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In a class of its Rhône

When I was a kid, my parents didn’t like me watching Neighbours. I think they’d heard somewhere that it was full of gratuitous sex and violence, or perhaps they were worried that I “might start using that kind of language”, or something. However, their worst fears were never realised, and the popular soap opera actually had quite a positive impact on me during my formative years. I can’t say I ever paid much attention to the storylines, but the theme tune inscribed itself indelibly on my consciousness, instilling in me two very important principles: ‘everybody needs good neighbours’, and ‘with a little understanding, you can find the perfect blend’.

Thousands of miles away from that (fictitious) Melbourne suburb, the same principles have held true for centuries in the southern Rhône valley. Arguably the most famous appellations are all roughly situated within a 25 mile radius of the southern Rhone’s winemaking hub, Châteauneuf-du-Pape. However, despite the close proximity between neighbouring appellations and the same key grape varieties providing the base of most of the region’s wines, each major appellation provides a unique take on the Rhône style. There are marked variations in soil, terrain and climate within this small locality, and understanding of these pockets of distinct terroir, coupled with long-established rules governing the varieties permitted in different blends, means that two neighbours never turn up to the party wearing the same dress. Our recent Southern Rhône wine tasting, jointly hosted by Perrin et Fils and Ogier, was a brilliant opportunity to sample some of these wines from some classic neighbouring terroirs back-to-back, with the added bonus that the majority of the wines were from the superb 2007 vintage.

First were the Perrin reds, beginning with their Vinsobres ‘Les Cornuds’. Previously coming under the Côtes-du-Rhône Villages umbrella, Vinsobres was declared an appellation controlée in its own right in 2006, and as the most northerly of the region’s appellations makes an ideal home for Syrah, which is blended 50/50 with Grenache in this wine. The raspberry-like Grenache characters seemed to dominate the nose at the outset, but after a little warming and exposure to the air, the darker fruit and savoury white pepper Syrah notes began to shine through.

Next up was the Cairanne ‘Peyre Blanche’, from vineyards situated around 20km east of Châteauneuf. The blend contains a fairly small 10% Mourvedre for additional tannic structure, but it really showed on the palate, providing tenacious grip and impressive length. In addition, the Cairanne had a noticeably perfumed nose, and would stand up really well against a hearty, herbaceous stew.

Generally considered the best southern Rhône terroir after Châteauneuf, Gigondas has sandy soils, said to be good for ‘tempering’ the Grenache grape. Perrin’s Gigondas La Gille (for my money the pick of the bunch on the evening) is an 80/20 Grenache/Shiraz blend which had a lush feel and a sense of approachability despite the pretty serious weight. 70% of the wine is matured in cask for 12 months, which gives elegance and a supple texture to the tannins, and it was just as enjoyable on its own as would be with food.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape itself is a unique and interesting appellation. The area’s overall soil type is a combination of prehistoric sea bed and a topsoil containing deposits of large stones. These stones, known as galets or ‘pudding stones’, are used like primitive storage heaters in the vineyards. During the day, they absorb the sun’s warmth, which they then release in the evenings helping to keep freezing temperatures at bay and increasing the hours of suitable ripening conditions.

A total of thirteen grape varieties including some white grapes are permitted in the blend. These are (deep breath!): Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault, Counoise, Vaccarèse, Terret Noir, Muscardin, Clairette, Picpoul, Picardin, Bourboulenc and Roussanne. Perrin’s own Châteauneuf-du-Pape ‘Les Sinards’ is a blend containing only the first four, of which 30% is the robust Mourvedre. Perhaps surprisingly then, the wine had a liveliness and prettiness to the fruit that made it very approachable despite its youth, although the butch tannins and acidity will no doubt allow it to develop for some years yet.

Our final treat from Perrin was a taste of the 2007 Château de Beaucastel, which contains all thirteen grape varieties. This was a more complex proposition, with enormous power and an abundance of spicy notes on the nose, including hints of pepper, ginger and fennel. The fruit may be a touch straight-laced at the moment, but this incredible wine showed superb potential for opening up over time, and even now I’m salivating just imagining how the inky black fruits and savoury characters will further meld and evolve after a couple more years’ cellarage.

Even within Châteauneuf-du-Pape, there are various neighbouring terroirs that can be exploited to produce blends with subtle but noticeable differences in character, as demonstrated by our presentation of four different examples from Ogier’s range of 2006 wines, each named in honour of their local soil type. While the differences in the wines were subtle, two wines stood out as representing their respective soil types with the most clearly manifest characteristics. The ‘Eclats Calcaires’ are shallow, porous limestone soils with good water provision. This gives the grapes a relatively easy time, and the resulting wine was lighter and less overtly tannic than it would be from vines grown on poorer soils, where yields are low and require longer ripening. The ‘Galets Roules’ blend, on the other hand, is named after the rolled pebbles in the topsoil, that retain daytime warmth and maintain vineyard temperatures into the evening. The wine definitely conveyed that sense of warmth, with fuller body and a notably jammier character to the fruit.

The evening culminated in a taste of the glorious Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2005, Clos de l’Oratoire des Papes. For the many label geeks out there, the distinctive Clos de l’Oratoire label apparently predates the idea of embossing Châteauneuf bottles with papal insignia, hence the asymmetric design: labels designed from the early 20th century onwards tend to be symmetrical to match the embossed emblem. Seriously. And so to the more important matter of the bottle contents: a really up-front and generous wine with dark and fleshy fruit. The bouquet was huge, with captivating aromas of herbs and smoky, tarry notes. With the unfeasibly cold weather that’s still hanging around, I can’t think of anything better than sitting by the fire, cosying up with a glass of this superb winter warmer under optimum conditions! We’ve just taken delivery of this vintage at Majestic, so you can pick up a couple of bottles in the next few days while it’s on a multibuy offer still.

A big thank you must go to Kirsty from Perrin et Fils and to Julie from Ogier for their informative presentations. There really is no better way to get the feel for a region’s wines than to taste a range of similar ones back-to-back, while at the same time being given an insight into the wines’ production. Although this is particularly true of the close-knit neighbourhood of the southern Rhône, you’ll easily find a wine that’s right up your street.

  • David Field

    Can’t find Clos de l’oratoire on your website – I want some at the 20% off mentioned in the article. Please advise

    • Jimmy

      I believe the Clos de l’Oratoire is a 20pound plus wine and therefore does not get included in the 20% off offer BUT it is on a buy 2 get 4 quid off offer. You’d have to ring up your local store as i think they’ve only just taken delivery of it.