Not often does wind get credit for winemaking, but in France’s Rhône Valley, the Mistral deserves some respect, in so much as it is contributing to a new Rhone Revival. Sending cool air down the Rhône River as many as 100 days in the year, the benificent breeze chills hot summer days, mitigating intense heat in the vineyards. It also scrubs vineyards of diseases from humidity, rain and fog. Purists also boast that the wind works like a virtual conveyor belt, infusing the region’s leading red grapes—Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre—with spicy dollops of the aromatic shrubbery garrigue.
While the wind certainly plays a role, Rhône reds (nearly 80% of the region’s wine) draw on much more en route to their ultimate fruity, spicy style—diverse grapes (ten red and nine white are permitted); challenging stony soils; the art of blending. What matters most, of course, is that factors both stylistic and economic have converged to boost Rhône wines tangibly ahead of the rest of France in the current American wine arena. Rhône wine exports to the U.S. doubled in the last decade, hitting 1.2 million 9L cases in 2014, according to French Customs data. In 2014, Rhône red, white and rosé sales gained 6% in the U.S., reports Nielsen.
Jean-Luc Colombo, a Rhône winemaker from Cornas whose esteemed wines come from Northern and Southern appellations, says, “Americans know far more about the Syrah grape than 20- or 30-years ago.” Colombo, whose wines are imported by Palm Bay International, Port Washington, New York, adds, “American Rhône Rangers in California such as Randall Graham, critic Robert M. Parker, Jr., and French chefs including Eric Ripert, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Daniel Boulud have all really raised our region’s profile vis à vis Bordeaux and Burgundy.”
Perhaps most importantly, the buzz about the Rhône is spread across both on- and off-premise, and North and South. Michael Madrigale, Wine Director at Boulud Sud in New York City, says, “When I became sommelier ten years ago, customers knew about Southern Rhône, and especially Châteauneuf-du-Pape. While these wines are popular, everyone is interested in Côte-Rôtie and all Northern Rhône wines now.”
Alan Sack, Wine Consultant at Warehouse Wines in New York City, notes: “There is more willingness and interest among customers to explore Rhône wines. In our store, you can find a Côte-Rôtie for $20.”
At Church & State, a French restaurant in Los Angeles, Joy Cushing, Wine Buyer and Sommelier who recently joined after 15 years at Disney as a senior buyer and educator, says: “Rhône has vaulted into the third most-requested wine. From Syrah wines in the North to Grenache blends in the South, they’re perfect wines for Pinot and Cab lovers. I give them a taste of a Côtes-du-Rhône, they love it and become instant converts.” She adds, “We sell Côtes-du-Rhône by the glass for $12, and Jean-Luc Colombo’s Cornas for $95, and both sell well.”
Success has also spread across sub-regions and price points. “When you look at 2014 trends in French wines, it’s the $15-$20 (+8.5% growth by volume) and Core Luxury $20+ (+15.1% by volume) categories driving growth, according to Nielsen,” explains Bill Terlato, President of Terlato Wines International, importer of Chapoutier wines from the Rhône. “Nielsen also reports that Core Luxury Rhône growth of +30% is outpacing the overall French category, in the 52 weeks ending 12/06/14. When it comes to Rhône wines, it’s quality, not quantity, that is resonating more and more with consumers today.”
Peter Deutsch, President of Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits, importer of Vidal-Fleury wines, points out that one of the Rhône’s strengths is offering well-made options at a variety of price points, not unlike cars and other products. What Deutsch finds most surprising is the sudden rise of rosés from the Rhône over the last few years. In 2014, Deutsch cited Nielsen data that reports fully a third (36%) of all Rhône wines sold were rosés. It’s a phenomenon he attributes to the growing popularity of rosés in general, including those from Rhône’s neighbor—Provence.
Summing up the prevailing optimism for these versatile wines, Martin Sinkoff, VP and Director of Marketing at Frederick Wildman and Sons, Ltd., importer of the Paul Jaboulet Aîné and the popular Jaboulet Parallèle 45 line, says, “We are bullish on the Rhône as a category. The wines fit the market, offering lots of variety, lots of flavor, rich textures and great value. White wines and rosé wines will continue to grow, though red wines will continue to drive the category.”
With or without a boost from the Mistral, Rhône wines appear poised to achieve still greater heights for America’s merchants and restaurateurs.
Lionel de Ravel, U.S. Director, Gabriel Meffre, a wine producer based in Gigondas and marketed by Vision Wine & Spirits, emphasizes that the region’s momentum seems to have been picking up: “In just the last three years, American consumers have truly discovered the fantastic value Rhône wines offer.”
Perhaps some credit is due to the region’s generic ad campaign—“Côtes-du-Rhône: Always Right.”—which started back in 2009 and emphasizes the wine’s more versatile, accessible and contemporary identity, relative to other French wines. Eschewing traditional vineyard and grape visuals, the ads tapped common contexts and images that portrayed the flagship red’s ability to swing from casual to formal settings—e.g., jeans to tuxedo, pizza to haute cuisine.
Story-telling helps, too. Mel Dick, Senior Vice President and President of the Wine Division, Southern Wine & Spirits of America, which distributes several top Rhône producers, says: “People love to learn the stories associated with wines like Châteauneuf-du-Pape; it’s the Pope’s wine. So when retailers and restaurateurs share these stories, customers recall these wines.”
Here are some tips to keep your Rhône crush going as strong as the Mistral wind:
Geography Lesson. United by the river Rhône, the Rhône Valley overall must be viewed as two very distinct parts. In the rugged, mountainous Northern Rhône, Syrah is the only red planted; in the southern part, red blends rule (comprised typically of mostly Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignan).
Rhône wines are versatile. The Rhône’s grape-variety tool kit and propensity for blending help maintain a family resemblance across appellations that encourages experimentation. If a customer likes Côtes-du-Rhône, suggest similarly styled and priced wines from Ventoux. For those who enjoy Gigondas, Vacqueyras is likely to be a favorite as well. And for customers tiring of overripe Syrahs, a peppery Northern Rhône might be just the ticket.
Southern Rhône wines are blended. Not entirely by coincidence, the Rhône revival echoes several major trends in wine today. Red blends, for example, are red-hot in the U.S. market; Rhône blends are as old as the vine-covered hills. Grenache/Garnacha has been pegged as a candidate for the next big grape; the Rhône is loaded with Grenache. And as rosé and organic wines continue to gain attention, the Rhône is well-positioned.
Remember the sweet side. Some 2,000 years ago, Roman Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural History: “The Muscat grape has been grown for a long time in Beaumes and its wine is remarkable.” For sweet wine lovers, do not forget the Vins Doux Naturels of Muscat de Beaumes-de-Vénise (sweet, vivid and appley); and dark, rich Rasteau, based on
The author would like to thank Beverage Media for permission to reprint this article.