Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Cotes du Rhone Villages Chusclan Melodie d'Amour, 2003

If this wine were a Zinfandel, I'd be singing its praises. It's not, and I'm not. The 2003 vintage in the Rhone was very warm and wines produced were atypical. While this is not my least favorite 2003 Southern Rhone, it does show some of the negative effects of the vintage.

The color is very dark, and the nose has a ripeness that is more like California Zin than Southern Rhone--very black fruit plus licorice and raisins. It's the raisins that turn me away; they create a soupy one-dimensional quality. The wine is full bodied and glides down smoothly. Alcoholic content is only 13.5% but the wine is simply too sweet for my tastes and does not reflect its origins.

Don't take this as a slam on Zinfandel. I love good Zinfandel. When I think of Ridge Geyserville, Teldeschi or the Alderbrook Old Vines Dry Creek Zin that I've reported on previously, I envision wines with considerable complexity and character. The Zinfandel grape is relatively large and thick-skinned, and the wines it produces are expected to be full bodied with bold, ripe, raisined aromas and flavors. That's not the profile I expect from Grenache-based Southern Rhones.


  1. Fred, what does the "Villages" designation mean in French wines?

  2. That's another good question. I should explain my terms more carefully.

    Cotes du Rhone, for example, defines the whole area around the Rhone River. Cotes du Rhone Villages refers to wine from selected villages that have been found to have special desirable qualities. So it's the next step up in quality. The next step up is Cotes du Rhone Villages with the name of the specific village (such as Chusclan, Valreas or Seguret). The grapes have to come from that defined area. If you know your Rhone wines, you will know whether you prefer the wines of Chusclan or Valreas, but in terms of quality they're roughly equal. Even though the blend of grapes is similar, there can be a big difference in personality due to the micro-climate, soil, etc.

    A few of those villages have been recognized as being better than the others--Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Cairanne, Rasteau, Lirac and Tavel. They don't have to carry the Cotes du Rhone Villages label because they are considered a cut above. At the top of the pinnacle is Chateauneuf du Pape; it has a place as one of the great wines of the world.

    At another level yet are wines from specific vineyards that are known to have special attributes. These special vineyards are more prevalent in Burgundy (Montrachet, for example) and Alsace (Rosacker) than the Southern Rhone. (In Chateauneuf du Pape, there are Prestige blends from the oldest vines of an estate, but the vineyard names are not well known so rarely used.) Special vineyard wines usually command a high price because wine lovers for centuries have sought out these wines for their special qualities. It's a matter of supply and demand.

    In a nutshell: 1) at the lowest level are the simple appellations (Cotes du Rhone, Bourgogne Rouge, etc.); 2) the next step up includes the Village wines (Cotes du Rhone Villages, Cote de Beaune Villages); 3) then come the special villages and 4) special vineyards.

    As you go up the ladder, required yields get lower. (Low yields=more concentrated flavors). And price goes up, of course.

    So price does have a rational correlation with quality for European wines. With New World wines, it's all up to the person selling the wine. I would guess that the majority of American wine drinkers have no idea that Belle Terre Vineyard has a reputation for producing good Chardonnay. They assume that if they pay $30, they're getting more for their money--which may or may not be the case. In fact, some wineries market on the basis of price, thinking correctly that if you price your product too low it will be considered cheap.

  3. Don't change a thing, Fred. Your reviews are great, and the answers to questions are always remarkably detailed and erudite. Wine is a complex topic, and I doubt any of your readers expect to immediately acquire your level of knowledge.

    I know that Chateauneuf du Pape is considered an elite wine, and also that it was the first appellation, but why are Hermitages, St. Josephs, and Crozes tending to be more expensive?

  4. If you've ever traveled in the Rhone Valley, you would understand why Northern Rhone wines command a higher price than Southern Rhones.

    A few years ago, I took the scenic wine route near Cote Rotie and Hermitage (on the east side of the river) and found myself on a one-lane winding dirt road so steep that I was near panic mode worrying that my little rental car would stall. I was worried 1) that the car might tip over backward or 2) that in trying to start the car I would get it rolling backward out of control. Vines in this kind of mountainous area have very low yields and, in many cases, must be picked by hand. Wine grapes have been grown there at least since the Middle Ages, and, until recently, vineyards have been passed along from generation from generation since that time.

    The top appellations in the North are Hermitage, Cote Rotie, Condrieu, Cornas, St. Joseph and Crozes Hermitage. Crozes is probably at the bottom of the pecking order because many of the vineyards are on the flat land near the mountains. The red wines are made from Syrah (small quantities of white Viognier may be blended into Cote Rotie). Condrieu are white wines made from Viognier. White Hermitage, St. Joseph and Crozes are made mostly from Marsanne. Some of these whites can be good but they don't have the exalted reputation of the reds.

    In the South, land is flatter and there is much more of it that can be used for vineyards. The climate is also much warmer. The French say it is too warm for Syrah, but it is generally cooler than most areas of Australia and California that grow Shiraz/Syrah. With the cooler climate, you get less of the peppery, spicy, herbal qualities of Syrah and more blackberry jamminess. So in the South, Syrah is blended with warm climate grapes such as Grenache, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Carignane, etc. Even at the top level, Chateauneuf du Pape, Southern Rhones tend to lack the elegance, class, power and ageworthiness of a good Hermitage or Cote Rotie, but I love them and have even traded in some of my pricier Hermitage wines (that I bought when they were cheap) in order to buy more Cairanne, Vacqueyras and Gigondas.

  5. In the comment above: "With the cooler climate, you get less of the peppery, spicy, herbal qualities of Syrah and more blackberry jamminess" I meant to say: "With the WARMER climiate, you get less of the peppery, spicy, herbal..."

    With a warm climate, you get riper, sweeter grapes but less flavor definition. Syrah tannins in the South tend to be more rustic and less refined.

    Cool climate wines, however, may not show very well when they're young because the higher acid level can make the wine taste tart or tight, sometimes downright uninteresting. Give them time--sometimes 20 to 30 years for a Hermitage--and you see what the wine is all about. Most Chateauneufs show pretty well from day one but will improve for 10 to 20 years. Only a few will go 25 to 30.