Crozes-Hermitage, in the valley below the famous granite outcrop of Hermitage, is often a pale imitation of its namesake, but you'll have a hard time believing that if your first exposure to the appellation is to taste the 1989 Paul Jaboulet "Domaine Thalabert" ($15). This is simply the greatest Crozes-Hermitage I have ever tasted -- pure essence of black raspberry, with nuances of clove and cinammon and distinct family resemblance to La Chapelle. Drink this intense, complex but precocious wine now or over the next six to eight years.
To call Thalabert the greatest is meaningful because it had close competition in 1989 from two Chapoutier Crozes-Hermitages, "La Petite Ruche" ($9.39) and "Les Meysonnieres" ($13.79).
If you love Chambord, make sure you try "La Petite Ruche." The wine tastes like the dry essence of the liqueur. It's not complex, but the jolt of raspberry it gives is electric. "Les Meysonnieres" is more structured and complex, adding spice, cassis and earth flavors to similarly intense raspberry flavor.
In the southern Rhone, Chateauneuf-du-Pape apparently enjoyed an exceptional vintage in 1989.
Certainly Chapoutier's previously reviewed "La Bernardine" is a classic, now on the market for about $20 -- a bargain price for wine of its quality. Paul Jaboulet's 1989 "Les Cedres" ($18) is not in the same class, but this big, rich, plummy wine is the finest "Les Cedres" I have tasted. Could this mark a return to greatness for this recent underachiever?
Another fine Chateauneuf, but in a much more rustic style, is the 1989 Chante Cigale ($19.49). Its earthy, meaty, peppery flavors are explosive, and if it lacks a certain polish, who cares? It's a delightfully individual, unfiltered and uncompromising wine of great honesty. It needs four to five years' aging.
The Rhone Valley is home to one of the world's few great pink wines -- Tavel. Contrary to the sweet, insipid image of rose, these wines are bone-dry and startlingly complex. Certainly the 1989 Guigal ($14.49) is as fine as any pink wine you'll ever taste -- with striking flavors of rosehip, strawberry, fresh tomatoes and herbs. Chapoutier's 1989 "La Marcelle" ($12.99) is just a step or two behind.
I'm not sure these wines justify the price tags -- California's Bonny Doon, McDowell Valley and Joseph Phelps make equally fine wines from Rhone grape varieties for under $10 -- but the quality is impeccable.
For sheer value in everyday drinking, it's difficult to beat the red and white wines that carry the appellations Cotes-du-Rhone or Cotes-du-Rhone-Villages. That's true virtually any year, but it goes double in 1989. Out of 10 wines tasted, not a single loser could be found.
They are listed here in rough order of preference. All are red unless otherwise specified.
*1989 Guigal Cotes-du-Rhone white ($9.69).
*1989 Cairanne Cotes-du-Rhone-Villages red and white, Cave des Coteaux ($6.95). A co-op selected by master importer Alain Junguenet.
*1989 La Vieille Ferme Reserve (gold label) Cotes-du-Rhone ($7.59).
*1989 Domaine Brusset Cairanne, Cotes-du-Rhone-Villages ($8.49).
*1989 Goubert Beaumes-de-Venise, Cotes-du-Rhone-Villages ($11.99)
4 *1989 Domaine Saint-Roch Cotes-du-Rhone ($5.99).
*1989 Caves de Champclos Cotes-du-Rhone ($4.99)
*1989 Domaine Gramenon Cotes-du-Rhone ($7.49).
*1989 Cairanne Cotes-du-Rhone-Villages rose, Cave des Coteaux ($6.95).