The Boston Phoenix November 16 - 23, 2000


| by restaurant | by cuisine | by location | hot links | food home |
| dining out archive | on the cheap archive | noshing & sipping archive | uncorked archive |

Rhône ranger

A round-up of wines from a "vintage of the century"

by David Marglin

Every now and then, everything comes together for a winemaking region, and it can declare (or at least have wine writers declare) that it has produced the "vintage of the century." It happened for Long Island in 1997 (granted, its "century" started in the 1970s) and it happened for France's southern Rhône in 1998. So why has it taken two years to notice? As you may know, most wine is meant to be consumed instantly, but big Rhône wines usually need at least three to four years of bottle aging before they open up: the stellar '98s are just becoming drinkable now.

Wines have been made in the Rhône Valley for two millennia, but for many years they had little prestige. No mention of them survives from the Middle Ages, and even when the pope moved to the Rhône city of Avignon during the Renaissance, not much was written about the region's fabulous wines (although the popes liked them, and their palace gave rise to the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation). From the 14th to the 16th centuries, Rhône wines were unavailable in Paris or England, where upper-class tastes were formed, because the duchy of Burgundy, fearing competition, barred their transit by river through the Burgundian lands.

By the 18th and 19th centuries, Rhône wines were the toast of Paris, so to speak: sometime Parisian Thomas Jefferson was a fan. But they wouldn't become popular on these shores until almost 100 years later when, in the 1980s, they were hailed by critics and writers -- including, bien sur, Robert Parker. Parker did not create the Rhône revival single-handedly, but his considerable weight went far to focus serious wine collectors' attention on these often overlooked wines. And where the big money goes, smaller money is soon to follow.

And now Rhônes -- southern Rhônes in particular -- are in vogue again, thanks to 1998. Southern Rhônes are almost always a big mélange of grapes, mainly grenache and mourvèdre (originally of Spanish origin), as well as syrah, carignane, cinsault, and others. They tend to be less spicy and more fruity and jammy than their northern Rhône counterparts. They also tend to be less oaky, since use of new oak is frowned upon in the southern Rhône. This makes them approachable when young, but unless they are properly acidic, the fruit can quickly get out of whack (or it can taste cooked).

Three main factors determine whether a vintage is going to be the best of 100 years or just one of the less-celebrated 99: weather, timing, and, of course, press.

In 1998, the weather in southern France was stellar for grapes. There was a late frost in mid-April, which diminished yields significantly. Then the summer was unusually hot and dry -- although not too hot and dry -- which stressed the vines, producing better fruit. The beginning of September featured the perfect amount of rain -- enough to ripen the grapes and fill out the fruit, not enough to bloat them and thin the flavors). Then harvest conditions were dry and perfect.

The 1998 southern Rhônes also benefited from good timing. When great years stack up, the later years are harder to sell, since the marketers want to push what's ready. But when the pent-up demand caused by a dearth of great years combines with dramatically improved winemaking techniques, you can move a lot of wine. This happened in the Rhône Valley. It had two great years in 1989 and 1990, and then a span of mediocre ones. During that time, winemaking techniques vastly improved. The growers stopped going all out for big yields, and instead started trying to provide the best fruit possible. The resulting wines taste smoother and more balanced.

Finally, thanks to the great press garnered by the 1989 and 1990 vintages, the world has awakened to the keen pleasures of these wines. Knowledgeable consumers demand a better product, but they also want the confidence that they are drinking what folks in the wine industry like. Writers, retailers, and sommeliers help create demand via a trickle-down effect.

For all these reasons, chances are that if you walk into a decent wine store and walk out with a 1998 southern Rhône, you're going to have a pretty good bottle in your hands. In all the wines I tried, you taste the earth. They offer interesting flavors; they are for the most part well-made; they offer a just-right balance of acid and fruit; and they have the hallmarks of wines that will age well. Like the current Yankees, these potential dynasty wines can't miss.

Here are a range of '98 southern Rhônes for your consuming pleasure:

1998 Paul Jaboulet Aîné Parallèle "45" Côtes du Rhône ($8.99). This is a baseline standard: a super-fruity bomb, well composed, and poised. It wins with your roast meats (where southern Rhônes really meet the road). This will unfurl in your glass.

1998 La Font d'Estévenas Cairanne Côtes du Rhône Villages ($9.99). An advanced-class wine, quite complex. A powerhouse for the price, and a warrior -- not for the meek. Cheeky, funky, plenty of punch, with licorice on the nose followed by gobs of pepper, spice, and stewed fruits. Great with big beef or spicy curries. Will benefit from age.

1998 Domaine de Montvac Vacqueyras ($11.99). Fab and fruity, full of affect, but so "on" for the price that you will forgive its excesses. Very tasty with a spicy chicken sandwich or cajun catfish.

1998 Le Clos du Caillou Bouquet des Garrigues Côtes du Rhône (about $15). Very tasty, bold, rich, and fruity. It has fleshy plum, hints of currants, dashes of leather, and an edge of pine. Like most southern Rhônes, this is unfiltered, and packs the usual fruit wallop. Goes with sharp cheese, paella, or spicy sausage.

1998 Domaine des Relagnes Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($23.99). Juicy and enticing, like a siren singing from the rim of your glass. Some may find it a bit too ripe. This is for your T-bone and your roasts, such as turkey, chicken, or anything smoky -- even, dare I say, barbecued ribs.

1998 Domaine de Cassan Gigondas ($24.99). Expensive, but worth the cake. It's 70 percent grenache, but a quarter syrah and a dash of mourvèdre put a lot of meat on its ample bones. Great fruit makes it another excellent companion for your spicy ribs or cajun chicken.

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]

The Uncorked archive