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The Rough and Ready Rhones


Romanticists assign human traits to wine. Among French wines, Bordeaux is masculine, powerful, strong; Burgundy is graceful, regal, sensuous.

The red wines of the Rhone Valley, however, conjure up a single word to me: rustic. They are hearty, full-flavored wines that age every bit as well as do those from the Rhone's neighboring (and better-known) regions of Burgundy and Beaujolais, yet the Rhone gets little of the fanfare of its companion districts.

Rhones, from the south of France where the climate is warmer, are loaded with character, but in story, fable and recollection, they have received short shrift.

There have been Rhone lovers, of course. Writers Alexis Lichine, Robert Parker and Andre Simon wrote glowingly of the area and its wines. One of the loveliest comments comes from Julian Street, whose 1933 book "Wine" contains the following:

"A good red Rhone will stand up handsomely to venison, game bird, a rabbit or any other dish with which Burgundy or a very 'big' Claret is usually associated. But whereas Burgundy is King and Claret is Queen and Champagne is a gay old multimillionaire, the Maid of Honor from the Rhone Valley is not above sitting with you on a grassy bank and adding magic to a lunch of bread and cheese."

The red grapes of the Rhone, mostly Syrah and Mourvedre in the north and Grenache in the south, have recently developed a cult following in the United States. This is partly because wineries such as McDowell Valley, Bonny Doon, Joseph Phelps, Qupe and Cline (to name just a few), have started imitating them.

Oddly, some California-Rhone wines have such a following that prices have risen above the real thing. This makes the Rhone wines all the more a bargain, in part because the better Rhone wines age very well. We don't yet know whether California's Rhone-variety wines will age as well.

Rhone's best are loved by the small coterie of wine collectors who eagerly buy them. But these people represent only a tiny number of buyers. They are people who know of the great potential for these wines in the cellar, and who treat them with deference.

I recall tasting rustic Rhones from the 1960s. They were dense, coarse wines when young, but with ample time in the cellar they became exciting. The Rhone wines of 1990 and 1991 appear to be even more packed with fruit flavors than those earlier wines, but more accessible when young. The wines are, quite simply, more drinkable at an earlier age than they were decades ago.

The most energetic of these new-style producers is 29-year-old Michel Chapoutier, whose business card lists him as wine grower and wine lover. The latter designation is most important.

The family firm M. Chapoutier was not a participant in the rebirth of the Rhone in the early 1980s. Some Chapoutier wines had an odd "horse-y" smell; some lacked fruit but were astringent. While other producers improved, Chapoutier was stagnant until 1988, when Michel joined the firm to direct winemaking.

Michel immediately improved the vineyards and the winemaking. I met him in 1990 at a symposium in the Napa Valley on Rhone grape varieties and found him to be an intense man who can barely contain himself when talking about his new growing methods and winemaking techniques. The aim, he says, is to make the wines cleaner, fresher and with more depth than before, from a smaller yield of grapes per acre.

Daniel Brunier, scion of the family that owns Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, likewise acknowledged that his family's wines are more drinkable when young, and I found them to be at least as complex.

There's been less of a revolution at Paul Jaboulet Aine, but proprietor Gerard Jaboulet points out that better vinification techniques and better use of barrel aging have made for a more complete wine.

Prices for these wines may seem high, but they are actually very reasonable for their quality.

"A few years ago, I thought Bordeaux and Burgundy started to go up in price a little too much," says Jaboulet. He claims that for that reason he has worked to keep prices for his wines, even the best of them, very reasonable.

Wine lovers' demand for exalted Rhones such as Hermitage and Cote Rotie have forced prices for these wines up, but led by the house of E. Guigal--one of the top producers in the region--moderate pricing still exists in wines termed simply Cotes du Rhone. Still, for his Cote Roties from special vineyard sites, such as "La Landonne" and "La Mouline," Guigal commands as much as $200 a bottle on release.

Wine of the Week

1990 Sausal Winery Zinfandel ($9)-- The 1990 harvest in California's North Coast was superb for red wines, particularly for Sonoma County Zinfandel. Sausal, in the Alexander Valley, has been making rich, gutsy Zinfandels since its founding in 1973, using fruit from a four-acre block planted in 1877 and other vines planted during Prohibition. The wines have been so good, in fact, that the highly praised Grgich Hills Zinfandels are wines made at Sausal and aged in the Napa Valley. This vintage of Sausal Zin is lighter in style than some of the deep, dark Zinfandels of Sausal's past. The fruit aromas are like fresh plums, raspberries and strawberries spiced with sandalwood and vanilla. In the mouth there is a hint of pepper. Another advantage: The wine is not as alcoholic as Zinfandels made in warmer vintages.

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