France’s Southern Rhone – soaked in wine history

As far back as the Greeks and Romans, the great Rhone river has been a route of cultural and commercial dispersal, bringing new people and practices to what some would consider an ideal climate.  Certainly, grape vines took to the dry, wind-swept plains and hills of the south.  Over the centuries, the wine industry evolved to produce some of the great wines of the world—Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Vacqueyras, Gigondas, among others. Last month, I had the pleasure of visiting wineries near the historic cities of Orange and Avignon in Provence, France.  Perfectly timed, some of the wines that I enjoyed are following me back to Ontario as they will be in the November 21 LCBO Vintages release.

Chateau de Beaucastel, owned by the Perrin family since 1909, is one of the largest single properties in Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  It was granted to Pierre de Beaucastel by Louis the XIV and has remained an intact estate to the present.  The Perrin family acquired the property just after phylloxera had devastated the area.  Undeterred, their son Jacques began replanting all 13 grape varieties authorized in the appellation.  The family believes firmly that a blend of varietals produces the best wines in the southern Rhone.

Over the years, they became convinced “that to produce a great wine, the vine must grow in as natural a way as possible.”  Consequently, they have been certified organic growers since 1994, but have been growing their grapes organically since the mid-1960s.  Amazingly, all work in the vineyard is done by hand.  And this approach applies to their other vineyards in the southern Rhone in such appellations as Gigondas, Vinsobres, Cairanne, etc.   Grandmother Perrin still lives in the house on the property, and a family member is directly involved in the management of each of their primary vineyards, including La Vieille Ferme and the property across the highway from Beaucastel, where the Perrin wines are produced. 

 There are some unique processes at Beaucastel.  For instance, Jacques patented a process by which, after destemming, the grapes are sent through pipes which quickly heat them to 70C and then cool them to 20C.  This process destroys the enzymes which cause oxidization, therefore eliminating the use of sulfites at this stage.  Syrah and Mourvedre grape varieties – they use a large percentage – are fermented in large oak tanks, while the other 11 varieties ferment in cement tanks.  All the varietals begin aging together in large casks rather than small barriques, “in order to provide an exchange between air and wine without adding further tannins from the wood.”  In February, the five members of the family get together to begin tasting the wines from the varieties in order to determine the proportion of each grape to be used to make the final blends.  The wine finishes aging as a blend and spends at least one year in bottle prior to sale.

We popped the corks in the tasting room with the outstanding 2007 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape, a blend of 30% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 6% Syrah, complemented by the remaining 8 varietals of the appellation (a secret that is kept close to their chest!).  The wine displayed fresh ripe fruit, complexity, structure and power (acclaimed wine critic Robert Parker rates the wine 93-95+).  It will be available at the LCBO Vintages as of November 21, 2009 (LCBO product code #711317, $89.95).  Consider it a special purchase for that special occasion in the future.

Among the other wines we had the pleasure of tasting were the 1998 and 1990 vintages of the Chateau de Beaucastel, as well as  the Roussanne Vieilles Vignes 2007, produced with grapes from 85-year-old vines, aged 50% in barrel – a subtle, aromatic, beautiful full-bodied white wine. 

For those who love well-crafted wines made with integrity, Perrin offers a range to meet the tastes and pocketbook of every wine lover – from the great Chateau de Beaucastel through to the Perrin Reserve or Perrin Nature (certified organic), and on to their brand, La Vieille Ferme.  Available in Vintages on November 21 is the Perrin & Fils Cotes du Rhone-Villages l’Andeol Rasteau 2007 (LCBO product code #976845, $19.95).   How to best enjoy these wines?  These are food wines, of course, and best enjoyed with friends and a great meal!

Not far from Chateau de Beaucastel, I stopped in to visit Domaine Galevan, a small property near Courthezon owned by the Goumarre family.  Daughter Coralie, is the first woman in the family to be winemaker.  She works with her father and, judging from his grudging admiration and his wife’s slight shrug of the shoulders, there are lively discussions between them about both grape growing and winemaking!  At the time of my visit, Coralie was away picking up her children from school, but her mother mentioned that while wineries around them had already harvested their grapes, Coralie insisted that they be left a bit longer on the vine.  A shake of the head from her father; nevertheless, said he, you can’t argue with success!  Coralie’s 2007 Paroles de Femme Cotes du Rhone  will also be available in the LCBO Vintages this weekend, product code #125930, $15.00. It is a full-bodied fruity blend of Grenache, Mouvedre, Cinsault and Carignan grapes, with hints of the wonderful herbs of the garrigue.  It flew off the Vintages shelves in June, and will no doubt do so again – don’t miss out!

I also had the pleasure of visiting the Domaine de la Presidente near Ste-Cecile-les-Vignes.  This small domaine produces wines within the appellations of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Cairanne and Cotes du Rhone, some of which are available through the SAQ (look for the Galifay Cairanne, the Nonciature Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and the Cairanne Cotes du Rhone Villages).  Their Galifay Blanc 2007, a blend of Viognier and Grenache Blanc grapes, is a full-bodied wine redolent of sweet tropical fruit balanced with a fresh seam of acidity.  Their Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2007, a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault and Mourvedre, has great depth of fruit and hints of vanilla with fine tannins and a long satisfying finish.

Cheers to you all!  I hope you enjoy these special wines from the sun-drenched reaches of the southern Rhone valley.


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