUE PLAY. Vacqueyras also produces Grenache-led red blends in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape style, also does it cheaper, and ALSO often matches its esteemed elder in terms of quality. Bing bang boom.
Grenache: the grape, the myth, the legend.
Grenache, a grape varietal originating from Spain (where it’s LOVINGLY called ‘Garnacha’), holds a prominent position in the symphony of wine flavors. This high-heat loving grape notably works its magic in regions like the Rhône Valley in France (DUH), Spain (Upper Ebro, Duero Valley, Priorat), as well as parts of Australia, and California.
Known for its high alcohol content and soft tannins, wines produced from Grenache often allure enthusiasts with bold, red fruit flavors like strawberry and raspberry, harmoniously accompanied by hints of white pepper, leather, ‘garrigue’ (a cute little term that describes a hodgepodge of herbs like sage, lavender, thyme), and a whisper of my abandoned childhood dreams.
It's the generous sun-loving nature of the Grenache grape that results in its vibrant and robust flavor profile, and it often plays nicely with the other kids when blent.
Its resilience to wind, heat, and drought make it a great choice for growers in the Southern Rhône, as the Southern Rhône Valley has a warm, dry, Mediterranean climate and faces a unique climatic challenge in the forceful and chilly Mistral Wind. The Mistral can sweep through the Rhône Valley from the Northwest during the growing season, which is beneficial in that it helps to keep the vineyards dry and free from fungal disease, but its intensity has the potential to damage vines. In a frantic attempt to shield their precious little Grenache vines from those monstrous winds, grape growers will often plant rows of tall bushes and trees on the windward side of the vineyard to serve as windbreaks.
A Final Pre-Juice Tidbit: Semi-Carbonic Maceration
Semi-carbonic maceration is a winemaking technique used primarily in the production of red wines to craft a vibrant, fresh and fruity style intended for early consumption. Many producers of Côtes du Rhône red wines use semi-carbonic maceration to craft accessible red wines for consumption in their youth. The simplified explanation of the process is that the winemakers will partially ferment whole bunches of intact grapes at cooler temperatures by suffocating them in CO2, which triggers intracellular fermentation and produces a small amount of alcohol within the grapes without the assistance of yeast. This process helps preserve the fresh fruity and floral characteristics of the black grapes, while reducing the extraction of harsh tannins from the grape skins. The resulting wine typically has a smoother, more approachable mouthfeel. These wines often display distinct flavors like kirsch, banana and baking spices.
… AND NOW FOR THE REVIEWS (IN ORDER OF PRICE):
2019 Domaine Combe Queyzaire Côtes Du Rhône AOC / 91 Points / $18 (VALUE PICK!)
Profile: Blackberry preserves, blueberries, ripe strawberries, kirsch, banana, licorice, lavender and black pepper.
A delicious, well-balanced, easy-drinking Rhône red wine with concentrated and vibrant black and red fruits, flowers and spices. Delivered more complexity and flavor intensity than you’d expect from a typical Côtes du Rhône. Wowie-Zowie.
2019 Terres Barnier Terre d’Emile Vacqueyras AOC / 92 Points / $24
Profile: Blackberry, raspberry, dried strawberry, red cherry, violets, roses, licorice, white pepper, garrigue.
A beautifully balanced Southern Rhône red blend with good concentration and purity of red and black fruits backed by ample floral and spicy notes. A little something for everyone to enjoy.
2020 Olivier Lafont Gigondas AOC / 90 Points / $29
Profile: Blackberry, raspberry jam, strawberry jam, violets, white pepper, black pepper, dried oregano, and a little ethanol heat on the finish.
A very good wine, but the 15% ABV is coming through with a bit of extra heat on the finish (otherwise this would definitely score higher). This wine has classic spicy Gigondas character and Grenache fruit characteristics. This is a textbook “baby Châteauneuf-du-Pape” and a fine introduction to quintessential Southern Rhône red wine at a fraction of the price you’d find for premium Châteauneuf-du-Pape with similar characteristics.
This is certainly worthy of a try, and perhaps will deliver more value to some palates than others, but noteworthy that it is the most expensive of the bunch and scored a little lower (by our own evaluation) due to the shortcomings in balance. Would drink again with pleasure, but if your palate aligns with ours, you may lean towards the former options once you do the math.
Coming right up – over the next few weeks, it’s Europe season. Isaac will be traveling through the wonderful land of Europe to “celebrate” all that is good. What does this mean for Tannic Panic? Well, WE’LL TELL YA: Each week, Isaac will document some of the travels, along with the local wines tasted along the way. In lieu of our usual themed value recommendations, Zach will pick one or more great bottles to review in greater depth for your guzzling pleasure.
Until next time — HAPPY DRINKING.
Isaac & Zach
Tannic Panic! is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. Cheers!