A Taste of Rhône Through its Soils

Once a month, in our Redwood City store, one of our buyers will host an after-hours tasting for the staff. Although we have regular staff tastings in the store each week, this special, late night version allows us to sit down together, enjoy a little food, and dive deeper into a region or selection of wines. This week, with our Rhône tasting coming up tomorrow, our buyer Keith Mabry was in town and he took us on a tour of the Rhône Valley, sharing stories and details (and even soil samples!) from the regions of Côtes du Rhône, Châteuneuf-du-Pape, Côte Rôtie, Cornas and Hermitage.


Carved by massive geological forces over millions of years, Rhône’s diverse soils are reflected in a wide range of wine styles. To explore the differences, Keith took us through some of the prominent regions and producers of the area, including vertical tastings to show how the wines aged over time.


We started with Domaine de Verquière Côtes du Rhône-Villages Sablet. Côtes du Rhône is the broadest designation in southern Rhone, and Sablet is a small commune in the southeast corner. The vineyards are rooted in fine-grained sand, which makes for well-drained soils, perfect for the deep-rooting Grenache grape. Known for their beautiful fruit profile and soft tannins, Côtes du Rhône’s are meant to be enjoyed in the first few years of their life. As we tasted through four vintages, spanning from 2015 to 1999, we found the sweet spot in these wines to be five to six years.


Next, we moved to the largest of the Rhône regions, Châteuneuf-du-Pape. Vineyards in this area are a truly stunning site. Rooted in large galet rocks (or “pudding stones”), these vines seem to defy logical thinking. But these smooth stones are perfect for radiating heat back into the vineyard. What further defines the flavor of the wine is what lies underneath this first layer, which includes limestone (for acid retention), sand (for drainage) and even a little bit of red clay. We tasted three wines from Chante Cigale, a 2016, 2007 Vieilles Vignes and 1998. All were excellent, though the iconic 2007 vintage was absolutely stunning.


We then moved up north, first sampling two wines from Côte Rôtie. This region, which literally translates to “roasted slope,” creates beautiful wines pungent with pepper and spice. The vines cling to rolling hillsides, rooted in mica schist soils that impart a distinct freshness. We tried two wines from Saint Cosme Côte-Rôtie. The newest vintage, 2016, offered a beautiful perfumed nose, deep blue fruit and savory-spices. It was a gorgeous Syrah.

One of my favorite wines of the night came from the next region, Cornas, which sits on the southern tip of Northern Rhône. This tiny region has a mixture of granite and friable sandy soils that are held precariously in place on steep terraces. This area tends to get more hot days than Hermitage and the result is a style that is a little more ripe. The wines from this region are dense with black fruits, white pepper, violets and leather. The big tannins and powerful structure develops with age and therefore these wines are best enjoyed over time. Perhaps that is why the 2007 Jaboulet Cornas was tasting so delicious. It could also be the producer, who is one of the most iconic wineries in the Rhone Valley.


With that in mind, our final two wines were from Jaboulet, both from Hermitage. The geology of Hermitage is remarkable. It is essentially a single 1,000-foot high granite hill that Keith explained as a “lava bubble” coated in alluvial soils. Most vineyards are planted on the south-facing hillside where they receive the best sun. These wines are perhaps the most revered of the area and the two wines we tried from Jaboulet, the 2016 Domaine Paul Jaboulet Aine "Maison Bleue" Hermitage and the “2006 La Chapelle” were excellent examples. They both carried that masculine quality of brooding fruit, smoked meat and ethereal earthiness. At thirteen years old, the 2006 was still full of big tannins just waiting to mellow out.

As winter winds down, it is a great time to enjoy the wines of Rhône. This Saturday we will be tasting a selection of these wines in all our stores, especially some exciting new releases from the 2016 vintage.

-Megan Greene

Megan Greene