It has a 2000 year heritage and is the second largest producer of appellation wine in France. Rhône expert Matt Walls talks us through the terroirs, trends and drive for sustainability in this benchmark region.
Numbers in the Rhône valley are daunting. With 67,000 hectares under vine, it’s second only to Bordeaux in terms of growing AOC wine. Matt Walls is one of the world’s acknowledged experts on the region, and, with over 5,000 producers of Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages, even he admits that you’ll never get to know them all. ‘There’s new producers popping up all the time,’ he says. ‘It’s what makes it so exciting.’
Not only that, but there are also 23 grape varieties to get your head around. In a region that’s 87% focused on red wines, Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvedre are the big names, but Carignan, Cinsault and Counoise are increasingly influential too.
It helps to think of the region’s wines in the form of a pyramid. The bedrock is Côtes du Rhône, which is about half of all production, above this are Côtes du Rhône Villages, Côtes du Rhône Villages with a named village (22 of them), and then at the top 17 Crus (such as Gigondas or Côte Rotie).
The further up the pyramid you go, the tighter the regulations, with lower yields and more restrictions on permitted grape varieties. Côtes du Rhône Villages wines, for instance, can’t include the Cabernet/Grenache cross, Marselan.
One of the features of the Rhône is that it regularly delivers impressive value for money – something which we found in this tasting. But Matt points out that the ‘Côtes du Rhône Village wines with named villages’ area is a particularly good place for dynamic sommeliers to go hunting.
They’re places that have demonstrated something special in their terroir, and are striving to get to the hallowed cru status. It’s a fluid system. Cairanne was promoted to Cru status in 2016, Nyons to ‘named village’ status in 2020.
‘These are the kind of wines that somms should know about because you can demonstrate your knowledge,’ says Matt.
Like everywhere else in the wine world, the Rhône is having to face up to climate change. Temperatures are 1.4 degrees higher on average now than they were in the late 1970s. Rainfall hasn’t dropped, but now tends to come mostly in the winter, leaving hot, dry summers. Vintages are coming earlier.
To combat this, growers are increasingly adding dashes of white wine to their blends, which is permitted under the legislation. Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris and Clairette are all popular.
The Rhône’s grape varieties are already highly resistant to drought, but varieties such as Carignan, which retains its acidity, and Counoise which tends to give ripe grapes at lower alcohol levels, are growing in importance.
With lots of sun and the ‘natural disinfectant’ of the Mistral wind blowing down the valley from the north (sometimes so strongly that it can snap vines) the Rhône is a good place for hands-off grape growing.
Already 11% of Côtes du Rhône vineyards are certified organic. For Côtes du Rhône Villages with named villages this rises to 16%. And across the region, the amount of organic vineyards is increasing. The Haut Valeur Environnementale scheme (HVE) launched in 2011 encourages growers to make decisions that are good for the environment without necessarily having to commit to full-on organic conversion.
Growers limit chemical products, promote biodiversity and practise good water management. It’s all helping to preserve this essential region for future generations.
Les Cassagnes de la Nerthe, AOC Côtes du Rhône, 2020 White
Our first white came from Chateau de la Nerthe, one of the oldest wine producers in region, which began in 1560, and is based in Chateauneuf du Pape.
Grenache Blanc is the most widely planted white variety, so no surprise it makes up 40% of the blend here, along with equal parts Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier.
Grenache Blanc is a relatively plain variety but this makes it a good canvas on which to layer other, more expressive grapes.
Acidity is not a big factor in Rhône whites – and it wasn’t in this rich, opulent wine. But Matt believes tasters need to reset their approach.
‘When you sink your teeth into a pear you don’t expect it to have acidity – you just appreciate its delicious flavours,’ he said. ‘Things don’t always need acidity to be refreshing. There’s room for other white wine styles out there. White Hermitage is low acidity but can age for 20 – 30 years and it’s brilliant with food.’
Domaine Galuval, AOC Côtes du Rhône Villages, Le Coq Volant, 2020
From round Cairanne and Rasteau, our second wine made an interesting contrast to the first. Equal parts Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Viognier and Clairette, with no malolactic, it was paler and crisper.
There was less of a sense of richness, and a little more freshness. At just 12.5% abv (low for the Rhône) it suggested it may have been picked earlier.
Rhône whites can be amazing value. While the first was very definitely a food wine, this well-priced example could work as a by the glass pour, though Steve Kirkham suggested it would also be a good match with sushi.
In a straw poll our tasters were evenly split as to which they preferred.
Domaine Eyguestre, AOC Côtes du Rhône Villages Séguret rosé, 2021
Our only rosé and our first ‘named village’ wine, this came from Séguret in the Dentelles de Montmirail, round Gigondas. A mountain terroir, it’s a 50/50 Grenache/Cinsault blend from north-facing slopes at 250m altitude.
‘It’s nice to see Cinsault,’ said Matt. ‘It’s a lovely grape and people are just starting to get turned on to its charms. It retains its acidity and does well in dry, drought conditions, so we’re going to see more of that.’
The muscular food-rosés of Tavel are the best known pinks in the region, but many producers of Côtes du Rhône rosé are moving towards paler and drier styles. Somewhat more Provence-like, though with the advantage of being generally well priced.
Domaine St Patrice, AOC Côtes du Rhône, 2017
Bordering Chateauneuf du Pape, this was a famous property in the 1800s but fell into disrepair and has since been revived, with its first vintage in 2015. 2016 was the star vintage for the region, though 2017 was also pretty good – structured and tannic.
A Grenache, Mourvedre Syrah, it’s quite old for a Côtes du Rhône, with most wines drunk within a couple of years of vintage, though the majority of wines happily last for several years and well-made ones from good vintages can go for decades.
‘These wines often last a lot longer than people think,’ said Matt, and our Collective members had good things to say about the commercial usefulness of wines at this price and in this style.
Domaine de la Mordorée, AOC Côtes du Rhône, 2021
This estate grows across a number of different terroirs. Certified biodynamic, this Grenache, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Carignan blend tasted very Grenache-y – red plums and strawberries with a little floral, violet edge. Our tasters liked its fluidity, acidity and energy.
‘In Tavel you can only make rosé,’ explained Matt. ‘Reds or whites need to be bottled as Côtes du Rhône. But the sandy terroir is amazing – and you’re seeing a lot of experimentation there and in Lirac.’
Gonzalo Rodriguez found it ‘playful and perfumed but robust enough for food matching’. Sara Bachiorri described it as ‘elegant, beautiful, and fragrant. Very pretty’.
Domaine de la Montine, AOC Côtes du Rhône Villages, Caprices Village, 2020
Based in the northern reaches of the Southern Rhône, this wine is mostly Grenache (70%) on galets roulés (pudding stones) and tasted markedly different to the previous (sand-grown) wine: darker, richer and more structured.
Despite being only 30% Syrah, its brambly character meant it tasted a lot more Syrah-y, and we wondered whether there might be some whole-bunch in the ferment.
‘It’s something we’re seeing more and more,’ said Matt. ‘It helps to counter the hot vintages that we’re seeing. It adds freshness and a bit of herbal detail and reduces the alcohol level.
‘Syrah structure is quite particular,’ he continued. ‘You often feel tannin on the middle of your tongue rather than the lips, which is where you’d see Grenache tannins’. A useful tip for blind tastings!
Domaine de l’Amandine, AOC Côtes du Rhône Villages Séguret, 2020
From the mountain terroir of Séguret, this village goes right up into the mountains with lots of different expositions. Soils are mostly clay limestone, sometimes with a bit of sand.
The wine is made by a South African, Alex Suter, who was working in France on a year out and fell in love with the daughter of the estate owner.
There’s an unusually high proportion of Syrah in this wine (60%) – the variety responds well to the higher, cooler vineyards in this appellation.
Michael Stewart said the fruit ‘pops out – blackcurrant, black pepper and herbs.’
Domaine des Pasquiers, AOC Côtes du Rhône Villages Plan de Dieu, 2020
The ‘named village’ of Plan de Dieu is a very dependable appellation, with this estate one of the best producers.
It’s a high quality wine with lots of damson and plum compote flavours backed up by a herbal note. Generous and full-bodied it nonetheless has freshness and balance. Aemelia Nehab said it would be good with lamb and mint.
Certainly, it’s the kind of wine to back up Matt’s earlier assertion that the ‘named village’ part of the pyramid is the sweet spot in terms of quality and value.
Wisdom has it that Laudun could be the next to be promoted to Cru level, but Plan de Dieu, Séguret, Massif d’Ucheaux, Signargues and Sablet all have excellent – and very different wine styles too.
‘There are named villages that give wines with zing and electricity and ones that are bigger and more powerful,’ said Matt. ‘It all depends what you like.’
WINES OF THE RHONE by Matt Walls
If you’d like chapter and verse on the Rhône and its producers, check out Matt’s seminal Wines of the Rhône book, which was recently short-listed for the Andre Simon Food and Drink Book awards.
Download the slide presentation
Watch the video
Variety is a big part of the Loire story – and the members who attended our sessions in London and Edinburgh discovered big differences in the key sparkling wine styles.
With nearly 500km from its coastal vineyards to those furthest inland, it’s no wonder that the Loire is one of the most varied wine growing regions in France. There are significant amounts of wine in pretty much every style, from light, early-drinking whites like Muscadet through its famous Sauvignon Blancs to richer, long-lived Chenin Blancs and Chardonnays.
And that’s just the still whites. Add in rosé (a quarter of all production), probably the world’s benchmark expression of Cabernet Franc and sweet and sparkling wines, and it’s clear that there’s an awful lot to get to know.
Most sommeliers are pretty familiar with Loire Sauvignon in general, as well as Muscadet. But how about some of the less well-known expressions? Probably not so much.
So in these two masterclasses, in association with the folk at InterLoire, we decided to take our members on a journey through the region’s sparkling wines and Cabernet Francs.
The reds and sparkling wines are somewhat less ubiquitous than the still whites, though they’re not exactly niched. Between them, red and sparkling wines are over 1/3 of the region’s production.
Although they are slightly unusual, there’s still really good availability, which means these styles can be a great way to add some real layers of interest to your list.
Loire Valley Wines
Our sparkling masterclass started with a quick introductory flight to prepare palates and show off some of the region’s still, non-red styles, from Muscadet to sweet Vouvray via a Rosé d’Anjou.
‘Many Loire regions can go in any direction, to make still wine, sparkling wine or sweet,’ explained host, Mathieu Longuere MS. ‘What they make on any given year usually depends on the vintage.
‘If Chenin Blanc is not ripe enough one year to make still wine, they can make sparkling,’ he explained. ‘They are lucky with the varieties they have.’
A still Chenin Blanc, the Chateau de Villeneuve Saumur Blanc, was popular with Isobel Salomon who found it a ‘particularly elegant expression, and very balanced.’ Her suggested pairing was cod or Scottish halibut with a buttery emulsion.
Saumur Fines Bulles
As an ‘instant sell’ to your customers, it’s hard to beat the chalk cellars of Saumur – the kilometres of passageways and caverns carved out under the cream-coloured town are a UNESCO world heritage site.
That same thick ridge of limestone works well with white varieties, in particular. Most of the Saumur Fines Bulles are all or mostly Chenin Blanc, with Chardonnay and, to a lesser extent, Cabernet Franc commonly used as well. ‘Fines Bulles’ (fine bubbles) is used for sparkling wines from appellations that also make still wine (such as Saumur, Touraine and Vouvray).
Given that they all came from one area, just south of the town, the Saumur Fines Bulles wines showed a surprising variety of styles, from clean, classic ‘aperitif sparklers’ to more ‘vinous’ “Méthode Ancestrale” versions with lower fizz.
All the wines in Saumur are méthode traditionelle, with a second fermentation in the bottle.
‘But in “Méthode Ancestrale” wines they use a semi-dry base wine to start the second fermentation,’ explained Mathieu Longuere MS. ‘The more time the wine spends on lees, the more integrated the bubbles.’
Some of these differences are due to winemaking decisions, others are down to the various slopes, angles and microclimates, that give wines of very different ripenesses even within the same appellation.
‘You could see from the flight of five Saumur Fines Bulles wines that we had that there’s a huge variety of styles within the appellation,’ said Mathieu. ‘There’s a lot of freedom – space for everybody.’
While Condita’s Konstantinos Katridis picked the decidedly gastronomic Domaine du Vieux Pressoir as his favourite wine, he felt that, in general, these would be great as pre-dinner serves.
Crémant de Loire
The big swings in style seen in the Fines Bulles appellations of Saumur and (later) Vouvray, is less of a factor for Crémant de Loire. Grapes can be taken from across the region so it’s a lot more consistent. Here, the biggest flavour influencer is the varieties used.
Chenin (naturally high in acidity) is usually the preferred base variety, but Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc can figure prominently, too.
The wines must have at least 12 months bottle ageing, though many producers give them more than this. Yeasty autolytic characters start to appear after 18 months.
The InterContinental’s Fernando Cubas was a fan of the Langlois Crémant de Loire brut for its freshness and acidity, and felt it would be a good (and well-priced) by-the-glass addition.
Certainly, our tasters felt that reliability and value were a big selling point of this flight.
‘It’s not a Marmite wine, love it or hate it,’ mused Mathieu. ‘It’s a style that people will never turn down. And though there are times when you want to surprise a customer there are also times when you don’t.’
Vouvray Fines Bulles
From rocky hillsides, and with a minimum of 12 months ageing, Vouvray Fines Bulles must be 100% Chenin and, with its taut acidity, has the potential for good mid- to long-term ageing.
Although these wines were all from one single appellation, it’s perhaps no surprise that there were big variations in the wines here. Vouvray runs more or less along the Loire river from just east of Saumur through a further eight municipalities.
Not only were winemakers making wines from quite different microclimates, but it was obvious, too, that they were also making the wines in quite different ways. Perhaps because of this, it was the star sparkling flight for several of our attendees.
‘The Vouvray Fines Bulles wines surprised and impressed me in terms of delivering the quality that I look for when encouraging guests to step out of their bubbly comfort zone and trying something new,’ said Douneside House’s James Payne MS. ‘Either by the bottle to accompany food or as part of a tasting menu wine flight.’
Mathieu agreed. ‘They all have a varietal character – you really know you’re in Chenin Blanc territory,’ he said. ‘But within that, they will all be different.’
Several attendees picked out the Domaine Vigneau Chevreau nv as their favourite sparkling overall.
‘It had brilliant flinty notes alongside that hazelnut, quince jam sweetness,’ said Eden Locke’s Isobel Salomon. ‘It’s a great champagne alternative.’
Damien Trinckquel from Number One at the Balmoral also loved its medium body.
Food and wine matching is the heart of the sommelier’s job; a combination of passion and flair, but also knowledge and experience. This is why the Gosset Matchmakers competition has established itself so quickly in the heart of the profession – because it taps straight into what makes the job both interesting and challenging.
To remind you how it works: a chef/sommelier team select an expression from the Gosset range of champagnes, and work together to create a dish that they think matches it perfectly.
It’s a chance for young chefs and sommeliers – entrants must have less than five years’ experience – to show what they can do. To ally teamwork and vision with creativity and delivering under pressure.
Sifting through the entries was a particular treat this year, since we’d asked the candidates to create short Instagram videos showing what they had done and why. We felt as though we’d got to know the entrants even before we’d tasted their amazing creations!
There was so much skill and talent on show that creating a shortlist was a tough task indeed.
But here are the entrants to make our first ‘cut’, with the finalists due to be announced next week.
Having seen so many wonderful looking food-pairings on screen, we can’t wait to taste them in real life – and we hope you enjoy watching their videos as much as we did!
Gosset Matchmakers Shortlist 2021
(entrants listed in alphabetical order)
67 Pall Mall, London
Lucy Meza-Ortega and Sammy Benouhoud
Chosen Wine: Gosset Grand Blanc de Blancs Brut
The team at 67 Pall Mall elected to match the Gosset Grand Blanc de Blancs with a dessert containing many of the champagne’s key flavours of citrus and stone-fruit.
‘When we first tasted this champagne we were delighted by its elegance and refinement,’ said sommelier Lucy. ‘We wanted to mirror this through a simple yet effective dish, where balance is key.’
At the base of the dish was a champagne-infused jelly with lime zest and a touch of lavender flower, on top of that a crème patissiere infused with fresh apricot, apricot tartare, robed with honey, apricot and smoked thyme coulis. Finally there was a sprinkling of crumble, also infused with lime zest and smoked thyme.
‘We put together all this to bring out the beautiful flavours of the champagne without hiding them,’ explained Lucy. ‘They really come together to create something that elevates both the dish and the champagne without hiding each other’s components.’
City Social, London
Ljudmila Bobik and Adam Cowie
Chosen Wine: Gosset Grande Reserve Brut
The starting point for this team’s pairing was a simple one: ‘It was inspired by the idea of ‘it goes where it grows’,’ said sommelier Ljudmila. Champagne, as she pointed out, is famous for its rabbit dishes, so that’s what they majored on.
In this case, the rabbit was wrapped in parma ham with new Jersey potatoes, morels, broad beans and peas, finished with a truffle black mushroom puree with pea shoots. An accompanying sauce was made from rabbit bone stock.
‘The rabbit is cooked sous vide so it’s very delicate, and the champagne pairs with it very nicely and brings some more savouriness,’ explained Ljudmila. ‘Also it cuts the richness and toastiness of the parma ham while cleaning the palate. The elegance, freshness and complexity of the champagne is a perfect match.’
The Creameries, Manchester
Emily-Rose Lucas and Vic Watkins
Chosen wine: Gosset Grande Reserve Brut
Both Emily-Rose and her chef, Vic, were of one mind with their choice of matching the Gosset Grande Reserve with a dessert.
‘The sweetness that comes through on it, followed by that very beautiful nutty profile… We found it incredibly appealing to work with,’ said Emily-Rose.
‘As soon as we tried it, we thought it would pair really well with a quite salty or savoury dessert,’ added Vic.
The result was a take on a Gateau Breton: a brown butter biscuit base, on top of which are prunes gently cooked in manzanilla sherry, ice cream made out of a ‘tangy and creamy’ Irish sheep’s cheese with malt loaf biscotti and roasted almonds to give it some rich malty flavour.
Fischer’s Baslow Hall, Chesterfield
Matthew Davison and Adam Eyre
Chosen wine: Gosset Grand Blanc de Blancs Brut
The entry from the Peak District designed an ambitious scallop dish that they were hoping would ‘encapsulate the five tastes that you would experience on your palate.’
Looking towards the autumn season, they started with a hand dived-Orkney scallop with nori salt, baked celeriac, fermented ceps from ‘last season’s forage’, XO sauce, umeboshi furikake with more sliced nori on top and a reduced celeriac stock.
‘We are looking more towards autumn with this dish,’ explained sommelier Matthew. ‘But we feel that the fact that Gosset don’t do any malolactic fermentation means the true expression of champagne will shine through and allow it to cut through the natural sweetness of the scallop. It offers toasted and nutty subtleties to complement our dish and create balance.’
The Game Bird at The Stafford, London
Davide Santeramo and Marco d’Andrea
Chosen wine: Gosset Grand Blanc de Blancs Brut
Chef Marco created a vibrant green asparagus risotto with a carpaccio of Sicilian red prawns on top of it with crispy onion garnish and artfully positioned blobs of yuzu cream that captured the very essence of early summer.
And it was this joyous, breezy element that formed the basis for the wine matching.
‘I chose the Gosset Blanc de Blancs to go with this because of the elegance and finesse of the wine,’ said sommelier Davide. ‘It should match perfectly with the flavours in the dish. The risotto is made in a light, summery style so the acidity of the champagne will cut through the creaminess and fattiness without being overwhelmed.
‘I also think the citrus notes of the champagne will work well with the red prawn carpaccio placed on top.’
Sketch: Lecture Room & Library, London
Emeline Gigaud and Francesco Di Flumeri
Chosen wine: Gosset Grand Blanc de Blancs Brut
Emeline and Francesco created a video that was something of a work of art, featuring the grand arrival of the bottle and ingredients into the venue, and a beautifully-shot preparation and serving of not one, but two dishes – a starter and a dessert – based on the same key ingredients.
‘We started with the concept that champagne and blanc de blancs is always suggested at the beginning of the meal, but never enjoyed with the dessert,’ said Emeline. The idea was to tap into Gosset’s sustainability message by using the same ingredients throughout.
The main course was a ‘trompe l’oeil’ of Granny Smith apple poached in oyster and champagne dressing, scallops coral foam with Gosset blanc de blancs jelly, Granny Smith and samphire salad with apple vinaigrette and breadcrumbs. ‘The dish extends the continuity of the champagne,’ explained Emeline. ‘It’s all about the balance between the delicacy of the creaminess and the twist of the freshness.’
The dessert – Lemon Amalfi confit with vanilla – used the same components but ‘worked in a different way’. ‘This is a contrast pairing,’ said Emeline. ‘Proof that minerality and sweetness are not opposed, but can be complementary.’
Where The Light Gets In, Stockport
Emily Klomp and Seri Nam
Chosen wine: Gosset Grand Blanc de Blancs Brut
‘Champagne is usually associated with quite luxurious ingredients,’ said sommelier Emily. ‘So I think what we’ve decided to pair with it is very interesting.’
Certainly, the innovation is to be applauded. This does not look like a dish that would be served in too many restaurants in and around Reims.
‘The delicate flowers on the nose and saline finish took us straight to the beach,’ explained Emily. ‘For the oldest champagne house we created something luxurious but patient and considered at the same time.’
The main ingredient is onion and scallop entrail sauce. ‘We cooked the onion wrapped in kombu and steamed after leaving it to marinate overnight,’ said chef Seri.
The sauce was emulsified with butter, soy and plum wine, before over the top they added a little hawthorn oil, pickled samphire (foraged locally), sea purslane powder, and a touch of maromi ‘a by-product of our bread soy-making process’.
‘The sea herbs bring forward the chalky minerality, and a little plum wine in the sauce heightens those mirabelle plum notes on the nose,’ explained Emily. ‘Seri’s idea to marinate the onions gently in kombu brings out a really delicious savoury, umami note in the wine.’