France – Rhone

Return To The Rhône #Winophiles

17 March 2018

Photo copyright M. Chapoutier

The Rhône Valley in southern France contains some of the world’s greatest and most beautiful wine appellations. And it’s a region I’ve managed to almost completely ignore for a good 15 years. Rhône shmône.

The problem is that I encountered the Rhône too early in my wine-drinking days. When I was about 21, my parents and I toured Provence — still one of my favorite vacations — and we visited the stone-built town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. After climbing the hill to the ruined papal castle at the top, we descended into one of the town’s cellars for a tasting. There, I did not drink one of the wines that changed my life. This isn’t one of those stories in which I taste a wine and it opened my eyes to flavor and the joy of living. The wines didn’t dazzle me. But what did I know? I was barely an adult. They were, however, delicious enough to warrant my father buying a bottle or two to bring home.

In my mid-20s, I regularly bought wine from the Côtes du Rhône AOC, the catch-all appellation for wines from the entire region, because they were popular but not too expensive. Eventually, I realized I didn’t care for the earthy note in the light-bodied reds I’d been purchasing.

That was that, until I revisited Provence with a colleague in 2004. Our itinerary didn’t allow for a single winery visit, alas, and when we sped past the turn-offs to Hermitage and Condrieu — by then the names actually meant something to me — I cried a little bit. Well, on the inside.

Unfortunately, I can’t afford Hermitage (perhaps the world’s best Syrah) or Condrieu (the world’s best Viognier) here at home. I can afford some Châteauneuf-du-Papes, when they’re on sale, but they have those fusty coats of arms on the bottles. And so the old Rhône lost its luster, and I turned my attention to shinier somm darlings like Jura. I’m not impervious to fashion.

After recently tasting some Rhônes by M. Chapoutier, I feel rather foolish for having ignored a giant swath of the world’s loveliest wines for so long. Chapoutier really came into its own in the 1990s, when Michel Chapoutier took over the merchant-grower company. In many vineyards he implemented organic and even biodynamic viticulture, which is sort of like organic viticulture combined with astrology and magic potions. In both cases, the goal is to increase the health of the vines by fostering a thriving ecosystem of bacteria and other beneficial organisms in the soil. Some studies show that biodynamic agriculture is more successful than organic, but it’s unclear exactly why.

Whether you believe in biodynamics or not, the jump in the quality of the Chapoutier’s wine since Michel took the reins is undeniable. When I see the Chapoutier name on a bottle, I know there’s a very good chance I’m going to really enjoy the wine. Many others must agree — Chapoutier has long since expanded out of its Tain-l’Hermitage base, with vineyards in the Alsace, Australia and Portugal, among other regions.

As a member of the #Winophiles wine-writing group, I received free samples of three Chapoutier wines from the Rhône. I took them to one of my favorite BYOB restaurants in Chicago, HB Home Bistro, and invited one of my zestiest wine-loving friends, Rebecca.

2016 M. Chapoutier “La Ciboise” Luberon Blanc

In Rhône Valley’s southeast, the Luberon ranks among my favorite parts of France, with its stupendously scenic combination of vineyards, lavender fields, olive groves and hill towns. Unfortunately, this organic wine ranked as my least-favorite of the three wine samples. I liked its clean, melony aroma, marked by a “minty-flinty” note, as Rebecca remarked, but its loosey-goosey fruit didn’t integrate well with the taut, grapefruity acids or the savory notes. I liked it better with food — it rounded out more with some mussels — but I can’t unreservedly recommend this wine, even with its relatively modest $16 price tag.

2015 M. Chapoutier “La Bernardine” Châteauneuf-du-Pape

I have no such reservations about this Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which I absolutely adored. It had an immensely appealing aroma of cranberry and herbs like bay leaf and thyme, and a very satisfying texture in the mouth. It felt ripe and a bit chewy, but focused, zesty acids and white-pepper spice kept the wine admirably balanced, as did an herbaceous lift at the end. “Complex and gorgeous,” I wrote in my notebook. When Rebecca tasted it, she exclaimed, “Talk about a punch of fruit and spice!”

Chapoutier does something rather different with this wine, in that it’s 90% Grenache (the “Châteauneuf-du-Pape grape par excellence,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine) and 10% Syrah, which “has been planted by producers who admire its tannins and structure, although, unlike Grenache and Mourvèdre, it needs care to avoid overripeness and is falling from favor in some quarters,” the Companion goes on to say. The use of Syrah is unusual, but even more so is the wine’s lack of other grapes. Most Châteauneuf-du-Papes are blends, which can be composed of up to 18 different grape varieties, though very few wines use them all.

According to the information sheet from Terlato that I received with the wine, “minimizing grape varieties allows for true expression of the terroir, which appeals to consumers for the authenticity and sense of place.” The wine no doubt expresses its terroir, but it strikes me that “authentic” Châteauneuf-du-Papes have more traditional blends. Authenticity, however, is overrated, and this wine is sheer delight, both with and without food. I particularly loved it with some bacon-wrapped dates. It’s expensive at about $60, but you’re getting what you pay for.

2015 M. Chapoutier “Les Meysonniers” Crozes-Hermitage

Tiny Hermitage produces some of the world’s greatest wines, with impressive price tags to match. Mere mortals should opt instead for a Crozes-Hermitage, a wine from the vineyards surrounding the more august Hermitage appellation. Both appellations focus mostly on Syrah. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “The best reds are softer and fruitier than Hermitage because the soils are richer (and because it’s more difficult to justify barrel aging at Crozes prices), but they tend to share more of Hermitage’s solidity than St-Joseph,” an appellation on the opposite riverbank.

This 100% Syrah is made with biodynamically farmed grapes, and the technique seems to have paid off. I loved the aroma of ripe plum, blueberry jam and leather, as well as the big, beautiful flavor. The wine moved from deep, rich fruit to elegant acids, refined spice, that note of leather again and finally some fine-grained, well-integrated tannins. I relished this wine on its own, but with the bacon-wrapped dates, it dried out and evaporated. It also failed to pair well with my too-spicy main course of beef bulgogi with kimchi and spaetzle. I suspect it would have fared better with a simple steak. It’s not inexpensive at $44, but again, this is a wine with some real stuffing.

I’m so glad to have received these samples. They reminded me of what a joy the wines of the Rhône can be. I’m going to keep my eye out for Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Crozes-Hermitage the next time I need a special-occasion wine. Neither is at the forefront of wine fashion at the moment, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t delicious.

For more about the Rhône and M. Chapoutier, check out these articles by fellow #winophiles:

–Gwendolyn Alley of Wine Predator tells us about “Duck à l’Orange with M. Chapoutier’s Biodynamic, Organic Rhone Wines”

–Jill Barth of L’Occasion writes about “Braille on the Label and Other Pioneering Moments of Chapoutier”

–J.R. Boynton of Great Big Reds writes about “The Dark Side of Syrah, with Domaine Fondreche Persia 2012 (Ventoux)”

–Jeff Burrows of Food Wine Click shares “Northern Rhone Wines and My Steak Tartare Disaster”

–David Crowley of Cooking Chat at tells us about “London Broil Steak with Châteauneuf-du-Pape”

–Susannah Gold of Avvinare writes about “Rhône Gems from Chapoutier in Châteauneuf, du Pape, Crozes-Hermitage, and Luberon”

–Nicole Ruiz Hudson of Somm’s Table tells her story of “Cooking to the Wine: Les Vins de Vienne Gigondas with Gratinéed Shepherd’s Pie”

–Camilla Mann of Culinary Adventures with Camilla shares a post on “Sober Clams + a French Syrah”

–Jane Niemeyer of Always Ravenous shares “Bison Burger Paired with Northern Rhône Syrah”

–Martin Redmond of Enofylz shares “A Taste of The House of Chapoutier”

–Rupal Desai Shankar of Syrah Queen writes about “Chapoutier: King of the Rhône”

–Lauren Walsh of The Swirling Dervish writes about “France’s Rhône Valley: Mountains, Sea, Wind, and Wine”

–Michelle Williams of Rockin Red Blog writes about “Maison M. Chapoutier: Expressing Terroir Through Biodynamics”

–Wendy Klik of A Day in the Life on the Farm talks about when “Ireland and France Collide”

–Liz Barrett of What’s in that Bottle invites us to “Get to know the Rhône Valley with Michel Chapoutier”

Terroir, Schmerroir: Dave Phinney’s “Locations” Wines

21 March 2017
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Blends across appellations are nothing to fear…

I can think of no buzzier buzz word in the wine world than “terroir.” How often do we read something about how a wine reflects its terroir or expresses its terroir? The phrases describe a wine that represents where it was made, with clear influences from the local climate and soil in its aroma and flavor. Americans are relative newcomers to the concept — we tend to think in terms of grape varieties. It’s the French who have developed the potential of terroir to its fullest extent, as evidenced by regions like Burgundy, where vineyard site is everything.

Nowadays, everyone is jumping on the terroir bandwagon. You can find single-vineyard wines everywhere from the Okanagan Valley to Central Otago. And the fashion for “terroir-driven wines” only continues to grow.

It takes some guts, therefore, to say screw it, I’m going to make a really delicious wine from Portugal or Argentina or wherever, but about 35,000 thousand square miles is as far as I’m going to narrow it down in terms of terroir. Even in California, most respectable winemakers restrict their bottlings to at least a single region, like Napa or Sonoma. A label that simply says “California” doesn’t ordinarily inspire confidence. Unless, that is, that label is on a wine made by master blender Dave Phinney.

California-based Phinney founded a wildly popular and critically acclaimed red blend called The Prisoner (a brand he sold in 2010), as well as the highly regarded Orin Swift Cellars. Blends from both companies have appeared in Wine Spectator‘s Top 100 lists (and even Top 10 lists), indicating that Phinney “has a knack for mixing and matching vineyards and grapes,” as Wine Spectator puts it.

His new venture, Locations, would seem to be all about terroir, given the name, as well as the first sentence of the winery’s Philosophy statement: “In the world of wine there are compelling Locations that exist where soil, climate and vines interact to produce grapes that uniquely express their Location through wine.” But Phinney goes on to lament that “laws and restrictions [discouraging cross-appellation blending] make it near impossible to express true winemaking freedom.” The goal of Locations is to combine grapes from top vineyards across several different regions in, say, Italy, to create a new and entirely unique blend that represents the country as a whole. So in a sense, these wines simultaneously celebrate and obliterate the concept of terroir.

With a collection of nine bottles of Locations, sent to me by the winery’s PR company, I decided it was time to host a blind tasting. I lined the bottles up, turned them around, mixed them up and bagged them, so that not even I knew which bottle was which. My group, a mix of wine professionals and amateurs, had a spirited debate about which wine came from where. We only occasionally all agreed, but there was general consensus that this was one of the most consistently enjoyable tastings I’ve ever held.

All the wines were red except one, a French rosé, which I left unbagged and served as an aperitif. This 100% Grenache from the South of France tasted full and fruity, with plenty of watermelon and strawberry notes, ample acids, a pleasingly bitter note and some minerality on the finish. My friends called it “delightful,” “surprising” and “f*cking good.” Its weight, one taster noted, makes it an ideal rosé for winter. In America, we think of rosé exclusively as a summer wine, but why shouldn’t we drink it when it’s cold outside? Rosé is delicious any time of year, and if I were in the mood to splurge just a bit, I would certainly pay the $19 price for this example.

Of the bagged wines, there was only one that everyone in the group guessed correctly: Oregon, the very last bottle we tried. Oregon made it easy because it was a varietal wine, a Pinot Noir, and because it came from just one region, the Willamette Valley. I got taut cherry fruit, baking spice and a tart, rather austerely elegant finish, but others noted some cough syrup in the aroma and even a touch of Kraft caramels. “It wants fat,” one taster said, and indeed, it worked quite well with some pizza topped with bacon, onion and mushroom.

All the other wines provoked disagreement, and sometimes disbelief when the country was revealed. In the order we tasted them:

Wine #1: Big and dark, with rich black-cherry fruit, soft tannins, a meaty note and some mocha on the finish. Again, there was a touch of pleasing bitterness. “It tastes way better than it smells,” one friend remarked, though I rather liked its plummy aroma with vanilla overtones. I guessed Italy, thinking of grapes like Negroamaro. Others guessed Argentina and France, but it was, in fact, a blend of Syrah, Merlot and Petite Sirah from various vineyards in Washington. Oops!

Wine #2: “Leather!” and “Cigar box!” were shouts I heard about the aroma, which also had lots of jammy red fruit.  The wine moved from ripe, ripe dark-red fruit to a big pop of spice and some rather chewy tannins. “They’re flirting with my cheeks, in a good way,” one taster said of the tannins. And what a fantastic pairing with that bacon/onion/mushroom pizza — big, bold and beautiful. With that kind of flavor, I guessed California, as did everyone else, except for one Argentina holdout. And California it was! A blend of Petite Sirah, Barbera, Tempranillo, Syrah and Grenache from Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and the Sierra Foothills.

Wine #3: “Oh, that’s a big boy,” a taster exclaimed. I got a lot of purple from this wine — dark fruit and a tone of violets in the aroma, and on the palate, some more dark fruit (people called it everything from fresh plums to grape candy), leavened with white pepper spice and a dry, rather tannic finish. We all convinced each other that this wine was from Spain, but it was actually a blend of Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira and Touriga Franca, sourced mostly from the Douro (with a little Alentejo thrown in). So we were close: It was from Portugal.

Wine #4: A transparent garnet color, this wine had a taut red-fruit aroma marked with something savory, something meaty. “Pinot can taste like blood,” one guest suggested. But the flavor made me not so sure: red fruit followed by black olive and black pepper spice, with very few tannins. Olive plus black pepper made me think of the South of France, but everyone else guessed Italy. Sometimes it pays to go against the consensus — it was indeed France! A blend of Grenache, Syrah and “assorted Bordeaux varieties” from the Rhône Valley, Roussillon (near Languedoc) and Bordeaux.

Wine #5: “Son of a bitch!” We all had trouble figuring out this one, with its hooded dark-fruit aroma, ripe dark-red cherry fruit, ample acids, pop of spice and clear, supple tannins. “Zinfandel?” one person guessed. “There’s a squeaky finish on this one. On my teeth!” said another, providing one of the evening’s more enigmatic tasting notes. Somewhat at a loss, we all went for Washington. The wine was from the New World, but in fact it was a blend of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon from the Uco Valley in Mendoza, Argentina.

Wine #6: We felt some relief when we got to this wine, with its raisiny aroma, raisiny fruit, ample spice and serious tannins on the finish. Everyone loved it, and everyone thought it was from Portugal (except for one obstinate guest who insisted on California). The raisins and tannins reminded us of Port, but unfortunately, no one was reminded of passito. Passito wines, such as Amarone, make use of partially raisinated grapes. And indeed, #6 was not from Portugal but from Italy. Argh! It was a blend of Negroamaro and Nero d’Avola from Puglia as well as Barbera from Piedmont. (I can find no evidence of passito-style drying of the grapes.)

Wine #7: “This has biting tannins, but it like it — rrrrr — it hurts so good,” said one taster. “It’s hot hot hot!” another exclaimed, referring to what felt like a rather high alcohol content. I got lots of dark-red fruit, black pepper, an olive note and a bit of mocha at the back of the throat. I guessed that this delicious wine came from Argentina, and others went with Portugal or France. But of course, you know that it was none of these. Instead, it was a blend of Garnacha (Grenache), Tempranillo, Monastrell (Mourvèdre) and Cariñena (Carignan) from Priorat, Jumilla, Toro, Rioja and Ribera del Duero in Spain.

All these wines retail for about $17 to $19, making them an affordable indulgence and an excellent value for the money. Different as they were, the Locations wines each had finely tuned balance and a sense of depth, enhanced by fruit that tended towards the darker end of the spectrum, sometimes leavened with something savory or briny. That’s a profile I can get behind.

Dave Phinney asks, “The question is – do you break the rules, and thousands of years of history and tradition, in pursuit of expressing freedom?” There’s a lot to be said for rules when it comes to wine — they’re doing something right in Burgundy, after all — but Locations makes a compelling case that sometimes you should just toss the rule book into the destemming machine and go for it.

Note: These wines were provided for review free of charge.

Philadelphia Degustation – Part 2

28 July 2012
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COURSE 3: Costières de Nîmes rosé

I had a very relaxing lunch one day at Parc, a resolutely traditional French brasserie on Rittenhouse Square. Perhaps it’s a silly way to choose a pairing, but when I eat salmon, I tend to pick a wine equally as pink. Dry rosé and salmon just seem made for each other.

As I was waiting for my Provençal-style baked salmon with ratatouille and cous-cous, I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation of the well-dressed young ladies at the table next to me:

“Your dog doesn’t have a middle name?”

“Well, I think it’s normal for a dog not to have a middle name. But can I just say, I would never hire a dog walker as hot as yours.”

It would take a wine of great interest and vivacity to draw my attention away from such an exchange, but the 2011 Mas de Bressades, a rosé blend of Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault from the Costières de Nîmes, succeeded in doing just that. Sandwiched between the southern Provençal cities of Nîmes and Arles, the Costières de Nîmes appellation produces wines “closer to those just over the river in the southern Côtes du Rhône” than in adjacent Languedoc, notes The Oxford Companion to Wine. The rosés in particular tend to be “good-value dry wines with a delightful color and ripe fruit,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, and so it was with this excellent example.


Next, Part 2: Next

5 July 2011
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…With expectations shooting high enough to punch a hole in the ozone layer, we passed through the vestibule connecting The Aviary to Next and entered the restaurant. Our chairs pulled ceremonially from the table, we settled into two of the most coveted seats in American restaurantdom and took in the scene.

A latticed appliqué covered the front windows, focusing all attention within, and a length of Eiffelesque metal undulated along the ceiling. Braced by ribs arcing to the walls, it looked like the spine of some steampunk cetacean. Above that, thick metal disks punctured by glowing circles of glass evoked manhole covers.

Beneath the industrial-age whale spine and sewer-chic light fixtures, luxury reigned, with padded silvery walls, immaculate table linens and gold-rimmed china plates. If you’ve ever fancied a seven-course gourmet meal in subterranean Paris, this is the place for you.

The expense may give you pause, but that’s the least of your worries. Securing reservations at one of the most talked-about restaurants in the country can be tricky. To get in, you must buy tickets through Next’s website, as if you were attending an opera or, more accurately, a blockbuster rock concert.

According to Next’s Facebook page, they received 1,000,000 hits on their website within an eight-day period, and tables are available on the website for an average of one second. It goes on to estimate that about 3,400 people compete for the restaurant’s 16 tables — 16 tables — each day new reservations are released.

If you’re lucky enough to obtain tickets, they already include the meal, tax and gratuity in the price (as well as the wine pairing, if you so choose). No money is exchanged at the restaurant, and the tickets are non-refundable.

I feel somewhat awkward about describing the rest of our experience, because we dined at Next the very last evening they were serving the “Paris, 1906 — Escoffier at the Ritz” menu, composed of recipes from Auguste Escoffier’s monumental Le Guide Culinaire, the bedrock of classic French cuisine. Grant Achatz and his team are currently fine-tuning a new Thai menu, with the first practice dinner reportedly happening tonight (July 5).

I’ll describe the experience of “Paris 1906” nevertheless, as a record of the event and as an example of the kind of experience you can expect at Next. And goodness knows, if you want that experience, start working on getting tickets as soon as you can.