If you adore serious reds but your annual income pales next to an Ottawa senator's monthly airport-snack allowance, the southern Rhône valley is your friend. Or it ought to be.
For current consumption or for laying down in the near to medium term, the wines – often subtle and refined – represent standout value, particularly compared with those of Bordeaux and Burgundy.
That was conspicuously the case in 2009 and 2010. Quality excelled across the board, from basic Côtes du Rhône up to the vaunted wines of the Châteauneuf du Pape district. It was slightly different story in 2011, as you may have gathered at a winenerd dinner party here and there. But while the vintage certainly lacked the glory of the two preceding years, it hardly merited the adjective I'd employ to describe Parisian sidewalks after the city's dogs have returned from their evening stroll. The flavours are all there – bright berries with a lively lift from cracked pepper and herbs – if in a crisper package.
I'm a fan of shadow vintages, those less-than-perfect growing seasons that follow the big-hype years. Less buyer competition means the gems are easier to locate. In many cases, the wines are brighter and juicier in youth, with more moderate tannins, the astringent particles that help impart structure and longevity to great wines. Think of shadow-vintage wines as prewashed jeans versus the crusty new denim of the 1960s and 1970s; they won't last as long but they're easier to slip into.
That was to some extent the case with 2011 in the southern Rhône, a vintage widely represented on shelves now. I enjoyed a comparison I came across on the website of respected British wine writer Tim Atkin. One of his correspondents, Matt Walls, called Rhône 2011 the George Harrison vintage. Translation: It ranked below Paul and John, but it also was not the Ringo of 2008.
To twist and exhaust the Beatles metaphor, I might note that there is a Fab Four group of flagship red grapes in the southern Rhône: grenache, syrah, mourvèdre and carignan. (In the northern Rhône, syrah stands alone.)
By blending rather than relying on a single variety, producers can hedge against bad weather; if soft, lateripening grenache underperforms, it might be scaled back in favour of peppery syrah or tannic mourvèdre, for example.
There is one shortcoming common to several of the otherwise fine wines below: conspicuous alcohol. It has become an unwelcome signature of many southern Rhône cuvées in recent years, a byproduct of a growing obsession with extreme ripeness and big flavours. Grenache in particular becomes an alcohol bomb in the hot Mediterranean, where fruit sugars are often high enough to yield 15 per cent. But all will be well if you serve the wines in the choicest manner, with such fare as braised red meats, an herbed leg of lamb, grilled game and the like.
Domaine Saint-Pierre Vacqueyras 2011 (France)
SCORE : 91 PRICE: $25.95
Grenache-syrah in a 60-40 blend, this is big, very dry and packed with opulent cherry-jam fruit, admirably stopping short of sappiness (a risk with fruit so ripe it reaches 15-per-cent alcohol in the fermenting vat). The burn peeks through slightly but it's camouflaged by pleasant pepper and licorice spice. The tannins are tame and the acidity fresh. Available in Ontario.
La Crau de Ma Mère Châteauneuf du Pape 2011 (France)
SCORE : 91 PRICE: $46.95
This blend of mostly grenache with supporting roles from mourvèdre and syrah displays the power you might expect of a 15-per-cent-alcohol wine. Though there's plenty of raspberry cheer in the bottle, this one's not all about the fruit. It's more about the savouriness, which is what the Rhône does so well. Think herbs, lavender, licorice and a peppery kick. The tannins are fine-grained and relatively friendly. It should improve with up to eight years in the cellar (not the usual 15 I would recommend for top Châteauneufs). Available in Ontario.
E. Guigal Châteauneuf-du– Pape 2007 (France)
SCORE : 91 PRICE: $59.95
We go all the way back to 2007 for this, and I'm sure a few Rhône watchers began salivating at that date. A few years ago, the great wine critic Robert Parker hailed 2007 as the best vintage he'd seen in the region in 30 years. Parker also happens to adore Guigal as a producer, awarding this cuvée 93 points. It has evolved nicely, with dried fruit and underbrush mixed with the primary raspberry, cassis, cherry and spice elements. The structure's still firm, and this red should continue to evolve favourably for, say, eight years. Various prices in Alberta.
Domaine Martin Plan de Dieu Côtes du Rhône Villages 2011 (France)
SCORE : 90 PRICE: $19.95
Plan de Dieu, literally "plain of God," refers to a commune in the vast Côtes du Rhône district. It's one of several special appellations that get to distinguish themselves because the wines tend (very generally) to be better than generic Côtes du Rhône and because wineries there must abide by stricter production standards. This 2011 is fullbodied and smooth, offering luscious dark berries woven with sticky, fine-grained tannins. Tiny quibble: The 15-per-cent alcohol adds a spicy-hot note on the finish. Available in Ontario.
Clos Bellane Côtes du Rhône Villages Valréas 2010 (France)
SCORE : 90 PRICE: $19.95
The best attributes of the great 2010 vintage are evident in this sunny, happy-fruit red. Medium-full bodied, it offers juicy cherry, currant and plum fruit infused with a forest-like whiff and kept vibrant by zippy acidity. Available in Ontario.