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Rhone Valley Wines Part 1: Northern Region Wines

by The Wine Guys, Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr

Grape growing and wine production in the northern and southern Rhône Valley is a tale of two worlds. Although the greater Rhône region shares the commonality of the Rhône River, north and south are unique environments with each producing radically different wines.

In part one of our journey through the Rhône Valley, we will comment on northern Rhône wines.​​​​​​

The northern Rhône , which features a cooler continental climate, begins about 20 miles south of Lyon where the Rhône River has carved a gash in the earth and steep hillsides with terraced vineyards descend to the river. The Syrah grape dominates this landscape as the only permitted red grape variety allowed by AOC rules. A small amount of white grape varieties is also permitted, some of which are bottled as white wine and some of which are blended with the Syrah grape to produce one of the eight official appellations.

The two most recognized and celebrated appellations are Hermitage and Cote-Rotie, which are known for their sturdy, long-lived wines that command premium prices and are produced in limited quantities.

Only five of the named appellations produce red wine in the northern Rhône and we recently tasted wines from three of them to contrast and compare in an informal tasting.

Beginning in the northern Rhône , near the Rhône Valley gateway town of Vienne, lies Cote-Rotie which literally means “roasted slope.” As in all northern Rhône red wines, Syrah is the main player although up to 20 percent viognier, a fragrant floral white grape, may be co-fermented during the winemaking process.

We tasted the E. Guigal Brune et Blonde Cote-Rotie 2016 ($85). This delightful red wine exhibited a youthful, bright lightness that tamed the Syrah in the blend perhaps, in part, due to the addition of four percent viognier. Pure berry-fruit flavors, a hint of bacon fat, as well as pretty apparent acidity, created a terrific package. Delightful now but it has the potential for extended aging.

Moving south about midway through the Rhône Valley hard against the river lies the appellation of St. Joseph. Red wines in this region mature earlier than in the more heralded Hermitage and Cote-Rotie regions. Up to nine percent Marsanne and Roussanne, two white grapes, can be blended with Syrah here.

We tasted the Domaine Les Alexandrins St. Joseph 2017 ($40) and were won over by its upfront fruity charm -- a mélange of plum, cherry and blackberry. A little tight, this beauty needs a few years to develop further but should reward with 3-5 years of slumber. It was the favorite of the northern Rhône.

Abutting St. Joseph to the south, and on the eastern side of the Rhône River, lies the appellation of Crozes-Hermitage. Crozes-Hermitage is the largest appellation in the Northern Rhone and one of the more available wines in the U.S. White grapes Marsanne and Roussanne are allowed in up to 8 percent of the finished red wine and in general produce wines of higher acidity and often display herbal notes.

We tasted the Yann Chave Crozes-Hermitage Le Rouvre 2016 ($60) made entirely from Syrah and from a single parcel of 50-year-old vines. Blackberry notes dominate the palate with hints of herbs and roasted meat.

In a future column, we will detail wines we tasted from the southern Rhone.

Smoke taint

Two professors from the University of California at Davis recently hosted a seminar with wine representatives to discuss of the impact of the fires that have ravaged much of California and Oregon.

According to Anita Oberholster on “Office Hours,” California’s style of winemaking may spare red wines from the worse of smoke taint. Wines with high alcohol, some residual sugar and low pH are in a best position to cover up the compounds of smoke taint. PH measures ripeness in relation to acidity.

As we suggested in last week’s column, winemakers will limit the amount of skin contact in red wines because skins absorb the smoke. That will lend itself to white pinot noirs and rosés. We also suspect we’ll see naturally light-colored red wines adulterated with concentrated fruit juice, such as Mega Purple. Winemakers don’t like to talk about this, but it’s common to correct a wine’s color to make it more appealing. Alas, you’ll never know if they did but the circumstances seem to call for a dosage of concentrated rubied grape juice.

Because Oregon is so dependent on pinot noir and Syrah, both of which are delicate, the results could be worse for those grapes.

Another observation from Oberholster: hand-harvested chardonnay could fare better. Machine harvesting breaks the skins on the way to the winery and thus sets off fermentation of smoke-damaged grapes. Most expensive chardonnays are hand-harvested.

Wine picks

  • •Domaine Anderson Pinot Noir Anderson Valley 2017 ($40). Owned by the Louis Roederer family of Champagne fame, this winery only produces pinot noir and chardonnay. The pinot noir is a winner with cherry, blackberry cola notes and a hint of cinnamon. A great package at a fair price.

  • •Intercept Red Blend Paso Robles 2017 ($20). Usually celebrity wines under-deliver and are over-priced, but not this one. Intercept was created by Charles Woodson, a Heisman trophy winner, an 18-year celebrated NFL veteran and long-time wine lover. This fantastic red blend is forged from a polyglot of grape varieties dominated by petite sirahand zinfandel as well as smaller amounts of petite Verdot, Tempranillo and Syrah. Intercept displays a wonderful smooth fruitiness with plum and black cherries dominating as well as a distinctive brightness that many Paso Robles red wines capture. Well worth the modest price.

  • •Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2017 ($45). Charles Krug seems to over deliver for the price. Not an overly complex cabernet sauvignon, just a delicious well-made glass of wine that features a pure cherry fruit nose and flavors at a decent price.

  • •Chateau Lassègue St. Emilion Grand Cru 2016 ($60-70). Mostly merlot and cabernet franc with a dash of cabernet sauvignon thrown in creates a big styled St. Emilion that can stand up to any cuisine. Cassis, plums, and dried cherry elements dominate with a subtle refined oak under-note. A bit of earthiness at the end and a long rich full finish.

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