The Middle Child of French Wines
Constantly overlooked, the Rhone Valley makes some of the best wines
Being a wine from France is a lot like being a sibling in a large family. You have the oldest, who gets the attention for being the oldest. You’ve got the perfect sibling, who’s always getting straight As. There’s the youngest, who gets attention by being rebellious. Then you’ve got the middle child.
The kid in the middle never gets the respect he or she deserves. They could be the most successful professional in whatever field they pursue, but no matter how hard they try, how much they make or how good they are, they always seem to be overlooked.
If France’s wine areas had a middle child, it would be the Rhone Valley. Burgundy is clearly the oldest, stuck in his ways. Bordeaux is the perfect older sister, always getting high marks (if sometimes undeservedly). The south of France, particularly the Languedoc-Roussillon area, is constantly bucking history and getting attention for it. It’s that sliver of land in between them all that makes arguably some of the world’s best wines that is constantly being overlooked.
If you really think about it, the Rhone is actually two areas. The southern Rhone tends to get a bit more attention for its long and elegant-sounding namesake wines, especially Châteauneuf-du-Pape. All of the great wines from this part of the Rhone are more of a testament to mixology than anything else, though. These wines are all made from a cocktail of 16 different grape varietals. The amount of each varietal can change slightly from year to year, depending on which grapes grew well and which didn’t quite mature.
They don’t have that luxury in the north, however. In the northern Rhone, only one grape is made into red wine: Syrah. The same grape that makes the juicy, berry fruit-flavored wines that made Australia famous was planted here hundreds of years earlier—and the wines couldn’t be more different.
There’s fruit on these wines, to be sure, but the complexity in them runs deep. While many of Australia’s Shirazes are built to taste like what you expect them to taste like—that is to say fruity above all else—the northern Rhone’s Syrahs are like the Lost Boys of Neverland: gentle at heart but rugged from being left alone to their own devices in the wild.
The world famous Hermitage is one of the subregions of this area, situated on a tiny plot of land on the northern side of a foothill. The wines are transcendent, but so are the prices. There are many other amazing Syrahs from the surrounding areas that are comparable in taste but a mite bit easier on the pocketbook.
The subregion of St. Joseph is a thin strip of land that runs almost the entire length of the northern Rhone, north to south. There are many wines from this area that are affordable, and there are many that are amazing. Every once in a while, there are some that are both.
The Ferraton Peres et Fils St.-Joseph La Source 2009 ($29.99 at Beacon Wines and Spirits, 2120 Broadway, at 74th St., 212-877-0028) is as good as most wines that cost three times as much. The nose gives heady scents of violet and rose petals with a hint of spice. On the palate, there is a ton of fruit up front with ripe blackberry and baked raspberry flavors, but the finish becomes spicy with a wet minerality that reminds the drinker this is not Yellowtail.
If, however, you wanted to spend a bit more, there are many Syrahs that deliver in the slightly higher price range. The St.-Joseph Cuvée des Anges 2007 ($60 at Yorkshire Wines and Spirits, 1646 1st Ave., at 85th St, 212-717-5100) gives you everything you’d expect from a first-rate northern Rhone wine and more. Pipe tobacco and charred pig flesh are the carnal smells right out of the bottle. The fruit up front on the palate is plum compote and fig honey. The finish gets black again, with tarry pepper and star anise notes.
So the next time you visit the French family of wines, make sure you don’t forget about the middle child. They’ll rarely disappoint you!
Follow Josh on Twitter: @joshperilo.
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