Wine Tour of Rhone Valley

At Midnight on June 21st 2007 I vowed never ever to drink another bottle of Côtes du Rhone.  This alcoholic epiphany came to me just outside the village of Cucuron and the image is still clear in my head:


There I am bouncing along in the back of a convertible car belting out the last few verses of “In the Navy” by the Village People – think YMCA but more camp – believing I am quite possibly the funniest man alive. My pregnant wife is driving and already there is a vague sense of foreboding penetrating the misty veil of inebriation.


Next to me is my father-in-law, who yes, just happened to have served in the Navy. He’s singing along half-heartedly but really he is wondering just why his son-in-law has the presumption to be ridiculing his military service.


Of course it’s not my fault. The evening had started convivially with a couple of kirs in a small café in La Tour D’Aigues. As the alcohol flowed so did the bonhomie, the evening gradually became more raucous and my father in law and I ordered a bottle of Gigondas to accompany our main course.


Neither of us looked at the alcohol percentage until it was too late, a whopping great 15.5%, it was practically a fortified wine. The effect was not so much to loosen my tongue as to unravel it and lasso it around a near by tree, handily forming a noose for me to hang myself with later after my bawdy rendition.


“where can you find pleasure, search the world for treasure…In the Navy!”


And so there you have it, the reason I now only get a pair of socks in the post at Christmas time rather than the crate of vintage wine which used to arrive.


This year, at the behest of my wife, I decided it was time to mend bridges, and invite my father in law on a wine tour of the Côtes du Rhone. I was determined that no matter how much I consumed there would be no repeat karaoke performance.


There was also a serious purpose to the trip. When the new world started making stronger and stronger wines, I dismissed the idea as an alcopop fad. While it lasted, there would be little or no effect on my cellar, oaked chardonnay and syrupy shiraz have only ever been used for one thing at our house – cooking.


Then horror of horrors French winemakers started copying their antipodean friends and before you could pin a tail on a Wombat it was impossible to get a Côtes du Rhone under 13.5%. Most were north of 14.5%. Fine wines that I used to enjoy drinking, Vacqueras, Gigondas, Chateauneuf du Pape, I suddenly found unpalatable.


Most winemakers blamed the weather – global warming made it harder to control the sugar levels in the grapes and therefore the alcohol percentage rose. However, it’s also true that for overseas consumers weaned on punchy Australian and South African wines, 13% French wines could be a disappointment. By allowing alcohol levels to rise vignerons were therefore responding to global demand.


So what if old farts like myself didn’t like the change from now on we would have to stick to fine Burgundy.


However after two Côtes du Rhone free years I found I missed the robust red fruits and explosive power in the mouth of, say, a good Gigondas. I therefore decided to embark on a voyage of discovery, discard my prejudices, rebuild my relationship with my father-in-law and hopefully find some well balanced Côtes du Rhones with good acidity to balance the alcohol.


North of Avignon the land quickly turned into a furnace. Field upon field off vines rippling in the heat so that the horizon seemed to be upturned like the corner of a frying pan. Under heavy late summer foliage the skins of the grapes had a sautéed sheen.


Getting out of the car the tarmac clung to the bottom of our shoes and the explanation given by wine makers – global warming – for the increased alcohol levels no longer seemed such an excuse. From the smell of the land the fermentation had already started on the vines.


The tasting I’d organised consisted of wines from three domaines.


Chateaurenard in Chateauneuf du Pape. A family domaine which has passed through 7 generations of the Coulon family. In the 2010 edition of The best wines in France its signature wine was rated the 95 best wine.


Secondly Domaine Les Goubert just outside Gigondas. Another property which has been in the same family for generations and with vines in Beaume de Venise and Rasteau as well as Gigondas.


Finally Domaine Armand, the young interloper. Until a couple of years ago the grapes from this small domaine outside Cairanne were taken to the Cave Co-operative. Not any more. Now Patrice and Audrey his wife are making some serious wines, at very competitive prices.


“You can always spit,” said my father-in-law sternly as the tasting began.


He was right of course. And yet he was also wrong. For me, taking at least one sip, has remained a necessity. After swilling, sniffing, and sucking I have what I feel is a near perfect picture of the wine. However the evaluation is never complete until I take a confirmation sip. Particularly since the alcohol level in a wine is most noticeable at the back of the throat.


In all we tasted over twenty different wines, sumptuous whites and mellow reds with the luscious depth I’d been missing so much over the preceding Rhone-less years. It’s a pleasure to report that the alcohol in these well made, well balanced wines was almost impossible to detect. The strongest we tasted was 14.5% and the weakest 12.5%. Stars of the tasting were the 2005 Chateaurenard, Boisrenard red, which is going to be a fantastic wine in 5 years time, spicy, intensely purple, and explosive on the nose, the tannins just need some time in the cellar to soften a little.


For drinking now my favourite was the 2003 Cuvee Florence from Domaine Goubert in Gigondas, a profound, complex and well balanced wine matured for 24 months in oak – a dream with a Sunday Roast in the winter, with the final glass being reserved for the fireside in the evening.


However the wine I bought most of was the 2008 Cairanne from Domaine Armand. A difficult year to make wine and consequently an unpopular vintage, but this little vineyard has come up with a gem of a wine, delivering everything you want from a good Côtes du Rhone – ripe red fruits, a touch of liquorice and a robust lengthy finish.


Best of all as far as I was concerned, it was the least alcoholic of all the wines we’d tasted that day, coming in at a surprising 12.5%.


Clambering into the back of the bus, wobbling at the legs a little from excessive alcohol consumption, I heard some familiar notes.


In the navy“ sang my father-in-law who‘d obviously been sipping more than he had been spitting….“where you can find pleasure and search the world for treasure.”


In the navy…” I joined in wrapping my arm around his shoulder, pleased that there would be no more socks for Christmas.


Jamie Ivey and Stuart Southgate were guests of Celine Viany, Le Vin a La Bouche, Tel: 04 90 46 90 80/06 76 59 56 30


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