Découvertes en Vallée du Rhône is a biennial wine event held up and down the Rhône Valley for four long, thrilling days, involving the systematic tasting of mostly red wine by thousands of eager tasters from all over the world, and the systematic inebriation by same each night. Each day, is roughly devoted to a different area, and each room breaks down that area into a small number of appellations, such that in some cases you can, if you want, taste the entire output of an entire appellation — every producer and every wine — for a single vintage. So if you want to know about, say, the syrahs of Hermitage in 2010 — you'll come away with an indelible impression.
As a wine region, the Rhône is as France itself: wine has been made here for more than 2000 years, lauded by Pliny the Elder in the first century and ever since. The Romans themselves made wine in the very places where vines thrive today: I have been in winery cellars where Roman cisterns have been unearthed. That sense of history is never far off in the glass: The wines may be modern but the feel of the wines seems ancient, primal at times.
As a wine region the Rhône Valley is vast and diverse, such as you'd expect from a river system that starts in the Swiss Alps and drains in the Mediterranean. Transition is the norm here. Two days ago, the weather in Avignon was soft and sunny, like L.A. minus a few degrees Celsius. Today I look out my window in Vienne, the northern limit of the valley's wine regions, and can see snow flurries.
This typifies the Rhône, and it's the reason this place is home to more than two dozen grape varieties, among the most diverse in France. Here in the north the principle red grape is syrah, and the four best known appellations — Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, St. Joseph, and Côte-Rôtie, are known for wines of a kind of brooding intensity that results in exotic, haunting reds.
In the south the go-to grape is grenache, but a half-dozen other grapes lend support to it: mourvedre brings a wildness, carignane brings an earthy dark fruitedness, cinsault and bourboulenc acidity, etc. Blends change depending on the vintage, making southern cepages more protean and peculiar, even if the wines themselves go more the way of charm than intensity.
Here are some things I've learned about Rhône wines since being here:
1. The place is known for its reds, but its whites, in the last three vintages, are just wonderful: charming blends of marsanne, roussanne, grenache blanc and other varieties, they somehow manage to walk a line between ample body and freshness.
2. Syrah from the Rhône Valley is arguably the greatest syrah on earth. The ancestral home of this noble and ancient variety is the place where it belongs. Syrah is complex, herbaceous, supple, and occasionally funky in the northern appellations, and it lends tremendous character to the southern blends.
3. Wines that say Cotes du Rhône on the label offer some of the best quality for price in France. For about $15, you can find wines of immense character and charm, with a warmth and a directness of expression that makes them irresistible.
Five Rhône wines to look for in L.A. wine shops:
– 2011 Chateau d'Aqueria Tavel Rosé, about $15 at Mission Liquor and other shops.
– 2010 Montirius Côtes du Rhône Red, about $15 at K&L Wine Merchants.
– 2010 M. Chapoutier “Petit Ruche” Crozes-Hermitage (Syrah), about $20 at John & Pete's.
– 2011 Domaine de la Solitude Cotes du Rhône White, about $13 at Lincoln Fine Wines, Venice.
– 2009 Chateau Redortier Gigondas Red, about $30 at The Wine House.
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Patrick Comiskey, our drinks columnist, blogs at patrickcomiskey.com and tweets at @patcisco. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.