John Brown has been a wine and food columnist in West Virginia since the 1980’s. His regular columns appear in the Charleston (WV) Gazette-Mail under the title Vines & Vittles and in The State Journal - a statewide business weekly
Beyond Chateauneuf Du Pape: the other wines of Provence
Ask a Francophile to describe the outstanding attributes of France’s southern Rhone region known as Provence, and you’ll likely get responses that heap praise on it’s striking mountains, fields of lavender, delicious Mediterranean cuisine, Roman ruins and Papal Palace in Avignon.
Ask an oenophile (or just some wine geek like me) about Provence and we'll quickly tell you it is home to Chateauneuf Du Pape, the most famous and expensive wine of this southern Rhone River region. As a matter of fact, I had the pleasure of spending some time in Provence in the summer of 2002, and visited Chateuneuf Du Pape as well as many of the other wine villages and towns of that picturesque region.
While Chateauneuf Du Pape can produce truly exceptional wines, particularly from producers such as Fortia, Beaucastel, Vieux Telegraphe, Chapoutier, Paul Autard and Rayas, there are a plethora of other exceptional wines being made in Provence that are very reasonably priced. And, while there are some good white wines made in Provence, the emphasis here is on red, and that’s what we’re examining here today.
There are 13 grapes that can be used to make red Chateauneuf Du Pape and other wines of the region, but most wineries blend a combination of syrah with the ubiquitous grenache and a touch of mourvedre to produce these lovely, full-flavored wines.
First, understand that there have been a series of exceptional to superlative vintages in the Southern Rhone region over the past decade. With the exception of 2002, when many vineyards were inundated by torrential rain and flooding, every vintage that has been released since 1998 is rated over 90 (in a 100 point scale).
The wine you might try first is called Cotes du Rhone and is made predominately from Grenache with some Syrah and Mourvedre blended in to provide a deeper color. Cotes Du Rhone can be made from grapes grown anywhere in the broader southern Rhone region and are generally medium-bodied wines with appealing peppery, spicy and dark cherry flavors. Cotes Du Rhone is usually priced from $10 to $20 a bottle and is especially good with barbecued hamburgers, ribs or casseroles.
After Chateauneuf Du Pape, the most notable wine areas in the southern Rhone are Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Cotes du Luberon and Tavel. With the exception of Tavel (near the Mediterranean) which produces arguably the greatest rose on the planet, the best wines are red, and again use varying amounts of grenache, syrah and mourvedre.
The wines around the village of Gigondas are often mistaken for Chateauneuf Du Pape because of their dark fruit flavors, depth, black pepper aromas and intensity. They might be a little rough around the edges in their youth, but these wines are significantly less expensive (usually between $20 and $40) than their more famous neighbor, and they are a great accompaniment to roasted and seasoned meats.
Vacqueyras (pronounced vack-er-as) is a little village right next door to Gigondas, yet the wines seem to be fuller and richer with an earthy character. If you can find it, buy a bottle of Domaine Des Garrigues ($20) and uncork it with roasted leg of lamb. The 1999 wine has a bouquet of violets and a rich, peppery flavor. Most Vacqueyras wines are priced between $10 and $20 a bottle.
Cotes du Luberon wines remind me of merlot, though they are made mostly with Grenache. Soft, round and flavorful, you should be able to get them for around $10 -$15 a bottle. I recently matched a Cotes du Luberon with a Provencal veal stew and it was a lovely pairing.
For those of you who love dessert wines, you’ll have to look for a Muscat Beaumes de Venise. Produced in the village of the same name from Muscat grapes, this sweet elixir is full of apricot aromas and rich, round melon flavors. Great with chocolate!
Some labels to look for in Provence and the southern Rhone are Jaboulet, Domaine De Ferrand, Louis Bernard, Guigal, and Delas Freres.
So the next time you’re looking for an alternative to zinfandel or shiraz or some other juicy red, look to the wines of Provence and the southern Rhone.