I could spend a full week, even two in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and still not get to visit everyone I'd like. But at some point you have to head into the outlying appellations, where some very good wine is also being made. There's far more to the southern Rhône than just Châteauneuf-du-Pape - both in terms of quality and value. Many of the domaines working out in the other villages lack the prestige of those in Châteauneuf, but are equally committed to their craft. Many of their wines can be found in the $20 range, which these days is a popular price point versus $60 Châteauneuf...
I started with a drive to the village of Cairanne, where I stopped in at Domaine Alary. I was surprised when Denis Alary came out to say hello – I was slated to meet with his cellar hand Ludovic. But Alary’s previously scheduled vacation to Guadalupe had been cancelled because of the labor strife there.
“Eh, pas problem,” he said dismissively. “L’année prochaine.”
Alary, 47, farms 26 hectares, 19 in the appellation of Cairanne. He started at the domaine in 1989 and is the 10th generation to farm in the village. A painting of the family tree fills a wall in the tasting room.
Cairanne is a large, somewhat sprawling appellation in the Côtes du Rhône-Villages level of appellations, with vineyards that spread along the Les Garrigues plateau as well as up and over the hill that the town itself is situated on. There are dozens of growers in Cairanne, and the local co-op still represents the majority of the production here.
Alary has vineyards both along the plateau and spread over the white and blue clay parcels on the hillsides.
“There are lots of different soils in Cairanne,” said Alary. “The benefit being you can blend them together for complexity.”
Alary, who is converting to biodynamics, alternates between a charming smile and the classic disapproving gaze of an old-school farmer. As we pass a section of newly built row houses across the street from a parcel of vines he said, “We’re trying to keep the spirit of a village here, but it’s not easy these days.”
The domaine, which has been bottling its own wine since 1929, produces 10,000 cases annually and sends about 5 percent of its production to the U.S. market.
The Côtes du Rhône White La Chèvre d’Or 2007 is a stainless steel fermented blend of Clairette, Roussanne, Viognier and Bourboulenc which is then aged in barrel, none new, to produce a light, fresh peach, almond and honeysuckle filled wine. The Côtes du Rhône-Villages White Cairanne La Font d'Estévenas 2007 is made almost entirely from Clairette with a drop of Roussanne, and it’s very precise, with a stony spine and mouthwatering green almond and mineral notes.
For the reds, the house wine is the Vin de Pays de la Principauté d'Orange La Grange Daniel 2007, made from a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault, Counoise, Mourvèdre and Cabernet Sauvignon. Light and uncomplicated, its offers easygoing red berry fruit and a dusty finish. Moving up the quality scale is the Côtes du Rhône La Gerbaude 2007, made from an 80/20 blend of Grenache and Syrah, which offers very good pepper, red cherry and tobacco notes.
The reds here are generally destemmed 100 percent before fermentation in cement vats, with the higher cuvées then being aged in a mix of cement tank and foudre.
The Côtes du Rhône-Villages Cairanne 2007 blends parcels from the plateau and north-facing slopes on the top of the hill, combining Grenache, Syrah and Carignane. It shows a plump core of cherry and currant fruit turning to mesquite and mineral on the stylish finish, a trait that defines the house style here. The Côtes du Rhône-Villages Cairanne La Brunote 2007 combines Grenache and Carignane from the plateau with Mourvèdre from the white clay soils on top of the hill to produce a juicy, tightly framed raspberry and red currant-filled wine laced with lingering minerality. The Côtes du Rhône-Villages Cairanne La Font d'Estévenas 2007 blends Grenache and Syrah sourced from the white and blue clay soils on the warmer, south-facing slopes. Aged in a combination of cement vat and foudre, it offers gorgeous blueberry and violet notes backed by sanguine, white pepper and graphite hints that really stretch out the finish. Both it and the Côtes du Rhône-Villages Cairanne Le Jean de Verde 2007 are potentially outstanding. The latter is a blend of Grenache along with 10 percent Carignan, again from a combination of white and blue clay soils atop the hill which results in a mixed berry, briar and tobacco-filled wine, with a noticeably edgier finish than the La Font d'Estévenas. Both of the top red wines age nicely over a five-year period in bottle (in top vintages) proving that you needn’t pay high prices to stock a cellar with ageworthy wines (both cuvées retail for under $30).
When you’re out in the various Côtes du Rhône-Villages it's hard to cover a lot of ground in one day, and things are far more spread out than in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Knowing a good place to stop for lunch helps.
In Cairanne, check out La Tourne au Verre, located on a bend in the main street that runs through the center of town. Though the sun was shining and the stone patio was warm and inviting (with a few people taking their coffee or pastis) I was told that food could only be served inside. Ah, France.
Still, after ordering the menu du jour (14 euros for a snappy endive salad followed by a hearty slab of roast beef) and a bottle of the Domaine Les Aphillanthes Côtes du Rhône Mourvèdre 2003, the waitress performed the usual French trick of suddenly warming to my presence. By the end of the meal, I was invited to sit outside for an espresso. The wine list here is excellent—lots of local Cairanne producers along with top Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Rayas and more). Northern Rhône wines from Villard, Cuilleron, Gerin; Burgundy from Dauvissat and Comtes Lafon; an impressive Loire section full of Didier Dagueneau. About two-thirds of the list is available for sale to go as well.
After lunch, it was on to the emerging village of Vinsobres, which was elevated to its own appellation in 2005. Here you'll find Hubert Valayer running his Domaine de Deurre estate. Valayer must have a connection with Yves Gangloff from Côte-Rôtie somehow—the two have the ragged rock star look down cold. Valayer, 47, started his domaine in 1987. His father and grandfather had sold the grapes previously to the local co-op.
Housed in a nondescript concrete building along the main road from St.-Maurice to Vinsobres, the domaine produces 150,000 bottles annually from 40 hectares of vines, sending about 15 percent to the U.S. The wines are slightly rugged in feel, with good gutsy textures that meld nicely with moderate cellaring.
The Côtes du Rhône Les Oliviers 2007 is made from 30-year-old Syrah vines in both the St.-Maurice and Vinsobres villages, which share similar red clay soils, though Vinsobres is at a noticeably higher altitude, resulting in later ripening. The wine is destemmed and fermented in stainless steel before aging in used barrels. It’s spicy, with blackberry, violet and mesquite notes and a tangy finish. The Côtes du Rhône-Villages St.-Maurice 2007 is a 70/30 blend of Grenache and Syrah vinified and aged entirely in stainless steel, which delivers lots of lavender, tar and blackberry notes with a nice, smoky finish. The Vinsobres 2007 is a 70/20/10 blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, with blackberry, lavender, game and graphite notes that need a little time to settle down.
“Mourvèdre becomes a little more sauvage in Vinsobres,” said Valayer.
The Vinsobres Les Rabasses 2007, which combines 50-year-old Grenache vines with 10 percent Syrah, is plump and full-bodied, with briar, blackberry and pepper notes followed by a very juicy finish. Again, another relatively unheralded domaine whose wines typically retail for well under $30 and also beenfit from a few years of aging.
In addition, Valayer’s father is also one of the area’s biggest courtiers of truffles. When I mentioned I was sorry to have missed the Saturday morning truffle market in Richeranches, the area’s best truffle market, Valayer said, “Let’s go!” We drive about 15 minutes to an unidentified warehouse (I am sworn to secrecy and was blindfolded on the way). Just before entering, Valayer pauses at the door, takes a deep breath, and then leads me in. We are immediately bombarded by a nearly overwhelming aroma of truffles.
Some of you may remember my truffle meter from a previous trip. This one room alone would have single-handedly shattered the meter. Inside, elderly men are cleaning and sorting truffles. Over the course of 10 minutes, several large sacks of truffles arrive in an embarassing display of riches. After the rainy winter, it's been a bumper crop this year, though the season is now winding down. Check out the accompanying video for some of the sights and sounds. If only the video were in SMELL-O-VISION!
On the way back to my room at the end of the day, the smell of truffles wafts off of me, filling my car ... which is a good thing, since it offsets this Citroen Picasso that I'm stuck with, easily the worst car I’ve driven since the 1971 Plymouth Duster I had in college!