The Very Best Wines From France's Rhône Region
The Rhône region is one of France’s most important wine zones. These wines have personality in spades, a richness and a distinct wildness that few places on earth can deliver.
But what about the people behind the grapes? They are unique too, as proven by the heads of two of the Rhône’s most important family-owned producers: Michel Chapoutier and Philippe Guigal. If you’ve had a Rhône wine, chances are you’ve had one with one of their last names on the label. Probably you’ve had both.
The two old, respected companies are headquartered in the Northern Rhône but make a huge variety of wines, red and white, expensive and less so. I’ve had dinner with both men this year, and their personalities are as different as Hermitage and Côte Rotie (to name two famous appellations within the Rhône).
Chapoutier has the Latin side of the French personality. He’s ebullient, bossy, funny, and starts many sentences with, “Listen…” Guigal is thoughtful, quieter, buttoned up, more businesslike.
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And they are both fans of each other’s wines and legacies. “I have a lot of pleasure when I taste Michel’s white Ermitage,” Guigal told me (and I agree). “I love their balance and distinctive expression of their terroirs.”
Chapoutier was typically more expansive, but just as complimentary: “I love pioneers!” he said. “The Côte Rotie appellation is still alive today is because of gentlemen like Marcel Guigal and his father, Etienne Guigal, who fought to revive the appellation.” He was talking about Philippe’s father and grandfather, who do indeed deserve credit for helping preserve the delicious legacy of Côte Rotie.
Both men see that the key to their fortunes is Côtes-du-Rhône, the ubiquitous fruity value wine, usually a blend of red grapes, that has helped make the region famous. “I’m not chauvinistic, and yet I dare to say that the Côtes-du-Rhône wines are the best quality wine for the price in the entire wine world,” said Chapoutier, with his trademark oomph.
The more circumspect Guigal called it “our flagship,” and said his company hopes that “a more simple wine provokes an emotion,” leading drinkers to “want to discover jewels such as Côte-Rôtie or Condrieu.” In other words, starting at the more basic level can eventually lead wine lovers to some of the renowned, collectible wines of the area as they get more sophisticated. (Condrieu, made from Viognier, is one of my favorite white wines, but they are expensive.)
I got to taste a dozen of the wines made by these families recently—mostly reds, although they make stellar whites, too—and let me tell you, you have a smorgasbord of pleasure ahead of you if you stick to these reliable names.
On the affordable end of the spectrum, you’ve got Guigal Côtes du Rhône Rouge 2011 ($19), with its bosky red fruit, spice, and black pepper. It’s mature now, and you could drink it on its own—you actually don’t need food. It’s modest, but perfect in its modesty.
Chapoutier La Petite Ruche 2012 ($32) is a 100% Syrah from young vines with a deep purple color and a big, stinky nose—in a good way. It delivers a blast of brambly raspberry fruit, and a lot of fun for the money. The wildness of the Rhône is on welcome display here.
And when it comes to cellar-worthy serious wines, don’t hold back from splurging.
Guigal Côte Rotie Brun et Blonde 2011 ($80) has enormous depths, presenting itself first as deep, dark and unknowable. As it evolves, doors keep opening to new tastes, especially incredible reserves of black cherry fruit. A pricetag of $75 isn’t cheap but this is quite an experience—I’ll take this over a $75 massage any day.
Chapoutier Monier de la Sizeranne Hermitage 2011 ($143) has a truly remarkable nose, with a bouquet of red fruits, sage, and flowers. It’s an elegant, aristocratic wine with a velvety, tannic embrace. You could hold this a long time, but it’s pretty tempting now, since the beginning, middle, and end of the tasting experience are all perfectly in sync.
Maybe you won’t get to dine with these Rhône winemakers as I did, but Chapoutier and Guigal wines are almost as entertaining.