Swiss wines’ splendid neighbour: Côtes du Rhône

2011 vintage: warm, deep cherry and plum notes await us after unusual year

Expect to hear more from these wine producers, whose marketing campaign is being backed by dynamic changes in the vineyards (posters displayed during a tasting session on Lake Geneva in October)

LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND – Good news arrived from France Monday, that 2011 wines from the Rhone Valley, after initial tastings, show wonderful promise.

Grapes harvested at optimal ripeness are giving wines marked by fruitiness and warmth, with plum and deep cherry notes, verging on the over-ripe, according to the Inter-Rhône growers association.

The wines stand in strong contrast to the 2010 vintage and recall 2009, a very good year.

It was a year that could have been a disaster, as in Switzerland: “a summery spring, a spring-like summer and a perfect autumn”, the group notes. I’ll wait until winter to taste them, when they are closer to what we’ll find on our tables, but when I recently tasted a series of these wines, including several 2010s, I liked a good number of them.

A long ribbon of vineyards running from south of Lyons to Avignon

Côtes du Rhône, literally the “banks of the Rhone”, is a beautiful wine area, the continuation of a broad ribbon of vineyards that starts in Switzerland’s upper Valais region, threading its way through the length of Valais, Vaud and finally Geneva before reaching France.

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Lavaux and Lake Geneva, Europe's largest lake, created by the great river that starts as a trickle from the Rhone glacier high in the Alps in Valais; the lake empties out near Geneva and the river heads south, creating a mix of conditions for France's famous and varied Rhone Valley wines. Producers from the Côtes du Rhone wines region in France, in October, presented their wines during a boat trip on the lake, a handshake with fellow winemakers to their north.

Swiss wines and their great neighbours, the wines of France’s Côtes du Rhône region, have some  similarities but the differences underscore the reasons for variety in wines, which in the end is what keeps us all so interested in the stuff.

The Rhone river is the first clue, for even in Switzerland the wines to which it gives birth vary hugely, wines that express their terroir particularly well, from the Petite Arvines and Cornalins of Valais to Vaud’s Chasselas and Geneva’s Gamays.

The start of the Côtes du Rhône wine region is Vienne, just south of Lyons, 180 km from Geneva via the autoroute. It ends far south, in Avignon, near the Mediterranean, running through 171 communes and six administrative departments: Ardèche, Drôme, Gard, Loire, Rhône and Vaucluse.

Weekend wine discovery trips from the Lake Geneva region are easy

It  provides some beautiful wines, such as the much-touted Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie and Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines. It is also home to many very good to good wines at moderate prices. They are available in Swiss shops and, for those who long to combine wine-tasting and a weekend jaunt, not too far from home, the Côte du Rhone region is perfect, a short drive to a region where wine tourism is booming. The Vins-Rhone web site is a good starting point; I’ll be doing some touring there in coming weeks and will write more on this aspect of discovering the wines.

Where to begin: the grapes, the geography

Michel Chapoutier

Côtes du Rhône wines have suffered somewhat on world markets in recent years by the growth in New World wines. They don’t have the sexiness of Bordeaux wines with exotic prices nor do most have the noble titles of many Burgundies. The size and number of appellations can be daunting and, as elsewhere, the wines range from the mediocre to the great.

Red wines dominate here, 91 percent of the production, but there are some fine whites and roses, not to be overlooked if you’re on a discovery trip.

Getting a handle on these wines isn’t always easy for consumers outside France, but it’s worth the trouble, and the region itself is working hard to make it easier for us, with some success. One statistic that backs up the promising changes seen in the vineyards is that 16 percent of the region’s winemakers are under age 35, a figure well above the national average in France.

Two main varieties, many blends

To start, think of just two main grape varieties, Grenache and Syrah, although a third, Mourvèdre, is also considered a main variety. The region is the cradle of Syrah, which has become known as an international variety, probably the 7th most widely grown grape in the world.

Several other varieties are grown as secondary grapes, mainly to contribute to blends made with these two: 22 varieties officially, but many of them in small quantities. Michel Chapoutier, one of the region’s best-known winemakers, noted for his passion for terroir-strong wines, says “Why just three grapes, when the Swiss have so many? Like a chef, a good oenologist can cook up wonderful blends! Growers here have long planted the grape varieties they know grow best.”

Chapoutier points out that growers learned from the diseases that struck the vineyards in the 18th century and a later over-use of fertilizers. “If we have a good bacteriology of the soil we can have just as much complexity in our wine offerings as with many grape varieties.”

Lavaux harvest; the same river feeds the two regions, but they are home to different grape varieties

Chapoutier was speaking to a group of sommeliers, wine wholesalers and retailers, and journalists during a day out on Lake Geneva to taste Côtes du Rhône wines (my tasting notes will follow this article).

It was an invitation too good to turn down, since one of the first labels I discovered and explored in France when I moved there from the US several years ago was Côtes du Rhône Villages.

I was ready to move on from dirt-cheap and very strong North African wines proposed by my student friends, the kind that left you with purple lips (blessedly, a short phase in my wine-drinking career).

A French friend suggested that Côtes du Rhône Villages wines, a step up from plain ordinary Côtes du Rhônes, was a good entry into the confusing world of appellations and French wine labels.

Côtes du Rhône reds, warm and rich

Before trying to understand the appellation system, however, take a look at the geography of the Rhone Valley.

In the north, the river is still reeling from its heady rush through the rocky Alps, and granite is a feature of this landscape, very old rock fractured by the Alps, with a soil that holds various minerals. The vines are mainly on the right bank as the river heads south, with the notable exceptions of Hermitage and Croze-Hermitage, where pebbly soil is a feature that adds interest to the granite base.

Further south, the landscape and the soil change significantly. It’s softer here, pebbly soil gives way to sandier soils with loess (windblown sediment) deposited in part by the Mediterranean mistral winds. The mistral, the result of different pressure systems between the north, next to the Alps, and the south, near the sea, can be violent, but growers here appreciate the positive impact it has on their vines.

And in between is a wealth of varied pebbly dry soils that shift as the rivers turns and winds its way south.

From north to south, this is a land of marked seasons: heavy rainfall the gives way to high amounts of sunlight and very warm temperatures.

Appellations, nothing to be afraid of!

The labelling, or appellation system for the region’s wines has three main categories, starting with the top quality regions. Grape yields vary from 46 hectolitres per hectare in the regional appellation to 42 and 42 for Villages and named villages.

  • Appellations locales, which covers 18 crus, including the most famous wines of the region
  • Côtes du Rhône Villages, wines from 95 communes and within this group 17 have geographic designations that can be mentioned on the label; the region’s web site in English, which offers a handy guide to appellation system, refers to them as “named villages
  • Appellation Regionale Côtes du Rhône, covers wines from 171 communes.

Côtes du Rhône wines offer myriad options for matching wine and food

Tasting notes from a series of whites, rosés and reds from the Côtes du Rhône:

the whites, rosés

 Coming next: the reds

Luscious rose wines from the Côtes du Rhône, a minority worth trying

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  1. […] SWITZERLAND – For background, see my article, “Switzerland’s splendid neighbour: Côtes du Rhône”. In October I tasted and discussed at length with winesellers and sommeliers and other journalists […]