Hearty Rhone reds warm body and soul on cold winter nights

VINTAGE POINT

January 03, 1993|By Michael Dresser

The wines of the southern Rhone are wonderful energy-saving devices.

Using the stony soil of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas as a solar collector, venerable vines produce grapes that yield a virtual concentrate of summer -- liquid heat, fuel for the soul.

Now comes January, the time of year for the warmth stored in these cork-stoppered energy cells to be released.

It's a time of year for hearty foods that stick to the ribs and comfort as they nourish -- stews, cassoulets, roast beef and creamy risotto with porcini.

There are many red wines that will go with such hearty, meaty dishes. Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo -- they all will bring satisfaction on a cold winter night.

But no wine seems so fully at home at a Sunday dinner on a cold January night as a fine southern Rhone. These are truly wines to warm cold bones, opulent wines with immense blackberry flavors and hints of rosemary and thyme. In flavor and weight, they are the dry equivalent of a fine vintage port.

One big reason is the alcohol. Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas, the two best regions of the sun-baked southern Rhone, both produce mammoth wines that often reach an alcoholic strength of more than 14 percent.

But these are not merely alcohol rubdowns for your insides. In a vintage such as 1990, the best southern Rhones offer a concentration and complexity equal to any wine from France's more celebrated winemaking regions. Many of the producers are uncompromising traditionalists, who would sooner add maple syrup to their wine than run it through a filter pad.

The key to fine southern Rhone is not to be found in the winery, however. For that you must look to the soil -- or more accurately the stones.

The southern Rhone -- particularly Chateauneuf-du-Pape -- is one of the least fertile wine-growing regions in the world. What passes for soil is actually a carpet of stones.

While these stones are great for trapping heat, they yield only the most meager production of grapes. And where yields are low, concentration and flavor intensity tend to be high. At the finest estates in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the yields can be ridiculously low. The premier example is the rare and esteemed Chateau Rayas, where harvests of one ton an acre are common.

Low tonnage is especially important in the southern Rhone because the predominant grape is grenache, a normally lackluster variety that can be magnificent when yields are held in check. Other varieties that play an important role in the best southern Rhones are syrah and mourvedre -- names that are becoming familiar to adventurous consumers of California wines.

One advantage the Rhone wine drinker has these days is the dedication of some of the world's finest importers, each of whom spends a lot of time in the Rhone Valley.

Robert Kacher, Kermit Lynch and Alain Junguenet are men who have dedicated their careers to sniffing out the best small artisan-winemakers. Mostly, they succeed, and any of their names on a bottle is a virtual guarantee of high quality.

Most of the Gigondas and Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines imported to the United States will age quite well for up to a decade -- the best even more. More often than not, they will also be drinkable from their time of release, though an hour or two of breathing might be necessary to loosen them up.

The style of wines from the two winegrowing areas is similar, but Chateauneuf-du-Pape is clearly capable of reaching heights never attained in Gigondas, where the wines tend to be a bit more heavy and slightly less complex.

While the price for the remarkable 1990 vintage has taken about a 20-percent jump from the equally magnificent 1989s, prices continue to be reasonable in comparison with Bordeaux, Burgundy or even the northern Rhone.

A typical 1990 Chateauneuf-du-Pape from a top-flight estate now runs slightly more than $20, while most Gigondas will cost a little less. That hardly puts them in the budget category, but I have had fewer disappointments with southern Rhones than with classified-growth Bordeaux.

These wines are not for everybody. If finesse is what you prize most in a wine, neither Chateauneuf-du-Pape nor Gigondas is likely to appeal to your palate.

But if what you're looking for is red wine with that rare combination of muscle and class, something that warms the heart as it speaks to the senses, you cannot do much better than the wines that spring from the stones of the southern Rhone.

Critic's choice

1990 Graham's Malvedos Centenary Vintage Porto ($15, half-bottle; $28, full bottle). Here is a sweet treat to cap a cold winter night. Yes, this single-vineyard port is still an infant, but it's an irresistible baby, with exuberant plum and blackberry fruit and nuances of Mediterranean herbs. The regular Graham's vintage port is more celebrated and expensive, but the differences are negligible and you can drink this earlier. If you drink it this winter, you can dispense with the decanting ritual. (Just stand it up a day ahead.) A half-bottle can serve four.

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