June 09, 1991|By Michael Dresser

These are glory days for Rhone wine lovers.

Here we are, with store shelves still groaning under the weight of excellent 1988s, when on comes along the vanguard of the even more magnificent 1989 vintage. And if that isn't enough, just over the horizon are the 1990s, reputedly another blockbuster year for the still-underappreciated Rhone Valley.

Bordeaux and Burgundy may still get more bouquets from the elegant elders of the Cork Sniffers Club, but no region of France offers us flavor freaks as generous a bounty of robust, rounded wine as the sun-drenched slopes of the Rhone.

From the craggy terraces of Cote Rotie to the carpet of stones that passes for soil in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the Rhone produces wines of striking individuality and down-home charm. It isn't just that the most prestigious rank among the greatest wines made anywhere, what is truly amazing is the high quality of the average Cotes du Rhone imported to these shores.

It's true that the best Rhones are not the bargain they used to be. A 1982 Guigal red Hermitage, excavated from the cellar recently and savored with barbecued steak, was a magnificent wine at the peak of its powers, but the most remarkable thing about it was the circa-1986 price sticker reading $13.99. That same wine in the so-so 1987 vintage will cost about $30. You can look for the 1988 and 1989 to nudge $40.

That's a mighty stiff jump in five years, but it's more a case of price catching up to quality than of mere price-gouging. Compared with wines of similar quality from Bordeaux and Burgundy, even the priciest Cote Roties and Hermitages look reasonably priced.

Once you get past the most prestigious appellations, the Rhone is still a bargain-hunter's paradise. Many excellent Cotes-du-Rhones, both red and white, sell for under $10. Price tags of $5 or $6, a vanishing species in many regions, still abound in the Rhone -- and usually the results are quite palatable.

That is especially true in the awesome 1989 vintage, which hayielded some of the greatest Rhones of modern times, all the way from the most celebrated Hermitage to the humblest Cotes-du-Rhone.

Based on a sampling of the 1989s that have reached the Maryland market so far -- more are arriving each week -- it's a vintage of extraordinary consistency. North and south, red and white and pink, it seems that virtually all the wines are successful. Concentration levels are close to those of 1983, but the tannins are not nearly as fierce as in that classic vintage.

The wines sampled included a broad range of 1989 Cotes-du-Rhones and a smattering of wines from Hermitage and its environs, as well as Chateauneuf-du-Pape. (No wines from Cote Rotie, Cornas or Gigondas were spotted yet, but if you can trust Robert M. Parker Jr. of the Wine Advocate -- and nowhere is he more trustworthy than he is with Rhones -- 1989 was magnificent in all the Rhone appellations save Cornas, which he rated as merely good.)

It's easy to single out the highlight of my tastings: the 1989 reHermitage "La Chapelle" from Paul Jaboulet ($42). Here is an unqualified classic, with portlike concentration of blackberry fruit and tremendously intense and complex flavors of spice, coffee and chocolate. Even now, in its infancy, it's like a flavor bomb exploding in your mouth. It lacks the brutal tannins of the 1983, but it's so well-structured that it should develop beautifully for 20 to 30 years. Yes, it's expensive, but it's equal or superior to some exceptional 1989 First Growth Bordeaux at twice the price.

Still, for sheer price-quality rapport, the Jaboulet Hermitage must yield to Chapoutier's 1989 "La Sizeranne" Hermitage, which I reported on earlier this year. This wine, which has recently arrrived in Maryland, is maybe a half-step behind the Jaboulet in quality and costs about $25 to $28.

The monumental hill of Hermitage produces dry white wines, too, and they rank among the most exotic, complex and longest-lived whites in the world. To drink them young is a waste -- though often a very pleasant waste -- because it is not until they are about eight years old that they begin to unfold and reveal their true magic.

No wine is more difficult to judge in its youth, but I am going to go out on a limb and predict that a decade from now the 1989 Chapoutier "Chante Alouette" will be regarded as one of the great dry white wines of the 1980s. The immense concentration and undercurrents of anise, flowers, pear, peach and stone suggest that this wine is a throwback to the awe-inspiring Chante Alouettes of old. It's delightful to see that the 27-year-old Michel Chapoutier's turnaround of this historic winery applies to whites as well as reds.

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