AC…A OK: The Rhone’s newest Appellation
This article was originally published in Imbibe Magazine. It has been reprinted it here in its original full length form
It’s a daunting feeling on the final day of a press trip to come face to face with a table of over 50 red wines all waiting for you to assess their worth. This is especially the case in mid-November when at home in Britain the cold dead hand of winter has the country well and truly in its clutches, yet here in France’s southern Rhone, the warming glow of the sun taunts and teases from outside the window. Plus, let’s face it, the Rhone isn’t exactly known for making delicate and refreshing wines suitable for a warm day.
Imagine my delight then when I put the first sip of the first wine to my lips and a wave of pure juicy red forest berries washes over my tongue. Then comes the acid, bouncy and fresh, followed by Mediterranean herbs—mint and thyme. It’s as if the very same sun shining out my window has carried on its rays the fields it shines upon and transferred them into my glass.
I taste the second wine. More sunshine. But this time it’s carried with it raspberries, strawberries, and violets, and that same freshness with a touch of meaty savouriness, reminding me that I am only a stone’s throw away from the most famous appellation in the southern Rhone, Châteauneuf du Pape.
The rest the first half of the tasting renders equivalent results. They are all unoaked 2011s (the oak-aged wines from this vintage hadn’t been released yet). They show individuality, but with a line of rustic juicy fruit freshness running uniformly through them. I can hardly remember such an enjoyable line up of glugworthy bottles of pure pleasure.
The region is Rasteau, a small village surrounded by vineyards only a half hour’s drive northeast of Châteauneuf du Pape. Like its famous neighbour, and indeed many of the world’s great wine regions, it is blessed with old vines, interesting soil, and plenty of sun.
Propped onto rolling hills ranging from 30-320 metres above sea level and facing the Dentelles de Montmirail mountains (‘It means “teeth”…or “ladies’ sexy underwear”,’ my guide Aude tells me blushing), Rasteau’s vineyards face south-south west and therefore receive no shortage of sunshine. This positioning also means they’re well protected from the Mistral, or the northern winds that sweep through the Rhone, whilst till receiving enough of a breeze to keep away those unwanted fungal and pest problems, allowing many producers to work organically and biodynamically.
When it comes to soil, Rasteau is all about water-storing, nutrient-absorbing clay, with some of the highest concentrations in the Rhone. It ranges in colour from red to blue to yellow to a bit of white, with galets (round stones) covering the surfaces.
As in most of the southern Rhone, grenache is king. A variety resistant to wind and drought, it’s happy as a clam on Rasteau’s exposed, dry hillsides. Vines are typically old, even by Rhone standards, averaging around 50 years with plenty closer to 100 years old, thereby producing low quantities of gorgeously complex and balanced fruit from their knarly twisted vines. A more recent arrival in Rasteau, syrah is also a firm fixture, adding spice and colour to the mix. Mourvèdre, a grape that struggles to ripen in nearby regions, does exceptionally well in Rasteau, bringing tannin and structure to wines occasionally accused of flabbiness. Because the climate is Mediterranean but with contentinal influence, the grapes tend to mature 10-14 days later than their famous Châteauneuf neighbours, but retain wonderful levels of acidity.
Yet despite Rasteau making some of most affordable, restaurant-friendly ‘drink now’ reds in the Rhone, it is a region little known outside and inside the wine industry.
Hopefully this will change, and that’s because Rasteau is France’s newest appellation. After two decades of struggle to elevate its dry reds from Côtes du Rhône Villages status, Rasteau was finally granted its own appellation in 2010.
‘We see it as a reward for a job already done by producers here over the last few decades, both the single estates and the cooperatives together,” says Alexis Cornu, technical director of Ortas Cave de Rasteau, one of the region’s main cooperatives. ‘But being granted appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) status should be treated as encouragement to make even better wines.’
While most producers see AOC status as being a positive thing for their wineries, some of the new rules are being questioned. One of Rasteau’s most adventurous producers, Jerome Bressy, owner of Domaine Gourt de Mautens, was forced to leave the AOC because of his use of native grape varieties, now permitted as only 15% or less of the final blend. Bressy accused the AOC of ‘standardising’ Rasteau’s wines by requiring them to be made with at least 50% grenache, and then at least 20% of syrah and mourvèdre, leaving little room for indigenous varieties like picardan, picpoul, counoise, and cinsault.
The effect the new AOC regulations will have both on Rasteau’s viticulture and its notoriety internationally will not likely become clear for several years.
‘Rasteau’s new AOC gives it a chance to forge a new identity in the same way that Gigondas has’, says Bidendum head wine buyer Andrew Shaw. ‘It will take time to develop though. After all Gigondas received its AOC forty years before Rasteau.’ Andrew added, ‘I put more emphasis on the skills and attitude of the person in the vineyard than the AOC on the label.’
This outlook seems to ring true in the UK on trade as well, with the sommeliers I spoke to insisting they were more focused on the merits of the individual producer, perhaps because the pitfalls of the current AOC system are being brought more frequently to light.
The winemakers of Rasteau are no strangers to operating under AOC regulations. Like their neighbours in Beaumes de Venise, Rasteau have been making dessert wines for centuries, and in 1944 gained AOC status for their Vin Doux Naturel (VDN), made most often with grenache of varying colours, picked late in the season and fortified with neutral spirit. Tawny VDN, like Tawny Port (but lighter bodied) can be a delicious drop with citrus or caramel desserts and aged nutty cheeses.
In its more rustic rouge form, Rasteau VDN often exudes rich dark fruits, chocolate, and spices. Marc-Andréa Lévy, the head sommelier at Angela Hartnett’s Murano in London lists a few Rasteau on his extensive wine menu. By the glass, Lévy pours Domaine du Trapadis VDN. He says, ‘It’s a great pairing with chocolate and mint or cherries, cheese (washed & blue), and mainly at end of the meal. The sweetness is very well balanced by a good acidity which gives a good refreshing lift.’
The most common style of red wine in Rasteau (the occasional white wine can be found but the Rasteau AOC is solely for dry red), are the traditional oak-aged reds, which embody the classic meaty, robust characteristics so associated with southern Rhone reds, and easily able to compete with their more famous neighbours. Lévy pairs them with, ‘meaty pasta dishes, hazelnut and radicchio, or any other lighter red meat main course.’
But stylistically, I think it’s Rasteau’s extremely well priced unoaked reds that stand out from the crowd, representing the way most people today drink reds—young, fresh, and with or without food. They scream to be served bistrot-style, slightly chilled from a carafe or straight into a stemless glass alongside slippery slices of cured meat or charred grilled peppers. Rather bafflingly, wines from top producers like Domaine des Coteaux des Travers, Domaine des Escaravailles, and Domaine Notre Dame des Pallieres are all imported into the UK (by Big Red Wine/Wine Society, Wine Growers Direct, and Bibendum respectively) yet are to be found no where in Britain’s restaurant and bar circuit. A crying shame if you ask me, and in need of remedying.
It’s hard to predict whether becoming a part of France’s AOC certification system will place Rasteau more prominently on Britain’s wine stage. But I truly hope it does, for these wines deserve to be gracing many more menus around the country. After all, if we can’t get real sunshine here in Britain, we’ll have to get it from our glass.
Domaine Gourt de Mautens, Jerome Bressy 2007 (listed at Murano, supplied by Vine Trail) (grenache, carignan, mourvèdre, shiraz, counoise, cinsault, vaccarèse, terret)
From biodynamic vineyards many of which are nearing 100 years old, you can almost taste the vines’ age in the glass. Complex and concentrated, earthy, with layers of dark fruit, chocolate, and menthol spice. At Murano it’s paired with game dishes like pheasant, venison, smoked pear and rosemary purée, and pancetta and wild mushrooms.
Domaine La Soumade 2010 (listed at Galvin restaurants and The Wolseley, supplied by Thomas Hunt, Berry Bros & Rudd) (80% grenache, 10% syrah, 10% mourvèdre)
Ripe black cherries and raspberries, a whiff of something meaty, with those warming Mediterranean spices and big chewy tannins ready for some serious ageing and/or a slab of rare red meat. (Their red dessert wine is also a stunner!)
Domaine du Trapadis Vin Doux Naturel 2010 (listed at Balthazar, Galvin bistrot, The Wolseley and Murano, supplied by Vine Trail)
From another biodynamic producer, this red sticky ain’t shy. Its concentrated heady aromas of raisins and dark chocolates turns into blackberry jam on the palate, but it’s got a refreshing lift that makes it better WITH dessert than ON it.
The Talk from the Trade:
‘Rasteau is one of our favourite wine regions for our restaurants; the wines offer extremely good value for money compared to other appellations in the Rhone and that’s why guests love them so much. Rasteau’s style and versatility are second to none, offering spicy and meaty notes without the weight and alcohol of most of the other wines. The wines are easy to drink but always carry with them good personality and character. Guests know the appellation Rasteau very well and feel rather comfortable in buying something they trust.’ – Andrea Briccarello, head sommelier, Galvin Restaurants
‘We struggle to sell Rasteau wines because people don’t understand what they are or where Rasteau is. People are going more conservative in their drinking habits and moving back into comforts zones, and Rasteau is very outside this. So we play the wine rather than the AOC card. We sell the winemakers’ identity.’ – Richard Rotti, Wine Buyer, Birley Group & Caprice Holdings, Balthazar restaurant
“Rasteau is a great example of an appellation that offers brilliant quality and very fair prices but is still tricky to sell. The sad fact is a generic Châteauneuf will always be easier to sell that a top domaine in Rasteau for a similar price. But the wines sell very well to customers like sommeliers who can hand-sell explain the story behind the wines.’ –Andrew Shaw, head buyer, Bibendum