France boasts some of the world's best-known wine regions. There are the structured, serious wines of Bordeaux, the complex Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays of Burgundy, the flinty, austere white wines of Alsace and of course the effervescent sophistication of Champagne.
And while I'd pick French Champagne as my desert island wine (no corkscrews required), it's tough to beat the Rhône valley when it comes to the best bang for your buck, especially for good-quality reds.
The Rhône valley's wine regions run along the Rhône River, giving the region a north-south trajectory that starts south of Beaujolais and meanders towards the Mediterranean Sea.
Rhône valley wines are often referred to as either being from northern or southern Rhône. Only a small amount of Rhône wines come from the north, but what is made is often considered among the world's best red wines. Northern Rhône regions like Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage produce Syrah with incredible elegance and structure, balancing ripe black fruit characteristics with black tea, white pepper and bacon fat notes. These wines, however, are usually pricey.
But head to southern Rhône and you'll find great red blends in the $10-18 range that deliver more character and food-pairing possibilities than their California counterparts.
The largest grape-growing area in the Rhône valley is called Côtes du Rhône. Most of the wines in this region are red, made predominately from Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre. Because the southern Rhône is, well, south, it gets a fair bit of heat -- the region the proximity to the Mediterranean Sea means lots of sun, hot days and somewhat cool nights. As a result, grapes tend to get nice and ripe while retaining that old-world charm (earthy, peppery, and a hint of spice). They're ideal with spicy and/or grilled fare, stew, lamb, and hard/sharp cheeses.
While most of the Rhône wines we see in Manitoba are from this region, there are also smaller/lesser-known areas of the valley whose wines sometimes make it here. Côtes du Ventoux is home to some great red blends, while regions such as Vacqueyras and Gigondas (essentially single-village wines) produce deeper wines with more structure for short-term aging.
The granddaddy of the southern Rhône continues to be Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The full-bodied, dense red wines from this region can contain up to 13 different grape varieties (although most rely on the tried-and-true Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre) and are age-worthy. As a result, they're also the priciest wines of the southern Rhône.
And while they're not made in the same quantity as the reds, Rhône valley white wines more than hold their own. They're typically rich and viscous, with big tropical fruit notes, and are often blends of Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and other grapes. Like the reds, they too over-deliver for the price.
You'll notice I've switched from a 100-point rating scale to a five-star system. I've never felt completely comfortable using the 100-point scale for the column, and the five-star system offers guidance on wines without a super-specific numerical score -- it gives the wine some elbow room, so to speak. For more on why I switched, click here to see my blog.
La Vieille Ferme 2012 White (Luberon, France -- $12.46, Liquor Marts and beyond)
Grenache Blanc, Ugni Blanc and Vermentino are the grapes used to make this white blend. Crisp peach, lemon rind, fresh floral and toasted nut aromas show well on the nose. It's a fresh but viscous, medium-bodied white, with citrus rind and peach most prevalent on the palate and a hint of acidity for freshness. A very good value that would work with mild curries or grilled salmon. 3 1/2 Stars
Domaines Aurol 2011 CDR (Côtes du Rhône Protegee, France -- around $15, private wine stores)
An 80-20 Grenache Noir/Syrah blend, the CDR is fairly light cherry in colour, with aromas of ripe, almost-candied cherry, smoky sausage, mocha and toffee. Medium-bodied and juicy, the cherry notes are almost confected, but avoid becoming cloying thanks to black pepper and espresso notes as well as light tannins and acidity. Chill for 10-15 minutes and drink with burgers or Mexican fare. Purchased at De Luca Fine Wines. 3 stars
Chateau Saint-Roch 2010 Brunel (Lirac, France -- $18.59, Liquor Marts and beyond)
There's no info on the label re: grapes, but Lirac reds are typically Grenache Noir, Syrah, Mourv®dre, and maybe some Cinsault and Carignane. Inky black in colour, the cedar, lacquer, dried cherry and black licorice notes on the nose are bolstered by a hint of spice. The resinous, dried fruit component is attractive on the chewy palate, with hints of wood/smoke, black tea and blackberry/black licorice. A steak wine. 4 stars
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