On the right bank of the Rhône River, in the southern portion of the Rhône Valley, lies Lirac, a grape-growing region that is hot, arid and subject to the full force of the cold Mistral wind.
This wind originates miles over the Atlantic Ocean and North Sea. In an atmospheric equalization of pressure, this cold mass is pulled toward the warm air of the Mediterranean. It drops to ground level in the Northern Rhône, is funneled through the Rhône gorge, and spreads out across the plains of the Southern Rhône.
The vines hunker low to the ground to protect themselves from this cold north wind, a wind that drops temperatures, dissipates humidity, clears dust and chases clouds (good things all!) but also snaps off tender shoots and clusters and even uproots vines when so inclined.
The Mistral can blow upwards of 60 mph (for point of reference, gale force winds clock in at 45 mph and hurricane winds begin at 73 mph). Moreover, the Mistral blows 150 days out of any given calendar year.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Lirac, with their series of flat topographical terraces, are vulnerable to the dehydrating effects of this wind.
But dehydration is not a bad thing. Dehydration, in moderation, is good for the grape. It reduces the water content of the berry and concentrates flavor compounds and sugar, resulting in heady, rich wines that taste of sun-dried fruit.
Soils are very similar between the two growing regions. Lirac boasts red clay, limestone, large quartz gravels (called galets) and sand. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is built upon limestone, sandstone, shingle/clay and galets.
Both growing areas are subject to approximately 2,700 hours of sunlight each growing season (compared to 1,650 for northerly Champagne) and ripen their grapes fully with rich berry fruit and soft, velvety tannins.
And both growing areas engender a very similar mix of grape varieties. Lirac reds are a predominant blend of grenache noir, cinsault, syrah and mourvèdre whereas Châteauneuf-du-Pape plays the same notes in a slightly different order: grenache noir, syrah, mourvèdre and cinsault.
Lirac is on the right side of the river Rhône, while Châteauneuf-du-Pape sits on the left side; the two growing regions are but a stone's throw apart but world's apart in pricing.
Lirac's reds, with similar grapes and similar growing conditions to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, often deliver very similar wines at a fraction of the cost. Hunt for Lirac. It's not a "poor man's Châteauneuf-du-Pape," it's a "smart man's Châteauneuf-du-Pape."
The Ch. de Ségriès Cuvée Reserve, Lirac 2009 ($17) is a heady mélange of sun-dried black raspberry and red raspberry fruit. There is somewhat of a brandy finish, but the wine is rich enough in flavor and extract to carry it off without "heat." The wine is very Châteauneuf-du-Pape-esque and half the price. Truly delicious. Serve it up with hearty, rib-sticking winter fare!
Telling left bank from right
Standing in the same direction in which the river is flowing, the left bank is on your left; the right bank is on your right. The Rhône River flows southward through the Rhône Valley, so the left bank lies on its eastern flank and the right bank lies on its western flank.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun