Read about Rhone reds before buying a bunch Wine: Some of the 1995s are terrific, but overall the tannin levels are too high for enjoyment.

March 01, 1998|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

The southern Rhone Valley of France is one of the world's great storehouses of Big Reds -- not your dainty little sipping wines but full-throated powerhouses that virtually demand to be fed raw meat.

So it was encouraging indeed to hear that after a string of poor to middling years of Rhone production, 1995 would provide the most robust red wines since the acclaimed twin vintages of 1989 and 1990.

But hearing and tasting are two different matters. Before all you Rhone fanatics out there go stocking up on multiple cases, it would be wise to pause and listen to the caveats.

There are indeed some great 1995s from the southern Rhone. The best Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas estates, in particular, produced noteworthy wines.

But overall 1995 would be better described as a ripe vintage than a great one. The tannin levels are quite high, and some of the wines make for rough drinking now.

The Chateauneufs, for instance, are not showing the early charm of 1990 or even of the less highly regarded 1994s.

Patience and a cool cellar will be required for such top-notch estates as Chateau de Beaucastel, Domaine du Pegau and Domaine du Vieux-Telegraphe, each of which could use five to 10 years of bed rest.

The results from the larger and less exalted Cotes-du-Rhone and Cotes-du-Rhone Villages appellations are more problematical. The wines certainly have adequate body, but many are blunted by heavy tannins. They are quite drinkable, but in many cases short on charm.

One glorious exception is both inexpensive and readily available. The 1995 Guigal Cotes-du-Rhone is not the biggest red wine in its peer group, but its purity of fruit and well-integrated tannins make it a sheer delight to drink now.

For a $10 wine, the Guigal certainly packs a lot of flavors -- black raspberry, herbs, smoked meat and a hint of chocolate. The 1995 is one of Marcel Guigal's finest vintages for this bottom-of-the-line wine, which he never seems to neglect even as he produces legendary single-vineyard Cote Roties that sell for upward of $200 a bottle.

Another success story is the 1995 Elisabeth Chambellan Chateauneuf-du-Pape Vieilles Vignes ($17), one of the few Chateauneufs that you can find for under $20. It offers abundant fruit, with a hint of Bordeaux-like black currant, and shows impressive grip and structure. This is a good Chateauneuf to consume while the big boys slumber.

Rasteau is not a well-known name in wine circles, but this tiny town in the Cotes du Rhone-Villages region deserves wider fame for such wines as the 1995 Domaine du Trapadis ($24).

This rich, chunky wine with intense flavors of chocolate, herbs and blackberry bears more resemblance to a fine Chateauneuf than a typical Cotes du Rhone.

So does its price, proving that savvy collectors have already discovered it. The wine will improve with three to five years of cellaring and last at least 10. If you must drink it now, be forewarned that it is already throwing a thick enough sediment to require decanting.

One of the stars of the vintage is the 1995 Chateau de St.-Cosme "Valbelle" Gigondas ($23). There's nothing subtle here -- it's a 16-ton, muscle-and-blood red with deep, earthy, meaty flavors and 10-15 years of development potential. With time, this wine can be expected to show even more depth and complexity.

The "regular" bottling of 1995 Chateau de St.-Cosme Gigondas is attractively priced at about $13.49, but falls considerably short of the top-of-the-line Valbelle. This is an excellent example of a wine that is quite well-made and ripe but just doesn't quite sing. Perhaps in another year or two it will.

Several other 1995 Rhones tasted recently fit that description as rTC well. Each is a good red wine that seems to be holding something back. You have to respect them, but it's hard to get excited.

They include the Domaine de la Presidente "Goutillonage" Cairanne Cotes du Rhone-Villages ($15) and the 1995 Chateau de Galliffet Cotes du Rhone ($10).

Another step down the ladder were the 1995 Coudoulet de Beaucastel Cotes du Rhone ($20) and the 1995 Paul Jaboulet Vacqueyras ($16). Both are full-bodied but tough.

These two wines come from famous producers whose flagship wines are legends -- the Perrin family's Chateau de Beaucastel and Jaboulet's "La Chapelle" Hermitage.

But from my perspective, neither shows much of the class of their big brothers.

The Coudoulet, in particular, is puzzling. It has a fine reputation and better wine writers than I am give it high marks.

But for several vintages now, any charm it might have has been hidden from me by a wall of tannin. If given this wine as a present, I would put it in the cellar for at least five years. I would not risk my own money on it.

Pub Date: 3/01/98

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