Rhone renaissance

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The Independent Culture
A decade ago, it was not unusual to be asked, in deadly earnest, whether you were a claret or a burgundy man. They probably still do in Pall Mall. It wouldn't have occurred to the questioner, and not to me at the time, that the question might be a slur by omission on one the world's great wine regions. Apart from the handful of cognoscenti who could afford Hermitage or Cote Rotie, the Rhone was terra incognita, its grape varieties a well kept secret. Now the secret is out.

On a rating of the world's sexiest red grape varieties, the Rhone's syrah is catching up fast with Burgundy's pinot noir, leaving the cabernet sauvignon of Bordeaux trailing a poor third for taking too many liberties. Viognier, too, the rare white grape of Condrieu, has been plucked from obscurity to strut the catwalk as a gorgeous, pouting supermodel.

Belated recognition of its quality range and versatility is not the least of the reasons why syrah has acquired classic status. It is a source of both the most complex, long-lived reds and good everyday varietal wines. At its purest, syrah is grown in relatively cool climates on poor soils. In such vineyards, its floral, violet-like perfume, often with a faint but not unpleasant antiseptic, white-pepper or herbal whiff, is accentuated. Its spectrum of fruit flavours runs from raspberry through to blackberry, on occasion with a hint of tarriness and the vanilla, coffee or smoky char of oak barrel maturation.

Australia's vineyard fingerprint has been based on the syrah grape since it was first planted there in the last century. Recently restyled for the modern table wine industry as shiraz, it is now Australia's trump card with the widest range of regional styles outside France. Shiraz is blossoming in South Africa, where the traditional, porty style is being replaced by more elegant examples of the variety in the hands of producers such as Fairview, Klein Contantia, Saxenburg and La Motte.

Syrah has been virtually deified in the United States, where the critic- cum-guru Robert Parker's praise for, among others, Marcel Guigal, "the planet's greatest wine maker", the Chapoutier brothers, and Chateau de Beaucastel, has ignited Rhone-mania. California's home-grown Rhone Rangers, inspired by Joseph Phelps and Randall Grahm, pay top dollar for a grape variety previously elbowed aside by cabernet sauvignon. The problem here is that older Rhone-style vineyards capable of producing top quality wines are scarce.

Syrah can flourish not only in relatively marginal climates but also in drier, Mediterranean conditions. In tandem with grenache and mourvedre, la syrah (for it is a she) is the hallmark of quality modern Languedoc-Roussillon reds. In the world's biggest wine region, syrah acts both as a Mr Fixit in major appellation controlee districts such as Faugeres and Coteaux du Languedoc and on its own as a vin de pays.

Viognier reaches its apogee in the steep vineyard sites of the northern Rhone's Condrieu and Chateau Grillet. Here, the exotically floral, honeysuckle scents and delicate flavours of apricot, peach, pear and even pineapple combine with power and fresh acidity to make a uniquely elegant dry white. Never knowingly oversold however, Condrieu's recent expansion has coincided with an explosion of interest in this rare bird in other regions.

Assisted by its link to the fashionable Rhone, viognier has become the star in America's anything-but-chardonnay firmament. Phelps, Fetzer, Alban, La Jota and, the best so far, Calera (watch out for the brilliant 1994, in soon at Majestic), produce some corkers. There's a tiny bit of viognier in Australia too, but the lucrative lure of the grape is at its strongest in southern France's Ardeche and Languedoc-Roussillon regions. The problem is that viognier, as Remington Norman puts it in his encyclopedic Rhone Renaissance (pounds 35, Mitchell Beazley) "is infamously temperamental, susceptible to disease, and unpredictable in its yield." For every excellent, affordable example of the grape, variability between vintages and producers remains a problem for this glamorous yet most capricious of varieties

Whites

1994 Viognier Vin de Pays d'Oc Pere Anselme, pounds 4.95, Sainsbury's. This affordable, bone-dry viognier conveys some of the textured richness and peachiness of the variety

1994 Cotes du Rhone Blanc, Vidal-Fleury pounds 5.99, Majestic Wine Warehouses. Stylish white with a subtle aroma of fresh pears and the ripe fruit flavours of pear and banana

1994 Viognier Domaine Sainte Hilaire pounds 6.99, Christopher Piper Wines, Devon (01404-814139). One of the outstanding southern French viogniers, this has a beguiling degree of smokiness and fine fruit concentration

1994 Condrieu, Les Chaillets, Cuilleron pounds 19.99, Oddbins. Pukka single vineyard Condrieu, admittedly expensive, but highly concentrated too, with floral aromatic power, subtle oak spiciness, and apricot fruit finesse.

Reds

1994 Domaine de Grangeneuve, Coteaux du Tricastin pounds 4.49, Asda. Joined here by the south's cinsault and grenache, the syrah makes for a spicily aromatic, sweetly ripe southern Rhone blend with a rustic, dry aftertaste

1994 Mas Cal Demoura, Coteaux du Languedoc pounds 6.99, Oddbins. The latest release of this modern syrah-based red is redolent of Mediterranean herb with exuberant intensity of youthful, firm fruit polished with a smooth oak sheen

1993 Marques de Grinon Dominio de Valdepusa Syrah pounds 7.99, Tesco (77 top stores), Fuller's. Remarkable not only for its claim to be Spain's first syrah, this deep-hued, posh-looking red is imbued with sweet vanilla spiciness of toasty new oak and fleshy-textured blackberry fruitiness

1994 Graillot Crozes-Hermitage pounds 8.69, Oddbins (mid-March); pounds 8.50 (by case), Yapp Bros, Mere, Wiltshire (01747-860423). Alain Graillot is the master of Crozes-Hermitage, and this perfumed 1994 red with its peppery, spicy undertones and blackberry richness is pure essence of northern Rhone syrah

1991 Le Cigare Volant pounds 9.99, Oddbins. From Randall Grahm's Boony Doon winery, this Chateauneuf-du-Pape-style blend has a Rhone-like raspberry and pepper bouquet with elegantly mature supple tannins, nice bottle-aged complexity and spicy raspberry and black fruits ripeness.

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