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A Marathon Rhone Valley Wine Tasting and Beyond

Posted on | April 1, 2010 | Written by Chris Deas | 1 Comment

This blog post was co-authored by Chris Deas and Rob Allen

On the evening of March 25th, a group of ten wine enthusiasts gathered at IWM for a blind tasting of wines from France’s Rhone Valley, the 125-mile stretch between the ancient Roman city of Vienne (just south of Lyon) and Avignon.  We enjoyed a collection of 21 wines from both our guests and the IWM cellar that not only covered the Rhone, but ventured out to the neighboring regions of Languedoc and Roussillon, and we also sampled some outliers from the Loire Valley, Rioja, McLaren Vale and Toscana.  Ironically, it was these outliers—specifically the 2006 Grange des Peres, a 1990 Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia Rioja Blanco Riserva, and a 1998 d’Arenberg The Dead Arm Shiraz—that were the surprise wines of the night, but they weren’t without controversy.  However, when a lineup includes four selections from Jean-Louis Chave, Chapoutier’s Hermitage “Le Meal,” and multiple vintages of Chateauneuf from Chateau Beaucastel, the surprises are not necessarily the highlights.  This was an event where every bottle in the line-up performed, and the food prepared by Chef Kevin Sippel showed each flight to its best, course after course.

The following is the wine and food list by flight, followed by a consensus of how each wine performed.  For the event preparations, we opened the red wines at 1pm and briefly tasted through the line-up. They remained aerating (using the slow-o method, where the cork is removed, as well as a small portion of the wine, to provide slow oxygenation into the bottle).  Each bottle was double decanted at 4:00pm with a two-ounce pour prepared thirty minutes before each flight.   The dinner began at 7:00pm and finished at 10:45pm.

It should also be mentioned that in a decade of tastings at IWM, this was one of the most knowledgeable groups we had the privilege of sharing wine and conversation with; it was an education for both sides of the event.  We would like to thank Rick and Ellen, Tom and Binny, Jonathan and Stacey, and Rick and Lee Ann for their insight, wines and conversation.

Wine List of the Evening

1. JL Chave St Joseph Blanc Celeste 2007

(St. Joseph – Marsanne)

Antipasti – Flight One

2. 1996 Chateau Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc

(Chateauneuf-du-Pape – Roussanne, Grenache Blanc)
3. 2001 Vieux Telegraphe Chateauneuf du Pape “La Crau” Blanc

(Chateauneuf-du-Pape – Clairette, Grenache, Roussanne)
4. 2005 Betts & Scholl Hermitage Blanc

(Hermitage – Roussanne, Marsanne)
5. 1990 Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia Blanco Reserva

(Rioja – Viura, Malvasia, Garnacho Blanco)

Fish – Flight Two
Roasted Black Cod with Mussels in a Tomato and Bean Guazzetto

6. 2001 Chateau Grillet Vin Blanc

(Condrieu (Grillet) – Viognier)
7. 2007 Matassa Matassa Blanc

(Roussillon – Grenache Gris, Maccabeu)
8. 2005 Chateau Grillet Vin Blanc

(Condrieu (Grillet) – Viognier)

9. 2001 Chave Hermitage Blanc

(Hermitage – Marsanne, Roussanne)

Pasta – Flight Three
Pacherri Verdi with Frog Legs and Creamy Garlic
10. 1998 Domaine De La Janasse, Cuvée Vieilles Vignes

(Chateauneuf-du-Pape – Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre)
11. 1998 Château de Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape Rouge

(Chateauneuf-du-Pape – Mourvèdre, Grenache, Syrah, Counoise)
12. 1999 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape Rouge

(Chateauneuf-du-Pape – Mourvèdre, Grenache, Syrah, Counoise)
13. 2006 Domaine Grange des Peres Rouge

(Roussillon – Mourvedre, Syrah, Cabernet, Counoise)
14. 2004 Francois Villard St. Joseph Gran Reflet
(St. Joseph – Syrah)

Meat – Flight Four
Roasted Duck with Marsala, Foie Gras and Roasted Porcini Mushrooms
15. 2005 Betts & Scholl Hermitage
(Hermitage – Roussanne, Marsanne)
16. 1991 Chave Hermitage

(Hermitage – Syrah)

17. 1996 Chapoutier “Le Meal” Hermitage

(Hermitage – Syrah)
18. 1998 d’Arenberg “The Dead Arm” Shiraz

(McLaren Vale – Syrah)
19.  2006 Le Macchiole Scrio

(Toscana – Syrah)

Cheese – Flight Five
Selection of Italian Cheeses
20. 1990 Chave Vin de Paille

(Hermitage – Marsanne)
21. 1990 Huet L’Echansonne Vouvray Moelleux Haut Lieu 1er Trie

(Loire Valley – Chenin Blanc)

Flight One – Roussane Meets Viognier, and Viura?
There was definitely a split decision in this flight; the women favored the ripe and robust 2005 Betts & Scholl Hermitage Blanc, while the men preferred the 2001 Vieux Telegraphe “La Crau” Blanc with great citrus and chalky minerality.  It should be noted that the Betts & Scholl includes grapes from the iconic Jean-Louis Chave, making this 400 case production an extra special find here.  However, the surprise in this flight would certainly go to the 1990 Lopez de Heredia Blanco—just one guest pegged this for Rioja, while everyone else was thinking Southern France.  The wine showcased dried fruit with a citrus streak of acidity, complemented by a long, nutty finish.  To find a twenty-year-old white from the legendary Rioja traditionalist and a wine of this age and caliber for under $50 ($45 at IWM) is truly amazing.

Flight Two – Northern Whites with a Southern Twist
The clear winner, and perhaps the white wine of the evening, was the 2001 Chave Hermitage Blanc.  All the components of the wine here are amplified—high alcohol, lush fruit, waxy texture, but somehow the wine comes together and works in perfect harmony, offering quite a spectrum of flavors: honey, tropical fruit, minerality, brioche and nuts all supported by a subtle streak of acidity you don’t expect to find here. While the Chave was the highlight, perhaps the most surprising and talked about wine of the flight was the Vin de Pays des Cotes Catalanes from Matassa, made from a unique combination of Grenache Gris and Maccabeu. This little white from the Roussillon presented a lively offering, with surprising acidity and minerality, from this region of France.  Aromatically few whites matched this wine.  This is an ideal accompaniment for antipasti and cured meats.

Flight Three – A Roussillon Red Challenges Chateauneuf du Pape:
The table was split across this flight.  Two surprises here were the special release 2004 Villard St. Joseph Gran Reflet and the cult-like Grange des Peres from the 2006 vintage; both favorite selections provided by Rob.  While the Villard offered the most immediate enjoyability, the Grange des Peres was the wine of structure for the evening, presenting a dense profile of dark fruit and roasted meats, enveloped with a firm tannic grip.  While some enthusiasts will favor the 2007 release of this wine for its concentration, we believe this may be the best Grange des Peres to date; it’s a wine of longevity and will benefit from more cellaring and aeration.  On the other end of the tasting spectrum were the bigger, more earthy-driven Chateauneufs of Beaucastel.  And while the weighty, critically acclaimed Beaucastel 1998 drew immediate applauses from the group, Chris, Rick and Binny embraced the acidity from the leaner 1999 vintage; we all felt this was another great example of how an overshadowed vintage delivers.

Flight Four – Hermitage Syrah Meets Aussie Shiraz Meets Super Tuscan Syrah:
This round divided the group, with the 1996 Chapoutier Hermitage “le Meal” slightly edging out the iconic Chave Hermitage from 1991.  Ironically, many confused the two for one another when tasting the wines blind.  The Chave, however, showed more restraint and structure, while the Chapoutier provided softer elegance and approachability. While these were the highlights, it was the #4 wine in this flight that caused the most debate of the evening.  When the d’Arenberg Shiraz was served blind, guests had this wine pegged as French and praised the wine for its complexity and tertiary flavors; when the wine was unveiled, the hardened Europhiles (Chris and Rob included) retreated back as they were astonished to learn that the wine they were enjoying was Australian Shiraz. This was atypical take from Down Under, a true delight to experience.  On a side note, when we opened this wine at 1:00pm, it displayed super concentration, a great example of what proper aeration can do for this varietal.

Flight Five – A Rare and Different Take from Jean-Louis Chave:
The 1990 Chave Vin de Paille was a momentous wine, by far the rarest and one of the most interesting dessert wine we’ve experienced, ranking up there with Quintarelli’s 1990 Bianco Amabile.  And similar to the method in which Quintarelli would make his Recioto della Valpolicella, Chave resurrected an old Hermitage technique to produce his Marsanne based Vin de Paille (“straw wine”) in miniscule quantities.  This technique includes the drying of whole grape clusters on straw mats for more than two months.  During this time the grapes lose much of their initial water weight, dramatically concentrating their sugar content. The raisinated grapes are then crushed and fully fermented into a heady and robust wine.  For Chave, this uninterrupted fermentation period can take five years – unheard of in the industry.  The result was nothing short of exotic: a collision of ripe apricot and peach, accented with honey and butterscotch for a finish that seemed to last for minutes. This was truly special experience and for select vintages, just two barrels of this wine is produced.


One Response to “A Marathon Rhone Valley Wine Tasting and Beyond”

  1. Rick Simonson
    April 17th, 2010 @ 5:26 am

    Chris and Rob, thanks for capturing the evening in words – an evening of fantastic enjoyment and discovery. Was great to see the whites were every bit as capitvating and impressive as the reds – normally not the case at these kind of tastingas and certainly quite a feat given the red line-up. I think I may have even gotten Jonathan agree!

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