A fine and frosty expedition


Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the cool sunlight.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the cool sunlight

The newest member of our Fine Wine team, Nick Stewart, recounts the adventures of the team’s trip to the decidedly chilly Rhône, from transport concerns to canteen offerings, via a few of the wines from the 2013 vintage.

I first visited the Rhône Valley four years ago and suffice to say that the itinerary wasn’t nearly as appealing: a rogue tour guide carted us around various minor properties before refusing to leave until he had been adequately fed. I am not renowned for my ability behind the wheel of a car but I am certain that the day would have passed more smoothly – and with fewer heart-in-the-mouth moments – had I been holding the reins between Aix-en-Provence and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It was with great anticipation then that I boarded the flight to Marseille with my Fine Wine colleagues for a three-day trip to the region, which would encompass the finest estates not only in Châteauneuf, but also Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie to the north.

As with my previous excursion, the trip was not without vehicular trouble: a burst tyre some 20 minutes outside Marseille proved to be a good team-building exercise as, with lorries whizzing past at great speed, a group of English wine merchants could be seen huddled on the hard shoulder, clad in fluorescent jackets discussing the proper application of a jack. Crisis averted, we checked into our hotel in Avignon ready to sample the 2013 vintage the following day.

Our first visit was to the established and distinctive Vieux Télégraphe, a personal favourite of mine both for the quality of the wines annually but simultaneously the value they offer. Whilst it didn’t prove to be a stellar range from this estate in 2013, the wines were elegant and the friendly Claire Latcher seemed to think that time in bottle would add the necessary ‘gras’ to some pure red fruit, black pepper and mocha. A short hop to Château de Beaucastel proved far more revealing, as we tasted through the entire range from this fabled name in the presence of the passionate and informative Marc Perrin. We were collectively very impressed with the elegance and concentration of the vintage and as Monsieur Perrin said himself, global warming renders cooler vintages with longer ripening seasons more elegant – witness 2008 which is in full bloom now. Lunch was hosted by Château la Nerthe post-tasting and in the afternoon, the group split in half in order to cover more ground before re-convening in the dusk and gloom for what proved to be an excellent tasting at La Janasse – a 1994 from the family cellar was a rare treat for the internal spittoon. At dinner that evening, we discussed our afternoon tasting visits and particular mentions were given to Sabon, the quality of whose wines seem outstanding this year, and, for those that love the signature rusticity, Pegau who have branched out into rosé production with the very quaffable ‘Pink Pegau’.

Moving further north, visits to Chapoutier, Sorrel, Coursodon, Voge and Tunnel were excellent. Chapoutier’s wines were polished, however the terroir was distinctive in each of the different cuvées, both red and white, and overall quality was very high, with some incredibly exciting wines from the north in 2013. Lunch in the Chapoutier canteen was unlike any other institutional food I have come across – there was certainly no venison haunch on the menu at my alma mater. There was a marked contrast going from the corporate environment and plush ambience of Chapoutier to the rustic and chilly cellar of Marc Sorrel; however the quality on show certainly rivalled that of its more ostentatious neighbour.

Our final day was a feast of Côte-Rôtie’s most famous names; beginning with Gerin and ending with Ogier, the reserved and aristocratic Réné Rostaing sandwiched in-between. Again the quality of the wines was very high, and the passion of the men and women charged with production evident for all to see. In Stéphane Ogier’s case his enthusiasm was embodied by bricks and mortar in the form of his space-age winery, newly constructed and overlooking the appellation’s most famous slopes. Tasting through his numerous lieux-dits was fascinating, however the perishing cold began to win and a few of our number turned a frosty shade of blue. Before anyone could make their polite excuses, heading for the exit and muttering the immortal line, ‘I’m just going outside and may be some time’, we were saved by a hearty lunch and the return flight from Lyon.

The 2013 vintage in the Rhône Valley is a success; customers and critics alike should wait with bated breath for the tasting on the 25th and for me, it will be another opportunity to sample and – funds allowing – purchase some excellent and elegant wines for the cellar, with the added bonus of One Great George Street’s fully-functioning thermostat.

Make up your own mind about the 2013 vintage from the Rhône at our tasting on 25th February, before Rhône 2013: En Primeur launches on 26th February.