I’ll start by telling you this is my MOST FAVOURITE wine area ever. Seriously, if (when?) I were to win the lottery I would invest in so much of the beautiful wine from this region, alongside some top Champagnes, but I’ll come onto those in another post!
The Rhone Valley can be looked at in two parts – North and South. There are a few bits and pieces in the middle, including the very yummy Clairette de Die, but let’s not get distracted. From the South Rhone you get such lovelies as Cotes du Rhone and Chateauneuf du Pape, but again, that’s for another post.
The North Rhone is almost entirely planted to the Syrah grape. Syrah was long believed to have originated in the Iranian town of Shiraz, but in the late 90s a study in California found it to be the offspring of two other French grape varieties (Duereza and Mondeuse Blanche). Syrah is the name the grape goes under in France, and the Old World; while it is called Shiraz elsewhere.
So, when I win the lottery, what will I buy? Hermitage. Just so much Hermitage. This wine is all grown in a small area on the hill above the town of Tain l’Hermitage. It is made primarily from Syrah, but is permitted to also contain up to 15% of a mix of Roussanne and Marsanne (both white grapes). It is a wine that just blows your senses away, from the initial smell, through to the final end taste. And yes, I am straying into wine reverie and remembering tasting notes I have written over the years.
Just as a little aside, let me run through how to taste a wine properly:
Look – the first thing to do is to look at it in the glass. You can see if it’s past it by one quick look, so you can end up writing off a wine just from the first pour, if it’s been sitting in a wine rack a bit too long. Yep, if you pour a red wine and it comes out brick red, it’s probably past it. Back to my North Rhone wines, they should be a beautiful dark red, going to clear at the very edge of the wine.
Smell – next up you smell the wine. Put your nose right into the glass and get a good whiff (there’s a reason tasting samples are small, it’s so you don’t end up with a wet nose at this point!). With a Hermitage (and, for the purposes of generalisation, all the North Rhone red wines) you’ll find amazing smells of tobacco, pine, leather, smoke. Honestly, it’s just so beautiful.
Taste – at this point the aim is NOT to glug it, it’s to taste it. So take a small sip and hold it in the middle of your mouth, then breathe through it. Adding air will allow the wine to reach all your taste receptors and give you so many more flavours than you might have expected. Your Hermitage will give you flavours of blackberries, violet, spices.
If I were at a formal tasting, I would be jotting down these characteristics on every wine I taste. These big formal trade tastings that used to be a part of my life were a funny mix of older men in tweed and some of the younger wine merchants, all wandering around tasting in the order they choose, scribbling reminders so that when they get back to the office they know which to order and which to avoid. I used to find that people were very protective of their own notes, a bit like when, at primary school, you’d hide your work so the person next to you couldn’t copy!
Back to the real world, what does a North Rhone wine go well with? Well the immediate answer is lamb. Honestly, if there is a food-pairing made in heaven it’s Syrah and lamb. Early in my wine days I remember going for dinner with Dad, and we had a Crozes-Hermitage (from the same place, albeit a larger area and the next tier down of grape quality, so a bit more affordable) with a lamb dish. It was my first realisation of quite how much wine and food can compliment each other. If I tell you this was in 2000, so 17 years ago, you’ll understand what a big eye opener that meal was. There are a few other meals along the way that I’m sure I’ll refer to in these posts, that have given me the “aha” moment about different regions and food pairings. Dad has been present at many of them!
OK, so maybe you’ve never really explored the North Rhone as a region, maybe you’ve never really thought about smelling and tasting your wine, maybe you’ve stuck to the red with meat, white with fish (I’ll challenge that at some point, don’t worry) rule. This weekend, go and try a North Rhone wine. Be open minded when you smell it and jot down everything you can smell. Don’t think when you first taste it and note everything you can taste. I can only hope you’ll enjoy it a fraction of how much I do.
And to save you standing staring blankly in the red wine aisle here are some great wines to try (to suit various budgets, see why I need that lottery win now?):
Crozes Hermitage, Cave de Tain; Sainsburys – £8.50 a bottle
Crozes Hermitage “Petite Ruche” 2015, M.Chapoutier; Majestic Wine – £18.99 a bottle
Cornas, Jean Luc Columbo, Terres Brulees; Waitrose Wine Cellars – £34.99 a bottle
Hermitage, Jean-Louis Chave, Rouge 2011; Yapp Wines – £199 a bottle