Friday, March 8, 2013

Wineaux of the Goddess - Northern Rhone edition

Northern Rhone - Hermitage

That hardy group of tasters known as the Wineaux of the Goddess met at Fab's Corner Cucina the second Wednesday of February to taste some selections of wines from the Northern Rhone Valley of France. We brought one bottle per person, handed it off to the lovely Amelia for bagging and numbering, and dove in. A few notes to get us started:

The Rhône Valley is the oldest established winemaking region in France, dating back 600 years before the Romans. The Rhône River flows west through the vineyards of the Valais and then northwest into Lake Geneva, rushing south through the vineyards of Savoie and then west to join the Saône at Lyons. From there, it turns south for some 250 miles and flows into the Mediterranean Sea west of Marseille. It is this last stretch, between the city of Vienne in the north and the city of Avignon in the south, where the wines of the Rhône Valley are produced.

Although the Rhône is considered to be one wine region, it can be split into two distinct parts based on climate and grape varieties. The northern Rhône and southern Rhône are separated by only 37 miles, but each region’s wines have very different styles. The steep slopes of the northern Rhône Valley account for only 5 percent of the total production while the southern Rhône Valley produces 95 percent.

The grapes and grape combinations used differ as well. Reds from the northern Rhône are dominated by Syrah, while in the south the wines tend to be Grenache-based with Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault making up the bulk of the balance.

North of Côtes du Rhône from Vienne to Valence are the Côte Rôtie, Condrieu - Château Grillet, Hermitage, Crozes Hermitage, and Cornas. The vines are cultivated on very steep slopes making the harvest extremely arduous with grapes hand-picked. The northern Rhône is characterized by a continental climate with harsh winters but warm summers. Its climate is influenced by the mistral wind, which brings colder air from the Massif Central. Northern Rhône is therefore less warm than southern Rhône. The soil in the north tends to be granite with a mixture of shingle with clay and layered stones on the hillsides.

After the reveal, a few surprises:

1. 2008 Auguste Bessac, Crozes-Hermitage. Clear red with a bricky edge. The nose earthy and full of tobacco and cedar; on the palate light texture with high acid, bitter orange pithiness and cherry-orange finish. Firm tannins will provide some needed aging. Like most French wines, this needed food, preferably something fatty. Acceptable to most of us, but Xochitl wasn't thrilled. $18 at Bevmo

2. 2010 Silène - Crozes-Hermitage. Deep, dark crimson in color, smoky and meaty on the nose with notes of berries, grapes and currants. A bit of brett maybe on the palate, but mainly juicy cherry with really firm tannins. A very young wine. We thought it would pair with lamb or pork loin. $25 at The Wine House

3. 2009 Delas Le Clos - Crozes-Hermitage. Deep red, slightly brick in color. Unfiltered? Slightly cloudy. On the nose, green, woody, manure. On the palate strong, not pleasant tannins, dusty, dried cherry, blackberry, dirt. The nose made Olivia's nose tingle, Debra hated the tannins, Shawn found it bitter, and the general consensus was that it was really young and unintegrated. And yet, we thought it was drinkable with a nice fatty cheese. $43 at Total Wine and More

4. 2011 Cave de Tain - Crozes-Hermitage. Um...this one was a real surprise because it was WHITE. Shawn didn't read the instructions that stated clearly to bring only Northern Rhône RED, but it was a nice surprise, once we finished razzing him. 100% Marsanne. Peachy, floral, yummy. A perfect palate cleanser! Xochitl was very happy, as were we all. $18 at Total Wine and More.

5. 2009 Vernay Fleur de Mai - Condrieu. The first of the wines not from Crozes-Hermitage (more about that later), this was smoky and dusty and kind of wonderful. On the palate we found white pepper and spice, bursts of cherry and more white pepper on the finish. A little unbalanced, but we started talking about pairing it with game meats: elk, caribou, seasoned with rosemary. Well, we were pretty hungry by then. This was the star of the evening. $25 at Vendome Toluca Lake, where the owner told me that Shawn and Michelle would really like this. Shawn really did. Michelle wasn't there - which was pretty funny, as we were tasting this region specifically on her request.

6. 2009 Les Hauts du Fief - Crozes-Hermitage. This was deep purple, almost opaque in color. Nose didn't present much; it smelled clean, but on the palate the flavors exploded: coffee, barnyard funk, chocolate, granite, big tannins. Big, big wine. Young but really tasty. Ribeye steak would pair well; the cheese at the table helped break down some of the tannins. $35 at Total Wine and More (but they made a mistake and only charged me $19.99)

7. 2010 Plateau des Chenes - Lirac. Right. Southern Rhône. Olivia was distressed to discover that, despite the fact that she was specific in asking for only Northern Rhône, the helpful salesperson sold her this very tasty wine. My notes say "clear, opaque, pink around the edges." I'm not even sure what that means. A blend of Grenache and Syrah. The nose was very different from the Northern Rhônes: sweet oak, vanilla, violets and roses with fruity overtones. On the palate, chocolate and dusty tannins with slightly chewy texture. $20 at Woodland Hills Wine Company

You may notice that most of the wines were Crozes-Hermitage. That's because many of the wines from the other regions - Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage, Cornas, etc. - tend to be higher in price. I couldn't find any under $60, and that's stretching it for our little group.

Next Wednesday, we're doing something a bit different - Greek wines. Everyone gets to bring something, either white or red, to share so that we can learn about the different regions and grapes from that most ancient country.

That's all for now. Cheers!

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