Much attention is paid to the red wines of southeast France’s Rhône Valley – and for good reason – but certain dissimilarities can make it difficult to know what you’re purchasing. When it comes to the classic Thanksgiving dinner, polished reds at the lighter end of the Rhône spectrum, along with their broad whites and rosés, will grace the table with their finesse.
More than 2,000 years ago, the Greeks began planting vines along the Rhône River. The Romans followed in their footsteps, establishing trade, but the groundwork for its acclaim today really began in the 1300s, when the papacy relocated here from Rome. The clergy’s clout, attention to detail and choice of grapes led to the region’s image – a global Syrah- and ‘GSM’ blend icon for many other producers abroad.
In wine circles, the valley is divided into two sub-regions, north and south, as they each experience two general climatic influences, resulting in two general styles.
The cooler north, much smaller in terms of production and size, produces the most prestigious wines. Names like Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage might come to mind, crus (appellations) of gravitas, renowned for their bracing wines. Only one red grape is permitted here, Syrah, with Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne as the white grapes – all four entirely native to the Rhône’s relatively small area.
The warmer southern Rhône is vast and makes use of a cornucopia of different grapes, with Grenache being the mainstay of the blends. It has claim to one of the most recognizable names in French wine, or indeed of any red wine: Châteauneuf-du-pape, the country’s first official appellation.
Quality levels across the valley range from everyday wines to some even dipping into the secondary market, but incredible value, in most instances, is the hallmark of the region. As styles can vary, an understanding of the grapes used will be of assistance when choosing a wine.
You may be familiar with the grape Syrah; in other countries it is known as Shiraz. In wine-speak, however, there is a clear distinction between the two, as they now each refer to a style.
The Australians were the first to name the grape Shiraz, and as their climate is rather hot in comparison, the wines produced took on quite a different guise – much more jammy, rich and robust. Other new world countries, such as South Africa, have adopted the name, producing wines of similar character.
Syrah, on the other hand, from the windy northern Rhône, is much more restrained and therefore gastronomically more dynamic. This style is often replicated in New Zealand and Washington state, for example. Velvety, with fine but firm tannins; a display of gentle black pepper notes, sometimes violets, and resplendent with blackberries and cherries, Syrah would be superb with the dark meat of roast turkey and the stuffing.
Cave de Tain Héritiers Gambert Nobles Rives Crozes-Hermitage 2020, $27.95 LCBO 572230
Many differing terroirs mark the southern Rhône to which several designations and crus have been assigned. Generic Cotes-du-Rhône is, more often than not, the product of blending different areas from all over the south; more transparent sourcing defines Cotes-du-Rhône-Villages, though, and is usually a significant step up in quality.
Many of the south’s reds are very forward and therefore situational when it comes to pairing with a meal. One made entirely of Grenache, as is permitted in the cru Gigondas; good proportions of Cinsaut; and surely those of sandy soils will produce elegant examples. The following Châteauneuf-du-Pape is enticing, relatively lightweight and silky textured with soft tannins and alluring stewed strawberry aromas – indeed, a poised accompaniment to all the classic fixings and for all guests.
Domaine du Vieux Lazaret Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2019, $36,75 SAQ 11808822 (Hudson, St-Lazare)
Rising in popularity yet still sorely overlooked and only making up a 10 percent of the region’s output, I must highlight how Rhône whites are perhaps the true hidden gems of the area, and couldn’t be better suited to a hearty autumn meal.
Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne are the jewels of the north and possess an innate rich, somewhat oily, texture, with pronounced aromas of honeysuckle and apricot. This, along with their lower acidity levels, are at the mercy of a linear, citrusy streak that runs through them all, making them highly food-friendly.
The south’s whites vary much more in choice of grapes and their proportions to a blend. We still see those of the north here, but Grenache Blanc, too, provides body and mouth-coating appeal.
As prolonged heat will deplete acidity in unpicked grapes, Bourboulenc and Clairette, once mere afterthoughts, are increasingly prized amid climate change for their excellent, balancing acidity.
The creaminess of mashed potatoes and gravy, buttery green beans, any vegetable au gratin or baked in pastry , and of course, turkey – especially the white meat – are all great pairings.
E. Guigal Côtes du Rhône Blanc 2021, $19.95 LCBO 290296
Gabriel Meffre Côtes du Rhône Laurus 2020, $20.05 SAQ 13113952 (Grenville, St-Lazare)
Famille Perrin Côtes du Rhône Nature 2021, $18.95 SAQ 14727518 (Hudson)
The only one of its kind, the Tavel appellation is solely devoted to rosé production. Darker in hue and slightly weightier than your typical Provençal model, Tavel wines couldn’t be better suited to all of the dishes mentioned above. Well-defined red cherry flavours mark this generous rosé.
Château d’Aquéria Tavel Rosé 2021, $24.95 LCBO 319368
I hope these lovely wines help to kindle gratitude in your heart this year. Happy Thanksgiving.