Bold notes from the north-south divide

April 11 2013 by Jane Anson

The slopes of the upper Rhone Valley are not for the faint-hearted, especially during the winter months, when the wind can barrel through the valley, whipping your eyes. It is a land that carves itself into your memory – huge crags of granite rocks in the northern stretch of the valley that widen out to a broad floor in the south that can bake in the summer heat.

What this landscape is good for is making wine – and the stark contrast between the two parts of the valley make for vastly different styles. If you want to get to know one region of France that provides the full gamut of angular dry to luscious round whites, softly fruity to vertically tannic reds, you should go to the Rhone Valley. For years, red Rhone was the insider’s secret – great value wines of amazingly regular quality. Now the secret is very definitely out.

The last Sotheby’s Hong Kong auction of 2012 saw top Rhones among the most sought-after lots. The two-day sale at the new Hong Kong Gallery in Pacific Place raised 20 per cent over the estimate, with the Rhone favourite, Hermitage La Chapelle 1961 from Paul Jaboulet Aine, going for HK$171,500, a full 165 per cent over its pre-sale estimate.

White wines from the region, however, remain below the radar. Simon Tam of Christie’s says: “Rhone whites are a new category in Hong Kong. Apart from Etienne Guigal’s La Doriane from Condrieu and Chateau de Beaucastel’s Vieilles Vignes white (100 per cent roussanne grapes from vines at least 65 years old), there are very few in Hong Kong and interest is really among the most knowledgeable.”

Rhone whites are intense – high on aromatics and savoury flavours. The northern and southern Rhone wines are very different. Primary grapes are viognier, roussanne, marsanne and sometimes grenache blanc, and the appellations to explore are (in the northern Rhone) Condrieu, Chateau-Grillet, Saint-Joseph, Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage, and (in the southern part) Cotes du Rhone, Vacqueryas and Chateauneuf-du-Pape – where grapes can also include ugni blanc, bourboulenc, picpoul and clairette blanche. Those with the most ageing potential are from northern Rhone – the exception in the south being Chateauneuf-du-Pape. In the glass, expect honeysuckle, apricot, savoury fruit, toasted almond, herbs and spices. Most Rhone whites are not big on buttery, oaky flavours, tending instead to be grown-up and bold flavours that beg for good food.

“There is less emphasis on acidity with Rhone whites,” says Michel Chapoutier, one of the great names of the region with wines such as Ermitage Le Meal Blanc and Hermitage Chante-Alouette. “But they have minerality and clear terroir expression. The grapes are high in thiols (compounds that contain sulphur), with some phenolic extraction from skin contact, and are often aged on the lees. This gives ageing potential the same way that tannins do in red wines. Expression can come through a ‘noble bitterness’ that makes these whites an excellent match for Asian foods.”

Alongside Chapoutier, the names Guigal (with Philippe Guigal, a regular visitor to Hong Kong, in charge of winemaking) and Jaboulet (now owned by the Frey family from Champagne and Bordeaux) loom large over the Rhone.

There are also dozens of small-scale, talented producers such as Francois Villard, a chef before becoming a full-time winemaker. He still shows his interest in food with cuvees such as Poivre et Sol, a play on the words pepper and salt in French, with the “salt” replaced by the soil in which he grows his grapes.

Christine Vernay, winemaker and owner at Domaine Georges Vernay (try to locate its wonderfully complex, lemon-curd-filled Condrieu, Les Chailles de l’Enfer – the slopes of Hell), sells mainly to private clients and to upscale restaurants around the world, but keeps about 35 per cent for retail. She has seen Asian sales expand rapidly over the past three years. “Asian cuisine is an interesting match for viognier, particularly dishes which are not too spicy. I love ginger-based dishes with viognier, and sweet-and-sour dishes; the grape has a round mouthfeel upheld by minerality, and can have notes of exotic fruits so it can stand up to the challenges of this type of food.”

The Rhone has every bit as much tradition as Bordeaux and Burgundy. The vineyard of Domaine Jean-Louis Chave, easily one of the best in France, has been handed down to successive generations of the family since 1481, and is now among the largest landowners on the famous Hermitage hill. Jean-Louis took an MBA in the United States, followed by an oenology degree at UC Davis in California, and his Hermitage Blanc is a study in white truffle and fleshy stone fruit complexity. He has also just begun making a white Saint Joseph, grown on granite soils, which promises to be tighter and more angular.

“Red wines succeed naturally in China,” says Chapoutier, whose daughter Mathilde has been studying at Beijing’s University of International Business and Economics for the past two years. “The whites have found it more difficult to establish their position. But one of the most enjoyable and surprising food pairings was my white Hermitage with century eggs in Beijing. The Chinese have a great appreciation of amer noble (noble bitterness) due to their long history of tea. Once the link is established with the noble bitterness of the thiols in white Rhone wines, it will be easier to appreciate the wines.”

The original article appeared on 17 Jan, 2013 at Food & Wine, SCMP