The Rhone Decisions

Yesterday I tasted at least 100 wines. I’m the first to tell you that it got a bit out of hand, but I had known that a dozen wine reps have been waiting to see me, and I had been putting them off. I really did taste some fantastic wines in all price ranges.

One of the standouts was a collaboration of Yves Cuilleron, and Francois Villard, and Pierre Gaillard, all noted Northern Rhone producers. It began as a project in Vienne, the northern-most city in the Rhone Valley, with a population of around 30,000. Vienne was established in 47 AD, after Julius Caesar, defeated the the Helvetii tribe north of the Rhone a few years before.  As good Romans do, they planted vineyards, and began a nearly two thousand year history of viticulture in Vienne.  But when phylloxera wiped out most of the vineyards in France in the late 19th century, Vienne was one of the few regions that did not make a comeback.

For over a century, Vienne became farmland until wine makers in the 1990’s began to look there for inexpensive land to grow grapes.  Yves Cuilleron, the great Condrieu producer, takes credit for “having a feeling” that the area could make great wine. But high quality clearly should not have been a surprise. Vienne, with its long history of wine making, had its fame chronicled by the Roman scholar Pliny (23AD to 79 AD) who is still widely read today. As late as 1789, Rhone historian N.F. Cochard wrote, “The so famed Vienne’s wine under the Romans were harvested in Seyssuel.”   In Cochard’s time, Seyssuel, Vienne’s most famous vineyard, was planted on more than 100 ha (247 acres).  It is amazing, but here sat a historic wine region, laying fallow as pastureland.

Vienne sits on the east side of the Rhone river from Cote Rotie, in a narrow valley, where the hot winds accelerate as the hills come together. What was to become Les Vins de Vienne started there, specifically in the Seyssuel Vineyard, with 30 ha of Syrah and Viognier planted in Cote Rotie-like, schist soil. These vines have been tended organically, something that is favored by the region’s low humidity, and lack of vine disease, since few vines have existed there for the previous 130 years. Additionally, Les Vins de Vienne has purchased land as it has become available.   But in classic irony, none of the wines shown that day by the Angeles Wine Company,and Yves Cuilleron  himself, were from Vienne.  Here is this fascinating story of a forgotten wine region, and a modern winery built to revive

English: Modified version of Commons image Ima...

English: Modified version of Commons image Image:Rhone transit suspension.jpg to show the major cities, rivers and wine regions of the Northern Rhone Valley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 it, and the  sales pitch ends up like this:  Three well regarded winemakers started making negociant wines together.  Not so romantic.  The project had grown now to include selection from across the Rhone Valley. But let’s face it, people work to make money; it’s not about romance.

But all is not lost, because the whole line- up was stellar, negoc or not.  A non-appellated Rhone Viognier was lovely,  and beautifully fit the niche of a French Viognier that people can afford. At $21.99 this is a perfect wine; not Condrieu, but tasty nonetheless. Another white from a little known Northern Rhone village called “St Peray” had tremendous verve, singing with minerality, and rich Roussanne fruit. I ordered both. The reds were excellent. The Cote du Rhone Rouge, being 60% Grenache, was surprisingly cool in its fruit, with the 30% Syrah dominating. My sales floor has too many Cote du Rhones, but this was particularly unique. There were a pair of Croze Hermitages and St Josephs, one from each a blend of vineyards, and the other a single estate wine called Les Archevêques (the Archbishop) all excellent. The Croze and St Joseph were similar, the Croze was all spice, some meatiness, and subtle fruit, where the St Joseph had a blanket of fruit over its bones. Which one to buy was a toss-up, both were superb, but I try to offer more producers in a given price category, and Croze and St Joseph cost the same (around $25), and both all Syrah, from neighboring appellations in the Northern Rhone. I opted for the fruitier St Joseph since my customers, with their predominantly California palates, might not like such a cool fruited, briary, meaty, wine like this savory, Croze-Hermitage.

The Consumer is Trying to Tell Us Something

The single-estate wines from Vin de Vienne were simply too expensive for my store at close to $50. In fact, there seems to have been an unspoken revolt among wine drinkers, that $35 and above is too expensive for Rhone wine in general. I have heard this now from importers as well. I have 10 Chateauneuf-du-Papes, none of which are selling more than a couple bottles per month. What do you do, not have a selection of Chateauneuf?  Cote Roties like Jean Michel Stephan at $50 to $60 aren’t selling well, even with their high scores. That Rostaing and Jasmin are asking $80 wholesale for their entry-level wholesale for around $80 putting a full retail at $100 for discounters and full retail at $120, makes me wonder if they are selling at all.

Enter the Rhone Super Cuvees

There is no contesting that the wines coming from the Rhone are better than they ever have been. Not only are the wines better than they were 15 years ago, but producers are now separating out their best blocks, particularly of old vine Grenache and making super-cuvees. These bottlings can be sought after by collectors, but this gambit was most successful when there were only a few of these reserve wines, like the Beaucastel Hommage de Perrin, the Les Cailloux Cuvee Centennaire, and the perhaps the most rare, Henri Bonneau’s Cuvee Celestine. Today, every good Domaine makes a grand cuvee, and invariably they are superb and get great scores. But simply the multitude of them, all with 93 to 95 points, makes them inherently less special, and can be quite expensive. Where does this leave the regular Chateauneuf-du-Papes with their $40 price tags and their 90-92 point scores? Certainly they have had some of the best wine removed from them, and ultimately for what?

The glut of great vintages, 2005 (a big vintage,) 2007 (a big vintage) 2009 (a big vintage) 2010, (a smaller vintage) has left a glut of overpriced wines. At the wholesale level there was a lot of hype about the 2009 vintage. The importers were saying they were selling out, and if we, the retailers didn’t commit early, we were going to get left out in the cold. The wines were poured, and indeed they were of great intensity, maybe too intense. But I was buying well scored 2007 Chateauneufs at reduced prices (below the prices of the 2009’s that were being offered) and 2007 is, I believ, to be the better of the two vintages.  I felt pressured. I didn’t want to miss out, but my gut was telling me to be careful. I ordered lightly, just a couple of cases of a few well-known, or undeniably delicious wines. I ordered too much, which just didn’t seem possible. The fact was that while importers were selling out of everything they could get, the retailers were, for the most part, just sitting on the wines. The public didn’t seem to know about the hype at all.

For the 2010s, I felt the wines were for the most part, stronger, with their leaner frames and purer fruit. I was still sitting on at least half of the 2009s I had bought, and really didn’t need any more.  The beauty of the pre-sale is it forces the buyer to project not only how much of a vintage they think they can sell, but how much floor-space will be available when the wine finally arrives three to six months later. It is rare that a buyer under-buys. Because the fear of missing the next big public need for a particular wine, a buyer almost always overestimates how quickly stock on the floor will sell, and over-estimates how much of the new vintage they will need to meet demand.

For 2010, I ordered less than half than the small amount of 2009 I had ordered. I think this time I might have gotten it right. Demand was light, but there was a little demand, or should I say interest.The reality is, with the exception of a couple of wines that always are sought after by at least a few diehards, there is more than enough excellent wine available locally to fill any need a retailer might have.

Bill Clinton said it best, “The Economy, Stupid.”

 Most people just don’t have as much money to spend on high-end wine anymore. Everything else is so expensive: Gas has doubled, food has doubled, health care has exploded in price, while it covers less and less. Something has to give, and the first thing on the list is wine. When wine with a limited base of enthusiasts like Chateauneuf-du-Pape doubles in price in a decade, people turn to more affordable options. Something has to give, and there is no more glaring example than Rhone wines above $40.

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