The Exciting Grapes of the Northern Rhone
another fine contribution by Taalib Hasan, Wine Director, The Oceanaire Atlanta
My high school biology teacher taught me that variety is the spice of life. This sentiment is certainly true of wine. As much as I enjoy chardonnay, pinot noir, and cabernet; sometimes I just get tired of them. I suppose that would be a good opportunity to enjoy either a cold beer or a refreshing cocktail, but this is a wine blog and I love wine. So when beverage boredom strikes, I reach for either a viognier or syrah, which are Rhone wines. Not all Rhone wines are from the Rhone Valley, but my favorites are.
The Rhone Valley is located in southeastern France and is home to some the world’s most interesting and complex wines. These wines have long been the favorites of winemakers and sommeliers for years. Unfortunately this love affair seems to be centered on the wine industry and not the public at large, with a few exceptions. Hopefully, this blog will either change minds or at least provoke curiosity. The complexities of these wines are derived from the multitude of grapes grown in the Rhone Valley. There are twenty two to be exact both red and white. Viognier and syrah are the most recognized of those grapes.
The Rhone Valley can be divided into the northern Rhone and the southern Rhone. They are then further divided into Appelation d’Origine Controlees (AOCs), which are legally designated wine growing region as determined by the French government. All AOCs have a defined geographic area and designated grapes that are grown in that area. I will focus on the northern Rhone and a few of its famous AOCs where syrah and viognier are prominent.
The first AOC is the smallest, Chateau Grillet, which encompasses one vineyard that only grows viognier. The viognier of Chateau Grillet is commonly known as the benchmark that all viogniers are measured against. It is a full bodied white that has the perfect balance of a floral nose; a mid palate of orange blossom, honeysuckle, and melons; and a long consistent finish held together with by just enough acid and minerality. Unfortunately, Chateau Grillet is very expensive and very rare. Condrieu is the AOC surrounding Chateau Grillet and it too specializes in viognier albeit on a much larger scale. Condrieu is the best substitution and is readily available and moderately priced. Most importantly it has a similar flavor profile. Viognier pairs well with salads and spicy foods. I personally love viognier with Thai cuisine.
The next acclaimed AOC is Hermitage; which produces one white, marsanne, and one red, syrah. The syrah of Hermitage is much more celebrated than the marsanne. This particular syrah is known for its ability to age (generally at least ten years) and bold flavors such as: stewed fruits, pepper, and other savory spices. Hermitage can be difficult to procure and expensive at times. However there is an alternative; Crozes-Hermitage, which is the larger AOC that surrounds Hermitage. Crozes-Hermitage produces wines comparable to Hermitage using the same varietals, but they are readily available and moderately priced. You will also find one hundred percent syrah produced in St. Joseph located in the northwestern part of the Rhone Valley. This version of syrah is fruitier, lighter, and is not as tannic as Hermitage and generally has about an eight year life span.
The final AOC that I will discuss in the northern Rhone is Cote Rotie. Cote Rotie represents the culmination of the northern Rhone’s most sought after varietals, syrah and viognier. The winemakers of Cote Rotie have long figured out the best way to produce syrah. They simply add a little viognier to the mix, generally no more than five percent of the total volume. The effect is a big, powerful, and tannic wine is softened and presents a rounder mouth feel. On the nose this blend presents candied fruit, anise, and a little herbaciousness; on the palate you will find rich red fruit accented by both spice box notes and spicy pepper; which leads to a long involved finish that recounts the flavors of the palate accompanied by acid and minerality. Syrahs are perfect accompaniments for lamb, venison, duck, and beef. They also pair well with spicier preparations of poultry and fish.
So the next time beverage boredom strikes, I implore you to give one these wines a shot. Remember variety is the spice of life, and the spicy finishes of northern Rhone syrahs are certain to liven up your day.
Till Next Time,
Oceanaire Seafood Room Atlanta