Thursday, April 1, 2010

When in Rhône... '06 Vin de Pays des Coteaux de l'Ardèche

It doesn't take long to realise what the difference is between the Northern Rhône "crus" wines and the lower-grade, lower-priced classifications. It's especially true for wines in southern Ardèche that aren't classified "septentrionale", but "meridionale" (south Rhône), but act like their prestigious northern cousins.

I've learned that folks in the English-language world who have jobs and a real life don't have the time to discern what is what, the chance to make a visit to the Rhône Valley and set aside a budget to really get to know this area. It's clear that this region is full of landmines when it comes to price and quality - especially with syrah offerings. After two years living all things septentrionale, the nothern growing area, meeting all sorts of independent growers, negociants and tasting at places like the big cooperative Cave de Tain, I have come to this red wine reality through a lot of trial, error, listening and watching.

One thing becomes clear from two years in the belly of the beast, lower range syrah wines are dominated by the cooperatives and independents that have not been given "crus" status - especially grapes grown in the Saint Joseph area, the most diverse growing area that stretches along the Rhône. But there are a lot of growing areas inland, inland from the butte, that just don't fall under the Rhône radar.

And more and more, I am seeing strong signals from a cooperative in southern Ardèche called les Vignerons Ardèchois (aka UVICA).

The Wine: 2006 "Cuvée Prestige" Vin de Pays des Coteaux de l'Ardèche

I am especially pleased by a bottle of their 2006 "Cuvée Prestige" Vin de Pays des Coteaux de l'Ardèche that my wife bought this week at our local grocery store. For just two-and-a-half euros, which includes 19.6 per cent sales tax (I have the receipt) , this four-year-old syrah is a mix of syrah grapes from the cooperative's 21 primary members or "caves", which seems to be just one of many varietals that are now being grown there, including Chardonnay and Carbernet Savignon. Normally syrah wines from the Upper Rhône region take at least eight years before you open them up. But this wine, aged just one U.S. presidential term, is ready.

Like a good burgundy; or a 17-year old Côte du Rhone

The wine has a burgundy look and feel, without the burgundy price. The last wine I had with this much delicate red fruit was a 17-year-old Côte du Rhône my now good friend shared with me over dinner a few weeks ago. The structure of this 4-year-old was just enough from putting in the fruitbomb category, despite it being grown in a relatively hot growing area. It wasn't delicious, but it was round, supple and made me want to get a bird and get down to eating. It made me hungry first, thirsty second. There was a bit of pepper, but not the pepper mill factory you find in the Cornas.

Pairing: Duck, turkey or goose -- or maybe a chicken leg

This 100 per cent syrah from UVICA went well with some fatty dark chicken meat that I tore off my free-range, red-label (that's the good stuff), roasted whole Drômois chicken. The label on the bottle recommends magret du canard (duck fillets) with green peppers or a slab of wild boar, standard fare for syrah. Towards the end of lunch - yes, the French in this part of the Hexagon eat from about 12 noon to 1:30 or so - I enjoyed it with some run-of-the-mill chevre (goat cheese) that you find at the grocery store pretty much in any advanced food country. The cheese had some flavour, not smooth and tasteless like philly cream cheese, but a bit of the "barn" inside. The wine mixed well with it. I wouldn't attempt it with the hard-core, high-fat, dry, two-month-old Picadon goat cheese from the area, which should be reserved for a marsanne or a viognier.

About the terroir
The Rhône growing region boasts a number of different soil types, from alluvium near the Rhône river to basalt and clay more inland. The bulk of the growing area for this wine is inland, so don't expect the southeast facing slopes of Hermitage when you decant it. This area of Ardèche doesn't fall under septentrionale (northern) status, but is meridionale. But it acts like its from up north and its priced like its from down south. Hence, the value.

At three just euros, this bottle can't wait, nor can your duck
If you can get your hands on it at Odd-bins in London, Haskell's in Minneapolis or Inter-marché grocery story in France, get it. Then find a duck, capon or quality chicken, cook it with some fresh herbs de Provence, smothered in olive oil before roasting and get eating. Before you go down the poultry lane, try a lambs lettuce salad with a simple homemade mustard vinaigrette (Dijon mustard and bit of balsamic vinegar mixed, add olive oil, salt and pepper), followed by a gratin dauphinois. Be sure to save some room for the bird, have some gratin with it, then eat some mild goats cheese from France or New England in your next course. Move off the syrah for dessert and try a Saint-Péray sparkler while you indulge your guests with a simple raspberry tart.

But be thoughtful, or is it selfish? The last bit of the bottle should be ceremoniously kept for dinner that night and savour leftovers with your three-quid swig.


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