As the summer sun fades it is time to turn to the wines of the south, and, in particular, the red wines of the Rhône valley. The vines are hardy here, clinging to the terraced slopes of the river valley, braced against the Mistral: a drying wind that keeps the grapes from baking in the relentless sun. Wines have been grown there at least since Roman times and the triumvirate of Cuilleron, Gaillard and Villard have re-planted an ancient vineyard to produce Sotanum, a rich, heady wine made from Syrah with a softening drop of Viognier. This is the nearest you will get to tasting a Roman wine.
Along the course of the river, Rhône wines exhibit a north-south divide. Northern Rhônes tend to be small-production wines from the Syrah grape, grown on the vertiginous slopes of vineyards like Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage. Southern Rhônes grown on flatter soils harvest every grape variety they can muster to make majestic wines like Châteauneuf-du-Pape and prodigious quantities of Côtes du Rhône.
Wine growers in Côte-Rôtie produce robust wines, but with plenty of finesse. A good example is Yves Gangloff’s 2007 La Barbarine, a supple wine whose dark fruit core is lifted by the addition of a little Condrieu, one of the world’s great white wines. The intensely perfumed Condrieu, made from the Viognier grape, conjures up a field of flowers and is balanced on the palate by a bittersweet note of apricot kernel. Small quantities of this fragrant wine gives Syrah-based Côte-Rôtie its exotic character. Each of the triumvirate produce elegant versions of both Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu.
More noble, and less showy are the wines of Hermitage, which are for long keeping and reward the wait, showing Syrah to be capable of intriguing complexity. The star of Hermitage is Jean-Louis Chave, whose wines are as prized (and as expensive) as the great vintages of Bordeaux and Burgundy. The wines of Crozes-Hermitage offer more immediate and affordable pleasures, especially the wines of Laurent Combier, whose Crozes has an intoxicating perfume of lavender and violets. His top cuvée, the Clos des Grives, adds a savoury depth of earth and fruit.
Côtes du Rhône are infamous for mass production. To mark a distinction in quality, wines from the 16 best-producing villages can be called Côtes du Rhône Villages. The best Côtes du Rhône are made from Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. By contrast, 13 grape varieties go…