Something’s afoot in the Rhône – Mike finds a new love…

If you’re reading this over breakfast then I do apologise – no one should have to face the sight of me in my boxers and a climbing harness whilst choking on their muesli.  But I think this partially-dressed moment was the point at which my love was confirmed and I knew that I’d found someone I had to bring home to introduce to you.  I think you’ll love her too.

I need to backtrack.  We’re often asked how we go about sourcing our wines.  I’d love to be able to say that we visit every winemaker ourselves and that we buy direct from the vineyard – wouldn’t that be a fab way to live life? Although we do find some of our wines that way (in fact we’ve just sent Harriet off to search for wines in Austria), the truth is for the most part we work with trusted partners who import a range of wines from which we make our selection.  Some of these partners are one-man/woman-bands who’ve developed a specialty within a particular country or region, and some are bigger outfits with a network of local experts who import wines from around the world.

Boutinot falls into the big boys category.  In fact Boutinot is so big they’re the playground equivalent of that lad we all knew at school who was a foot taller than his mates and was shaving at the age of 12… they’re big.  I guess we buy about a third of our range from them and they do an amazing job of sourcing interesting wines that also represent incredible value.  They’re masters of their trade.  But, and here’s where they’re unusual, they also make their own wine.

Now, I’m going to be really honest with you.  I hadn’t paid too much attention to their own wines and, looking back, I’m not sure why that is.  I think it’s maybe because psychologically I’d put their wines into an “own label” bucket.  Somehow, without me consciously thinking about it, Boutinot wines had in my mind become synonymous with the mince that gets labelled as Tesco’s “Value”… well priced, and it might be alright at a push, but you wouldn’t have it as your first choice.  So I was really interested when they invited me to their vineyard in the the southern Rhône to see how they make their wine up close.  Shall I cut to the chase?  I was wrong.  I was very, very wrong.

IMG_3350Located in the South East of France, the Rhône produces over 4 million hectolitres of wine each year.  Over 400 million bottles are sold each year and every 13 seconds someone in the world pops the cork from a Rhône wine. Some cracking white wines are made in the Rhône but it only accounts for 6% of their production.  There are some interesting rosés to be found too (in fact in the Rhône apparently one glass drunk in every four is a rosé) but the region is of course best known for its red wines.  Wines of Northern Rhône are best known for big reds made only from Syrah (think in terms of Crozes-Hermitage and Cornas) while the Southern Rhône is better known for blends from famous appellations such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  But it was the lesser-known appellation of Cairanne that we were headed for.  Pretty isn’t it?

Cairanne has just been elevated to a Cru – the highest classification for a Rhône wine.  This is the classification that Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and Rasteau fall into.  Confused by the classification of Rhône wines?  Me too.  Here it is (I think…)

Côtes du Rhône:  Entry level.  Can be used by the whole Rhône region covering over 140,000 acres and 6000 producers.  So there’s lots of variation in terms of style and quality.

Côtes du Rhône Villages:  Formed in 1953 this appellation describes wines that come from a tightly defined region to the North and West of Châteauneuf-du-Pape covering less than an eighth of the land that Côtes du Rhône does.  Stricter controls apply in terms of grape variety and maximum yields.  Better land and tighter controls on production methods should result in better wine.

Côtes du Rhône Villages (named villages):  Told you it was confusing.  Since the named village appellation was formed in 1966, sixteen villages have been awarded their own appellations which, in simple terms, means that you’ll see the name of the village on the label.  It also means that even tighter controls apply to their maximum yields which is intended to further improve quality.  Some of these appellations are so small that you rarely see them outside of the region.  Others have a density of increasingly well-regarded producers that means their reputation has grown.  Cairanne was among this number before being elevated to a Cru…

Cru:  Named villages which are thought to be capable of making the best wines in the region.  Just to add to the confusion, a cru may have just the village on the label with no mention of the Rhône at all (like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, St-Joseph, Hermitage, Cornas, Gigondas and the newbie Cairanne)

Why…on…earth have I bored you with all of this guff (assuming that anyone has read this far).  Well it’s because right now the wines coming out of the Boutinot winery in Cairanne are labelled as Côtes du Rhone Village but they’ve been using the same methods and controls that have just seen them elevated to a Cru.  This means you’re getting an awful lot of wine for your bucks and I reckon you should snap some up before the labelling and pricing catches up with their new classification!

IIMG_3341‘ve seen first hand the sheer effort, graft and craftsmanship that goes into making a wine designated as a Cru.  Take the fetching photo of me in my pants with my feet in a massive vat.  That vast, 6000 litre oak vessel has been filled with grapes that have been harvested carefully by hand from rocky, hillside vineyards.  No mechanical methods were used and only the best grapes were selected.  Whole bunches were laid in the tank and left to ferment naturally using nothing more than the natural yeast on the skin of the grapes.  After a few days fermentation starts and the grapes start to release their juice.  CO2 from the fermentation forces the remaining grapes to the top of the tank to form a cap.  Now you could use a mechanical method to force the grapes back down or, if you’re a Cru winemaker, you get someone lowered into the tank a couple of times a day to perform “pigeage”.  Or, as you or I might say, to stomp the grapes back under the surface.

I can testify that pigeage is hard work… really hard work – I had the thigh burn and wine-stained legs to prove it.  And, although behind the smirking French winemaking team there was a long, metal hand-held, pole-type tool that looked like it might be used to do the same job that an unwitting visitor had just done in his pants, the manual nature of the technique was indicative of the care shown for the quality of the wine from harvesting to bottling (incidentally what does a French winemaker do and the end of a long day crafting fine wine?  Have a fag and a Heineken, naturally).

DSCF6619As is always the case when I visit a vineyard, I’m left wondering how they do it.  There’s the sheer graft of the agriculture and the sheer craft of the winemaking.  How do these wizards taste a murky old tank sample and discern how it’s going to taste when it’s been blended with five other grape varieties and aged in oak for up to a year then aged in bottle for a year or two?  I don’t know.  That’s the magic of the wine-making process and it always leaves me startled that this amazing product costs as little as it does.

So, of the any and varied wines I tasted on your behalf over a hectic two days (as depicted in the image to the right – you’re welcome) there were three of four stand out wines that we’ll be adding to the shelves.  But the one I kept returning to (and the one I ended up drinking far too much of each evening) was the Les Six 2014.  A blend of all six grape varieties (hence Les Six) that  Boutinot grow on the chalky slopes above Cairanne (Grenache, Mourvédre, Syrah, Carignan Noir, Consult and Counoise).

les_Six_91_points_and_others_.001It’s freshness and elegance comes in part, I am told, from the high chalk content in the soil (where just 2 inches of top soil sits on a deep bed of chalk and clay).  It’s very smooth with peppery red and black fruits and just a hint of oak from the ten months spent in that vast oak vat.

It’s so good that Kate even made room for it in this month’s Select 6 case.

I found it very, very drinkable and incredible value at just £13.00 (or only £11.70 to club members).

So, that’s a wine that now sits up there with Châteauneuf-du-Pape for just £11.70 (for now).  If this wine is an “own label” then it’s very much “Waitrose 1” rather than “Tesco’s Value” and I’ve been reminded that only an idiot judges a book by it’s cover.  BUY NOW