Rhône wines are not especially recognizable to many Californians. Of the French varietals, clearly Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne are the most recognized, consumed and understood in the United States. There are California wine makers (Cline Cellars) who do specialize in these varietals but until and unless one makes a study of them French wines will be an enigma and remain unapproachable for too many Americans. A recent event in San Francisco, with financial aid from the European Union, was intended to help address this gap.
Notes du Rhône was held recently at The Nine in San Francisco and included a highly informative presentation on the Rhône Valley, the terroir, the grape varietals and their marketing successes over the past few years.
The RhôneValley is located in the southeast of France and is bounded on the top by Vienne in the north and by Avignon (Home of the Catholic Papacy from 1309 to 1376) in the south. It is one of over 300 French Appellation d’Origine Controllee (AOC), similar to an AVA in the USA. France has 12 distinct wine growing regions such as Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône. Although French appellation law allows the use of 22 different grape varietals in Rhône wines, there are 9 that are the most frequently used and best known varietals from the region: Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne and Grenache Blanc for the whites and Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah, Carignan and Mourvèdre.
Rhône Valley Wines include 1. Côtes du Rhône, 2. Côtes du Rhône Villages, 3. Côtes du Rhône Villages (named village), and 4. Côtes du Rhône Crus. The Côtes du Rhône AOC is the generic for the entire region and as such has the broadest range of quality and consistency. Each subsequent AOC, above, is more and more tightly controlled and portends higher and higher quality and consistency. That distinction, however, is in the mouth and nose of the consumer. (A separate AOC designation has been established for Chateauneuf du Pape although it is located within the RhôneValley.)
French wines, like Italian wines, are made and, traditionally, consumed with food. That being the case, it is no surprise that this event had excellent food. The offering was so well prepared and presented that the caterer, Work of Art catering and events deserves special note in this posting. The hors d’oeuvres style foods, including fare like ‘Prosciutto Wrapped Grilled Figs’ and ‘Pears and Zucchini Involtini’, were fresh, flavorful, hot and perfectly suited for the wine and food experience. In addition, the server, Jeremy, was an informative, interested and passionate delivery agent! A terrific front man.
The wines offered at Notes du Rhône included four tiers to help educate those in attendance and to offer a variety of flavor profiles that might meet the differing palates represented. There were entry level wines from the Côtes du Rhône, wines from the Côtes du Rhône Villages, the Crus and finally the Costières de Nîmes (formerly in the Languedoc region), Luberon, Ventoux, lesser known and more recent AOC additions to the Rhone Valley Wines. Each of these were approachable and achieved the flavor profiles of the varietals represented. The whites were minerally with stone fruit flavors and crisp. The Rosés were fruity and fun and excellent for summer’s hot days in Northern California. The reds had structure, complexity and depth.
Like many European and California winemakers, there is clearly an effort to make Rhône wines more exciting and approachable to wine aficionados (new or experienced) to broaden appreciation and increase sales. Notes du Rhône was a great opportunity to taste these wines and build appreciation for the Region and open the door for many American consumers. Don’t hesitate to enjoy these reasonably priced and newly available wines.