Last week I hosted a small gathering of friends, both industry and not, at my home for an informal tasting of some of the Rhône Valley wines currently available through the LCBO without breaking the bank, so we focused upon the Côtes du Rhône Rouge et Blanc, Costières de Nîmes, and Saint Joseph appellations. The aim of the evening was to explore both the range of wines that this region offers, and the truly amazing value that so many of them represent.
There was certainly some interesting discussion around all manner of vinous topics, as we had a few real experts on hand to give their opinions upon the region and its wines. And as is often the case, not all these wine professionals necessarily agreed with each other; cue some fascinating discourse about the wines of the Rhône.
As it was a stand-up affair through the dinner hour, our dining room table was loaded with a small assortment of foodstuffs for grazing upon:
Tuna Conserva with pickled fennel, and fresh, warm ricotta, served alongside canned mussels and tomatoes from Charlotte Langley’s wonderful Scout Canning operation.
Whilst one may imagine that the red wines of the Rhône would be better suited to pairing with red meats, as it happens, many of the more Grenache-focused blends with their juicy acidity did a fine job, even alongside Charlotte’s Tuna Conserva. The piquancy of the tomato-based sauce with the canned mussels was also a natural match for the crunchier, juicier bottlings we tasted through.
A platter of Rosette de Lyon, Jambon de Bayonne, Saucisson Sec, Comte, Fougerus, Fromage de Chaumes, Mimolette, Bleu d’Auvergne, and Beaufort (replete with Mostarda and apple jelly) from Afrim and his team at The Cheese Boutique.
When I got in touch with Afrim and asked if he could assemble a platter of cheese and meats to accompany Rhône Valley wines he enthusiastically replied “Of course!!!” Afrim seriously knows his stuff, and certainly did not disappoint with this terrific selection of regionally-suitable cheese and charcuterie. Although we had 15 people present (plus a cheese-hungry three-year-old) there was still a fair bit of cheese left over. Which reminds me… I may have cheese for a light lunch today.
A roasted marinated shoulder of pork from Nosso Talho stuffed with apricots, apples, and rosemary, courtesy of my good self.
A deboned and rolled pork shoulder marinated in cider vinegar, olive oil, lots of garlic, pepper, and Joe Beef’s Country Salt Blend. This was then stuffed with diced dried apricots, apples, and rosemary, a roasted in a reasonably hot oven until just cooked, as I do enjoy my pork quite pink. This proved to be a huge hit with all of the wines served, the last pieces literally being fought over by a couple of the guests. I really should have told them that I had put some aside for myself for later…
Throughout the evening it was remarked upon many any occasion just how versatile many of the wines were when matched with the assortment of meats, cheeses, fish, and shellfish offered. There were very few pairings that were anything less than pretty damn good.
2015 E. Guigal Côtes du Rhône Blanc AOP, Rhône Valley, France (Alcohol 13%) LCBO Vintages $19.95 (750ml bottle)
We normally see the red Guigal Côtes du Rhône in our market, so this was a real surprise for the crowd. A blend of a number of Rhône varietals, with Viognier at the fore. There’s a surprising amount of crispness in this vintage, making it a terrific foil for our tuna conserva, oysters in tomato sauce, cheeses, and roast pork. Loads of attractive peach on the nose, with an attractive weight on the palate.
2015 Le Clairon Des Anges Costières De Nîmes AOP, Rhône Valley, France (Alcohol 13.5%) LCBO Vintages $13.95 (750ml bottle)
This was a very pleasant discovery indeed. An LCBO General List red from the always-excellent-value Costières De Nîmes sub-region, located just south of the city of Nîmes. This is a Grenache/Syrah/Mourvèdre cépage that offers up everything that this region is known for at a ridiculous price. It’s a slightly lighter style of Rhône red that really benefits from a little time in the fridge before serving. Crunchy and juicy, with bags of ripe red fruit, and soft tannins.
2015 Mas des Bressades “Cuvée Tradition”, Costières De Nîmes AOP, Rhône Valley, France (Alcohol 14.1%) LCBO Vintages $16.95 (750ml bottle)
Another offering from Costières De Nîmes, but this time around with a little more alcoholic heft, black fruit character, weight, and structure. This time around the Syrah appears to dominate over the Grenache, giving us lots of blackberries and black plums. There’s a touch of garrique on the nose here, which intrigued many of the assembled group, prompting an interesting discussion about the effects of terroir upon wine. This one really opened up after around 30 minutes.
2015 J.L. Chave “Sélection Mon Coeur” Côtes-du-Rhône AOP, Rhône Valley, France (Alcohol 14%) LCBO Vintages $21.95 (750ml bottle)
Definitely my favourite from the evening. This Negociant wine from esteemed producer Chave exhibited many elements that one would expect to find in a wine at twice the price. The nose is complex and layered, with lots of pronounced black cherry fruit wrapped up in woodsmoke, scrub herbs, and black pepper. Texturally the wine is quite astonishing, filling the mouth substantially, especially for what is ostensibly a medium-bodied mouth. Great balance of fruit and acidity, with supple tannins giving the wine a chocolate-like texture. Persistent finish. A real winner at $21.95.
2014 Guy Farge “Terroir de Granit” Saint-Joseph AOP, Rhône Valley, France (Alcohol 14%) LCBO Vintages $33.95 (750ml bottle)
Quite a departure from the previous reds, as this wine really wore its Syrah core on its sleeve, with loads of peppery dark fruits, a touch of bacon fat, and herbs. The palate was one of structure, markedly more austere than the previous reds, but with a black fruit component that makes the wine incredibly enjoyable, even with all of those tannins. Open for a good 30 minutes before serving.
(All scores are out of a possible five apples)
So let’s find out what our guests thought of the wines that we tasted throughout the evening, and the wines of the Rhône valley as a whole:
“These were really great food wines, ticking all the boxes: accessible, affordable, and generally very tasty. The wines would make for terrific everyday drinking wines as they exhibit such good value”
“The wines really impressed me for both their originality and authenticity, yet were very easy to enjoy, and very good value!”
Shawna Lee, Make-Up Artist :
“I was impressed by the reds, as I’m a red wine drinker, but these were [for the most part] lighter, and vibrant. They’d make a great introduction for someone who was usually a white wine drinker, as they were so easy to enjoy, both with and without food”
John C, IT:
“I didn’t know that there were so many types of wines from that region… so many different options… I’ll be picking up some wines from this region to have with a good meal this weekend… they were just so food friendly and perfect with the different foods we had tonight”
“We have a personal connection to Rhône wines as we honeymooned in the Rhône valley, so we buy them quite frequently… tonight my favourite was the Chave… that one was really special”
Dan Buganto, Turco Persian Rug Company:
“There’s something about the wines of the Rhône valley that just fit with our palates, as well as there being that emotional connection… and you can get some extremely good value for a reasonably modest price. Tonight I was most interested in learning about the history of the appellation”
Tara Mahoney, Writer:
“Before I came along tonight I didn’t really understand Côtes du Rhône taste-wise and how to pair it. I didn’t know that I could get affordable options like these at the LCBO. Tonight I learned that the Rhône is an incredibly diverse region. I love cooking, and I’ll often come across recipes on the internet that will recommend a Côtes du Rhône, and so I’ll get the Guigal red quite a bit, but after tonight I’ll be seeking out that white of theirs we tried. LOVED THAT”
Cam Finlayson, Marketing:
“To be honest, I didn’t know much about Rhône wines before coming here… but as far as the ones I have had tonight I am really quite excited about them. In particular I enjoyed the variety across the region. Really quite good!”
Jason Cowell, Marketing:
“French wines have always been my thing, particularly Burgundy and Rhône. They both tend to have a certain depth that I have an affinity for. What I found really interesting was the story about [in the 17th century] Rhône producers selling Grenache to Burgundy to boost their lighter Pinot Noir wines”
“Rhône wines are not usually the type of wine I would gravitate to because I don’t necessarily feel that I have the knowledge of that region, nor do my friends. I think that’s it’s something more from my British past, as in I think I would have been drinking more Rhône wines when I was in the UK. I guess we don’t see as much of them over here in Canada yet”
Greg Bolton, Marketing:
“I don’t really know a lot about wines, but I do enjoy Rhône wines and so do purchase them. Some are just amazingly underpriced and great value. I’ve also really enjoyed the variety that we have sampled tonight. It’s been really wonderful to sample across the region and see so many different styles of wines”
Sonia Hong, Video Producer:
“I didn’t know very much about the wines of the Rhône valley before tonight, but I learned a lot tonight, particularly about “garrigue” and that smell of the “blood of the stones” and it’s relation to terroir, and the multitude of different terroirs of this region, and how that makes these wines what they are”
“I found the use of white grapes in red wines fascinating (context: Saint-Joseph allowing for up to 10% Marsanne and Roussanne). The delightful thing about Rhône wines is how different wines from neighbouring vineyards can be due to their different microclimates”
“I was struck by just how fresh and balanced the Guigal white was – the weight and texture made it the perfect winter white. And all of the reds showed consistent quaffability and value”
Elliot Fox Drummond, The Hulk:
“I’m three! I like the stinky cheese and the mussels! Where’s Uncle Andres?”
In conclusion, I feel that the night of tasting and enjoying a range of inexpensive Rhône valley wines introduced most of the crowd to a region that they previously had little or no knowledge of, as there were certainly a lot of converts by the end of that evening. For those of us with a background/career in wine, I feel that revisiting the region reminded us of the stellar value that so many of these wines represent, and of the wide range of wine styles the region is capable of producing.
Whilst there are pricier examples of wines from the Rhône, particularly some of the appellations to the north, it’s at the $15 – $25 mark that these wines truly shine when it comes to price/value ratio.
It also became apparent that the crowd could appreciate these wines not only with a wide variety of dishes, but they were solid enough wines to have without. The inherent versatility of both the Côtes du Rhône (Rouge et Blanc) and the Costières de Nîmes were not lost upon this group, many being pleasantly surprised at the range of pairings we had arranged for them to experiment with.
A successful evening all round.
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… And that was an extremely fun evening.