When I first visited the Rhône Valley wine regions in the 1970s, the wines were hardly known outside France.
When I first visited the Rhône Valley wine regions in the 1970s, the wines were hardly known outside France. The notable exception was Châteauneuf-du-Pape – which was often packaged in asymmetrical rustic-looking bottles (many of which landed up on restaurant tables as candle-stick holders). The producers weren't accustomed to trade visits, and as a result they were wonderfully hospitable. I once arrived unannounced at a small cellar in Châteauneuf and in very little time there were ten or fifteen different wines open for me to sample. As I was chatting to the winemaker his father arrived, and suggested we should look at some of their more mature wines. So they opened a couple of bottles from the 1950s, then a few from the 1940s, and finally he emerged with one from his very first vintage – the 1926, produced even before the regulations for the Châteauneuf-du-Pape (the first area in France to enjoy Appellation Contrôlée status) had been promulgated. It came with a bit of an anecdote: he said that when he made it he knew it would be great wine, but that it would need time, so he laid down what he thought would be a large enough stockpile to see him through the years. “Now that it's fifty years old,” he said, “it's perfect. The only problem is that now I don't have too many bottles, and I don't think I have that many years left either.”
Once Robert Parker started to write about Rhône wines (which would have been in the early 1980s) they began to regain the popularity they enjoyed in the 19th century. With this re-discovery of the region, prices of course have risen. However, compared with the better known appellations of Bordeaux and Burgundy, they represent unimaginable value. Even today, the highest profile wines remain great buys while wines from the lesser known regions can be simply extraordinary. The first single vineyard Hermitage I imported retailed for about R6-00 per bottle. The legendary 1961 Hermitage La Chapelle from Jaboulet would have cost less than that on release, so the current price of over R250 000 represents a great return on investment – if you had been prescient enough to buy it, and then puritanical enough to have resisted consuming every last bottle.
The Rhône Valley appellations divide neatly into a northern section a little south of the town of Lyon, pretty much dominated by Syrah for red wines and Marsanne and Rousanne for whites, and the southern section, closer to Avignon and the Mediterranean, where traditionally Grenache and Mourvèdre hold sway. Probably because the Southern Rhône was once considered a source of cheaper, easier to drink reds, the North enjoys the lion's share of the prestige: Hermitage (red and white) Côte Rôtie, Condrieu, Château Grillet command the highest prices, though the top cuvées from the great Châteauneuf estates have pretty much caught up. Still a little thoughtful shopping around, yields an endless treasure trove of discoveries. In the south there are single estate Côtes du Rhônes: Domaine Allegret Laudun selling for R145 - while the Coudoulet from Beaucastel, produced from a vineyard separated by a gravel road from the legendary Châteauneuf-du-Pape estate, and offered at R395 is a more delicate version of the great wine at a fraction of the price.
In the north the choice is endless: away from the mainstream appellations there are the two Ogier cuvées – the Syrah and Viognier from their La Rosine vineyards – as well as a host of wines from Guigal (whom Parker has described as “the greatest winemaker on the planet”) such as his Crozes-Hermitage and St Joseph. However, for special occasions the truly great wines are not unaffordable: Guigal Côte Rôtie costs R995 - a fraction of what you would pay for a bottle of Chambertin or Lafite.