No one could accuse the Southern Rhône cru Cairanne of rushing into things.
For much of its history, Cairanne seems to have been metaphysically hiding from the fine wine world behind its own rocky outcrops. While technically part of the Côtes du Rhône designation since 1953, it took Cairanne 87 years to reach cru AOC status, the aim that originally brought together several of its local growers to establish a regional Cave Coopérative back in 1929.
In the last three years, however, Cairanne’s best producers have been making up for lost time. In a first for France, their cru regulations specify sulfite maximums, along with banning the use of herbicides, and requiring hand-harvesting of the grapes grown from its garrigue-surrounded, clay-and-stone soils. “Now we are lucky,” noted Domaine Brusset‘s Laurent Brusset when I visited the area on a media tour, “it’s a nice picture for the next generation.”
You probably have yet to hear much about Cairanne, but if you’re a lover of Southern Rhône Grenache-based reds (which must encompass 50% of the blend), or even the occasional Clairette-based white sipper (a mere 3% of the area’s production), you owe to yourself to get more closely acquainted. Cairanne has a defining quality, but it’s something almost ethereally illusive.
“There is something common [about Carianne with respect to the S. Rhône]; different, but common” noted Domaine Roche‘s Romain Roche. Denis Alary of Domaine Alary describes it more succinctly: “Cairanne is elegance and finesse, always.” Generally speaking, I agree, as you’ll see below…
Smack up against the Dentelles de Montmirail mountain range sits Gigondas, a former ancient Roman soldier retirement home area and Southern Rhône cru that, technically, contains more woodlands than vineyards. And that’s after a killer frost in the 1960s wiped out a good portion of olive tree plantings, ushering in a shift towards more vine plantings. All in all, Gigondas is about one third the size of its more famous, direct-competitor cousin, Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Terroir here is “like a layer cake,” noted Domaine Pierre Amadieu’s Henri-Claude Amadieu when I visited on a media tour last year. “A layer cake of limestone and clay, limestone and clay…” While Grenache is the name of the game here, there are a few main differences between Châteauneuf and Gigondas, excluding the fact that Gigondas’ slightly warmer climate has a tendency to make their reds even more powerful than CdP.
The entire Gigondas AOC has a North-Northwest orientation, and it’s plantings are almost exclusively at elevation – in some cases, upwards of 500m. It’s rugged, hillside farming on soils that range from marls, to sandstone, to Miocene sand, to Cretaceous limestone rich in fossilized marine life.
The short version when it comes to Gigondas: height matters (see what I did there?). The higher elevation makes for stout reds that might be compact, but pack a big, tall punch…
Well… I’m in the unenviable position of having to date myself.
Embarrassingly (not because of my age, about which I mostly don’t care, but because of my obvious lack of knowledge), I knew little about the Rasteau appellation prior to visiting it on a recent Rhône media jaunt, aside from the fact that it was the home of some bad-ass Vin doux naturel sweet wines (which were permitted under the Rasteau AOC since the 1940s). Ok, more like I knew nothing about the appellation outside of its VdN wines.
But the area has been making its dry red wines based primarily on Grenache, with Syrah and Mourvèdre playing heavy roles) under the Rasteau AOC for nearly two decades now, having been approved in 2010. That’s a long enough time that a self-professed wine pro type should have known something about it, but in the relative Rhône timeline is recent enough to force dry Rasteau producers into a market game of catch-up.
And catch up they have. Rasteau’s best producers are doing well by their appellation’s new-old identity, now exporting over 40% of their collective production. There’s a bit more soil variety in Rasteau than in much of its neighboring Rhône AOCs, to the point where its wines have enough going on to mark them as distinct.
Specifically, Rasteau reds are, as Domaine Combe Julière‘s Laurent Robert put it during my visit, “Big character” experiences. “Spicy wines; well-concentrated and powerful, but with elegance.” This was a sentiment echoed by other vintners and proprietors in the area. Réjane Pouzoulas of Domaine Wilfried had this to say when asked about Rasteau ‘s typicity: “You can have full-bodied wine, of course; but with finesse.”
“In Rasteau, you can have wine that can age,” remarked Lavau‘s Benoît Lavau. “The appellation has the potential to do whatever you want. It’s always [about] the balance between tannins and acidity.” He went on to describe their wines as “sunny and strong!” That’s an impressively consistent set of responses based on Rasteau’s new-ish identity; either that, or an equally impressive effort of coordinated marketing planning. Based on my tastings, I suspect the former…
Lirachas a bit of a troubled middle child syndrome on its hands. Being a middle child myself, I can relate.
Look at it this way: if I asked you to tell me about some killer Southern Rhône reds (which is 85% of Lirac’s output), you’re probably going to start waxing poetic about Châteauneuf-du-Pape. You might even mention Vacqueyras or Gigondas, which are offering up CdP levels of quality at about 30-40% lower prices. But Lirac? Not happening unless you’re seriously geeky.
The interesting thing is, the main difference between Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Lirac reds is… uhm… well, after touring the place on a 2018 media jaunt, I’m still trying to figure that one out.
Lirac is a small appellation of five villages that sits just on the other side of the Rhône river from its more famous older brother CdP. Like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Lirac gets a metric crap-ton of sunlight (2700 hours annually), employs nearly 15 grape varieties, uses low training for old vines (average age – about 45 years) due to the windy conditions, and sees Summer vineyard temperatures that can get into the 50s Centigrade (“every year we lose one percent of the vine” due to the dryness and heat, noted Domaine Maby‘s Richard Maby).
The similarities are sibling-level; hell, they’re more like fraternal twins level. Saying that Lirac and Châteauneuf-du-Pape have “similar” soils is like saying that all humans have “similar” DNA. As Château de Montfaucon proprietor Rudolphe de Pins put it, “we have exactly the same soil you can find in Châteauneuf.” That would be galets, stones that are probably larger than your head.
Hell, much of the Lirac wines are even vinified in neighboring CdP (or Tavel). The fact that Lirac is the birthplace of the Côte du Rhône historical designation probably only adds to its sense of being in CdP’s shadow. If there is Lirac typicity, one could probably encapsulate it as “balance.” There’s power to the wines, but also a freshness that even CdP can lack. “We have a natural freshness in our wines,” de Pins told me. Another Lirac promoter, Jean-Baptiste Lafond of Domaine Lafond, summed it up this way: “the main difference, vintage by vintage, is acidity.” And as you know, we like acidity here at 1WD. On that note, here are my vinous thoughts on Lirac’s specialness…
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