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Rh?e gems escape the hype, accompanying high prices

Dave DeSimone
| Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011

Ripe. Round. Robust. The southern Rh?e's full-flavored 2007 red wines presented such traits across the range. The trick for vignerons came in retaining enough acidity and tannins to balance the succulence.

The 2009 southern Rh?e reds now arriving at PLCB stores presented similar challenges. A dry, hot summer caused rapid ripening and stirred fears over grapes shriveling into raisins on the vines.

Early September rains and drying mistral winds, though, intervened. Patient growers who properly timed the 2009 harvest enjoyed low yields of generally rot-free, fully ripened, yet juicy, fresh fruit.

The results led to early favorable press reports that near giddy national retailers have used to stoke demand -- especially for 2009 Ch?eauneuf-du-Pape "prestige cuvees."

Ignore the hype.

High-profile, often fancifully named blends typically depart from southern Rh?e authenticity by aging wines in small, primarily new, oak barrels. Balance, finesse and expression of terroir fall prey to a single-minded focus on concentration as a "wow" factor designed to attract wine publications' high numerical ratings.

Leave such overpriced "cult" wines to status-seeking, conspicuous consumers. Instead seek entry-level, classique Ch?eauneuf-du-Pape reds from accomplished producers such as Domaine Bosquet des Papes, Domaine du P?a?, Domaine de la Solitude, and Domaine du Vieux T??raphe.

Meanwhile do not overlook 2009s from Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Lirac, and Vinsobres, or modest C?es-du-Rh?e, C?es-du-Rh?e-Villages, C?es-du-Ventoux and Costi?es de Nimes. From good producers, they deliver terrific quality and value for pleasurable early drinking.


2009 Domaine de Ch?eaumar C?es-du-Rh?e "Cuv• Bastien" — Grenache, France (Luxury 21109; $14.99): Named for current winemaker Fr??ic Souret's son, Bastien, the fruit for this tasty wine comes from a south-facing hillside vineyard near Orange. Clay and chalk soils covered by large, smooth rocks make for arduous work, but Souret nonetheless practices hand hoeing and harvesting to boost quality.

The wine's saturated color exudes intense dark fruit, spiciness and earthy aromas. Concentrated, juicy, dark fruit and sweet black licorice flavors balance with just enough acidity. Soft tannins result from aging in concrete vats rather than oak barrels. It makes for fun quaffing, but respect the 15-percent alcohol. Recommended.

2009 Ch?eau de Manissy, Lirac, France (Luxury 36288; $15.99): Lirac's rolling hills of sand, clay and rocks combine with strong mistral winds and plentiful sunshine for excellent ripening. Florian Andr?harvests manually and uses pre-fermentation cold soaking to optimize concentration. Modest aging in new French barrels adds complexity.

The wine's dark, saturated color offers spicy, dark fruit aromas with smoky, meaty nuances. Zesty, dark fruit and light herbal flavors balance with vibrant acidity, refreshing mineral notes, and firm, elegant tannins. Recommended.

2009 J.L. Chave S?ection C?es-du-Rh?e "Mon Coeur," France (Luxury 21109; $21.99): Jean-Louis Chave, master of the northern Rh?e's Hermitage appellation, also pursues his winemaking m?ier in the southern Rh?e. Chave purchases and blends grenache and syrah grown to specifications in Vinosobres on rocky, rolling hillsides rich in calcium clay and sandy soils. Low yields rendered concentrated, complex fruit.

The wine offers dark fruit aromas spiced with earthy, peppery nuances and heady scents of lavender and herbs. Saturated dark fruit and licorice flavors wrap around refreshing acidity and elegant tannins. Highly recommended.

2009 Domaine du Cayron, Gigondas, France (Luxury 36876; $35.99): Made with unpretentious confidence, respect for tradition and high-spirited ?an , this domaine's benchmark Gigondas expresses terroir completely and frankly through the prism of each vintage's personality.

Michel Faraud and his three daughters tend low-yielding, old vine grenache, syrah, cinsault and mourv?re extending over Gigondas' complete range of terroir . Their vineyards perch on stony mountain plateaus and continue down forested hillsides on rocky terraces. The vines also unfurl in sandy soils surrounding the village before spilling down into expansive, undulating gravelly plains covered with garrigue scrub.

Hand harvesting sorts out unripe fruit. Fermentation of whole bunches with ripe stems follows in concrete vats with wild yeasts. Aging takes place in ancient fourdes -- large wooden containers -- without a hint of new wood. Bottling occurs without fining or filtering.

The 2009 wine does not disappoint. The dark ruby color offers intense, ripe black cherry aromas with black licorice and light earthy notes. Concentrated, dark fruit flavors balance beautifully with chewy, yet silky tannins, vibrant acidity and refreshing mineral notes. In short, the wine delivers profound pleasure with intriguing complexity. Highly Recommended.

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