“Like it?” I asked, my standard question to Nancy when I pour her a wine. I always serve the wines blind, not as trickery, but to ensure an honest opinion.
“A lot,” she said, with a big smile before issuing her usual response: “How much?”
“Under $30 when you buy by the case,” I said.
“Well, why don’t we just buy a ton of it and make it our new house wine? It’s not white Burgundy, but it’s the next best thing.”
The wine was a Pierre Gonon St.-Joseph White Les Oliviers 2006. I’ve liked the Gonon wines for years, but they’re not imported into the U.S.—at least that’s what I thought until I received an e-mail offering for them last week. Surprised, I grabbed a half-case of both the 2006 white and the red. Seems the retailer got the gumption to have the wines brought in just for them. Good call.
And Nancy made a good call too: White Northern Rhônes are the next best thing to white Burgundies, and at far more palatable prices. The Marsanne/Roussanne blends (percentages can vary widely from producer to producer, while some are 100 percent of one or the other variety) from St.-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage and St.-Péray have a creamy, seductive mouthfeel and offer a range of bright floral, stone and tropical fruit flavors, all backed by a bright minerality.
Though some of the top producers, such as M. Chapoutier, E. Guigal, Yves Cuilleron, André Perret and François Villard tend to hit upwards of $50 a bottle for their wares, there are numerous outstanding versions in the $30 range. Look for Domaine Chèze, Ferraton Père & Fils, Les Vins de Vienne and Bernard Gripa among others (and yes, Gonon too if you can find it).
As for making it the new house wine, I’m already way ahead of Nancy. St.-Josephs in particular have become my buy-by-the-case wine for short- and medium-term consumption. The 2006 Gonon red shows textbook Northern Rhône Syrah notes of violet, cocoa powder and plum fruit with a silky finish while the white is round and pure, with white peach and chamomile notes followed by a stony finish. Both are easily outstanding in quality and match well with a range of food (flank steak grilled over bourbon barrel wood chips with the red; soft-shell crabs pan-roasted with a red pepper and jalapeño sauce with the white).
Stylistically, the Gonon wines are traditional in vein, but enlivened with a modern sense of freshness and purity. Versions from Gilles Robin (his 2006 St.-Joseph Cuvée André Péalat is a beauty), Eric & Joël Durand, Domaine Courbis, Philippe Faury, Vincent Paris and Jean-Louis Chave are in the same school, while more hypermodern-style bottlings, with fleshier, riper fruit flavors and darker, toasty nuances, are made by Tardieu-Laurent, Pierre et Jérôme Coursodon, Pierre Gaillard and St.-Cosme.
Of course name recognition plays a large part in pricing. Expect to see the $40 to $50 tag on the better-known producers, while the $30-and-under range can offer some great cherry picking options for savvy buyers less concerned with whose name is on the label.
While the 2005 Northern Rhônes reds offer density and structure for cellaring, the 2006 vintage offers even more immediate, up-front appeal. For the whites, 2006 is a superb vintage, with the density of 2005 and the aromatic complexity of 2004. In general, I find most St.-Josephs (and Crozes-Hermitage) can be drunk in their first three to five years of life, though fans of older wines can always hold on to them longer assuming a proper cellar environment.
Now, when Nancy said "a ton," I wonder exactly how many cases she meant ...