This Tuesday saw the sixth and final session of the first Classic French Wine Regions wine tasting and education course I’m running. The idea is to educate about the world of wine whilst also improving tasting skills. In the fifth session we looked at the white grapes Alsace focusing on Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer. This time round we looked at the key black varieties of the Rhône Valley. In the Northern Rhône the one black grape used is Syrah, whereas in the South there are a whole troop of varieties (up to 13 in the appellation Châteauneuf-du-Pape) but we focused our attention on the main three; Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, often known collectively as GSM.
Wines 1, 2 & 3 – Syrah/Shiraz from the Northern Rhône, McLaren Vale and Chile
The first comparison saw pure Syrah/Shiraz wines coming from three areas; its homeland of the Northern Rhône, McLaren Vale in Australia (where it’s known as Shiraz) and San Antonio in Chile.
The Northern Rhône example was a 2006 St. Joseph Cuvée Prestige from the quality co-op Cave de Saint-Désirat. You can get it from Waitrose for about £12.50, though it’s sometimes reduced to about a tenner.
I’ve had this wine quite a few times and it’s always been very good, with very pure Syrah expression with a lovely perfumed lift. It’s also won several awards, the 2007 vintage taking a bronze recently. However, this particular bottle seemed to be heavy on the Brett.
[A quick deviation: Brettanomyces is a naturally occurring yeast that can infect wine - it's often found around wine-making equipment and in particular old barrels if all the equipment is not kept scrupulously clean. It's not the good and necessary yeast the converts the grape sugars into alcohol, but another one that masks the varietal character of the wine and imparts flavours variously described as sweaty saddle, barnyard, horse sweat (what's that like?!), wet leather or wet dog. Lovely! It's debatable whether a little Brett is a bad thing or not, but a lot is certainly not good. Debate rages as to whether it should be considered a fault or not if present to any degree at all (usually the Australian stance - "dirty wine") or whether it should be accepted simply as an attribute of the practise of a more natural hands-off wine-making process that's more likely to be found in the Old World. In the New World you have more winemakers aiming for scrupulously clean stainless-steel fermented wine making with the varietal fruit to the fore, where Brett is unlikely to be encountered.]
Anyway, the Brett was too high in this Saint-Joseph for me, making it more farmyardy than I would have expected and detracting from the joy of the pure Syrah – the base fruit flavour was really masked by the sweat. It makes it hard to assess in a way, as it still had the lovely peppery and perfumed lift synonymous with Syrah from cooler climates and was long and complex. This is normally an excellent wine, but thinking back to yesterday I couldn’t get past the Brett in this particular bottle of 2006. Oh well.
Next up was a 2008 McLaren Vale Shiraz from by the respected producer Kangarilla Road. You can pick it up for £10 from Majestic or a couple of quid less on occasion.
The really interesting thing was the immediate and marked difference in ripeness of fruit. Whereas the St-Joseph was more about red fruit (ignoring the Brett) with a real pepper and perfumed lift, the Shiraz was more plums almost heading to prunes. Much riper and almost stewed. The extract of fruit in the wine was undoubtedly impressive and it would make a good barbecue wine. However, after following the Rhone wine, I found it overripe, unsubtle and lacking in perfume by comparison. I’m being harsh, as it is clearly a good example of what it is – a well made, powerfully fruity wine that’s well balanced – but it was lacking perfume, complexity and length. Hmm, not a great start for Syrah in this tasting at all. Let’s hope the last one can improve things…
The third Syrah was a bottle of Matetic Corralillo San Antonio Syrah 2006, that I picked up from the Wine Society for about £14. This is no longer available at the Wine Society, but you can currently pick up a case of it for £166.88 from Genesis Wines, which works out at just under a tenner a bottle, a superb price.
Phew! This rescued the first half of the tasting. Chile once again showing how strong it is in the medium to premium mark (£10 to £20). Full of pronounced fruit flavour, in ripeness somewhere between the first two wines, but by no means overly ripe or stewed. It also had a fantastic peppery, perfumed, minty lift. Classic Syrah showing all the attributes that one would hope for. The structure was great with the oak, tannins and acidity all balanced with the strong core of fruit. Still young at five years old this was complex and long. Well done to Matetic; they’re a quality outfit. With Syrah rescued, it was time to move on to the Southern Rhone varietal blends.
Wines 4, 5 & 6 – GSM blends from the Southern Rhône and the Barossa Valley
The second comparison saw three classic GSM blends; two from the Southern Rhône and one from Australia.
First we looked at a straight-up Côtes du Rhône 2006 from the Rhône giant Guigal. You can normally get this from Majestic for about £8.50, but at the moment it’s not showing up on their website. You can now get it from Waitrose for £9.50.
This was a lovely example of exactly what Côtes du Rhône should be. It was really fresh, appetising, southern and warm tasting and yet also clean and moreish. It would be very easy to polish the bottle off. Being based on Grenache, it’s almost more about a feeling of the Med than about any particular fruit flavour. For a straight ahead Côtes du Rhône it had great length and was by no means too old in its fifth year. How different wines from the Northern and Southern Rhône are!
Following this we looked at a Gigondas, one of the more prestigious crus of the Southern Rhône. This one was a Gigondas La Roche Percée from Gabriel Meffre that you can pick up from Sainsburys for about £12.
I would have liked to compare another 2006 Gigondas with the same vintage Côtes du Rhône, but unfortunately there isn’t any 2006 Gigondas readily available in the high street at the moment and I generally want to look at wines that people can readily buy after a tasting. This was clearly a serious wine showing the same characteristics as the Côtes du Rhône, but more so. More extraction, more structure and complexity and very good length. However, for drinking today the Côtes du Rhône was much more enjoyable. The Gigondas is really good wine but it’s still pretty closed up and hard to approach. The appellation really needs five to six years to soften up and normally needs to be kept in your cellar for a couple of years after purchase.
Finally we looked at a premium Australian GSM. This was a 2006 Greenock Rise Barossa Valley GSM from the quite new Producer Maverick. You can pick it up from the excellent independent merchant Lea and Sandeman for £17.50 or less if you buy 12 bottles (which can be mixed).
This was a really good wine. The producer has bought up top plots of land in the Barossa and Eden Valleys at high altitude, with lots of old bush vine Grenache and some centurion Grenache. Very impressive. Very small yields and with great attention to detail this was really classy. Big fruit, but not overly ripe, with elegance, fantastic structure and five years bottle age, this was complex and long, very long. It’s great to see small producers in Australia making excellent and elegant wine from ancient vines. A great finish to the tasting, this probably just took the prize from the Corralillo as the wine of the evening. Interestingly both wines are Organic or near Biodynamic and from high altitude in the New World. There’s loads of great wine out there!
So, that’s the end of the first wine appreciation course. It’s now going to be repeated and will become a regular fixture. Some wines will be kept and some swapped out for other examples. Everyone involved really enjoyed it, with lots learned alongside plenty of fun. Pass on the word and let me know if you’re interested in taking part in the next run of the course.