These are glory days for Rhone wine lovers.
Here we are, with store shelves still groaning under the weight of excellent 1988s, when on comes along the vanguard of the even more magnificent 1989 vintage. And if that isn't enough, just over the horizon are the 1990s, reputedly another blockbuster year for the still-underappreciated Rhone Valley.
Bordeaux and Burgundy may still get more bouquets from the elegant elders of the Cork Sniffers Club, but no region of France offers us flavor freaks as generous a bounty of robust, rounded wine as the sun-drenched slopes of the Rhone.
From the craggy terraces of Cote Rotie to the carpet of stones that passes for soil in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the Rhone produces wines of striking individuality and down-home charm. It isn't just that the most prestigious rank among the greatest wines made anywhere, what is truly amazing is the high quality of the average Cotes du Rhone imported to these shores.
It's true that the best Rhones are not the bargain they used to be. A 1982 Guigal red Hermitage, excavated from the cellar recently and savored with barbecued steak, was a magnificent wine at the peak of its powers, but the most remarkable thing about it was the circa-1986 price sticker reading $13.99. That same wine in the so-so 1987 vintage will cost about $30. You can look for the 1988 and 1989 to nudge $40.
That's a mighty stiff jump in five years, but it's more a case of price catching up to quality than of mere price-gouging. Compared with wines of similar quality from Bordeaux and Burgundy, even the priciest Cote Roties and Hermitages look reasonably priced.
Once you get past the most prestigious appellations, the Rhone is still a bargain-hunter's paradise. Many excellent Cotes-du-Rhones, both red and white, sell for under $10. Price tags of $5 or $6, a vanishing species in many regions, still abound in the Rhone -- and usually the results are quite palatable.
That is especially true in the awesome 1989 vintage, which hayielded some of the greatest Rhones of modern times, all the way from the most celebrated Hermitage to the humblest Cotes-du-Rhone.
Based on a sampling of the 1989s that have reached the Maryland market so far -- more are arriving each week -- it's a vintage of extraordinary consistency. North and south, red and white and pink, it seems that virtually all the wines are successful. Concentration levels are close to those of 1983, but the tannins are not nearly as fierce as in that classic vintage.
The wines sampled included a broad range of 1989 Cotes-du-Rhones and a smattering of wines from Hermitage and its environs, as well as Chateauneuf-du-Pape. (No wines from Cote Rotie, Cornas or Gigondas were spotted yet, but if you can trust Robert M. Parker Jr. of the Wine Advocate -- and nowhere is he more trustworthy than he is with Rhones -- 1989 was magnificent in all the Rhone appellations save Cornas, which he rated as merely good.)
It's easy to single out the highlight of my tastings: the 1989 reHermitage "La Chapelle" from Paul Jaboulet ($42). Here is an unqualified classic, with portlike concentration of blackberry fruit and tremendously intense and complex flavors of spice, coffee and chocolate. Even now, in its infancy, it's like a flavor bomb exploding in your mouth. It lacks the brutal tannins of the 1983, but it's so well-structured that it should develop beautifully for 20 to 30 years. Yes, it's expensive, but it's equal or superior to some exceptional 1989 First Growth Bordeaux at twice the price.
Still, for sheer price-quality rapport, the Jaboulet Hermitage must yield to Chapoutier's 1989 "La Sizeranne" Hermitage, which I reported on earlier this year. This wine, which has recently arrrived in Maryland, is maybe a half-step behind the Jaboulet in quality and costs about $25 to $28.
The monumental hill of Hermitage produces dry white wines, too, and they rank among the most exotic, complex and longest-lived whites in the world. To drink them young is a waste -- though often a very pleasant waste -- because it is not until they are about eight years old that they begin to unfold and reveal their true magic.
No wine is more difficult to judge in its youth, but I am going to go out on a limb and predict that a decade from now the 1989 Chapoutier "Chante Alouette" will be regarded as one of the great dry white wines of the 1980s. The immense concentration and undercurrents of anise, flowers, pear, peach and stone suggest that this wine is a throwback to the awe-inspiring Chante Alouettes of old. It's delightful to see that the 27-year-old Michel Chapoutier's turnaround of this historic winery applies to whites as well as reds.
Crozes-Hermitage, in the valley below the famous granite outcrop of Hermitage, is often a pale imitation of its namesake, but you'll have a hard time believing that if your first exposure to the appellation is to taste the 1989 Paul Jaboulet "Domaine Thalabert" ($15). This is simply the greatest Crozes-Hermitage I have ever tasted -- pure essence of black raspberry, with nuances of clove and cinammon and distinct family resemblance to La Chapelle. Drink this intense, complex but precocious wine now or over the next six to eight years.
To call Thalabert the greatest is meaningful because it had close competition in 1989 from two Chapoutier Crozes-Hermitages, "La Petite Ruche" ($9.39) and "Les Meysonnieres" ($13.79).
If you love Chambord, make sure you try "La Petite Ruche." The wine tastes like the dry essence of the liqueur. It's not complex, but the jolt of raspberry it gives is electric. "Les Meysonnieres" is more structured and complex, adding spice, cassis and earth flavors to similarly intense raspberry flavor.
In the southern Rhone, Chateauneuf-du-Pape apparently enjoyed an exceptional vintage in 1989.
Certainly Chapoutier's previously reviewed "La Bernardine" is a classic, now on the market for about $20 -- a bargain price for wine of its quality. Paul Jaboulet's 1989 "Les Cedres" ($18) is not in the same class, but this big, rich, plummy wine is the finest "Les Cedres" I have tasted. Could this mark a return to greatness for this recent underachiever?
Another fine Chateauneuf, but in a much more rustic style, is the 1989 Chante Cigale ($19.49). Its earthy, meaty, peppery flavors are explosive, and if it lacks a certain polish, who cares? It's a delightfully individual, unfiltered and uncompromising wine of great honesty. It needs four to five years' aging.
The Rhone Valley is home to one of the world's few great pink wines -- Tavel. Contrary to the sweet, insipid image of rose, these wines are bone-dry and startlingly complex. Certainly the 1989 Guigal ($14.49) is as fine as any pink wine you'll ever taste -- with striking flavors of rosehip, strawberry, fresh tomatoes and herbs. Chapoutier's 1989 "La Marcelle" ($12.99) is just a step or two behind.
I'm not sure these wines justify the price tags -- California's Bonny Doon, McDowell Valley and Joseph Phelps make equally fine wines from Rhone grape varieties for under $10 -- but the quality is impeccable.
For sheer value in everyday drinking, it's difficult to beat the red and white wines that carry the appellations Cotes-du-Rhone or Cotes-du-Rhone-Villages. That's true virtually any year, but it goes double in 1989. Out of 10 wines tasted, not a single loser could be found.
They are listed here in rough order of preference. All are red unless otherwise specified.
*1989 Guigal Cotes-du-Rhone white ($9.69).
*1989 Cairanne Cotes-du-Rhone-Villages red and white, Cave des Coteaux ($6.95). A co-op selected by master importer Alain Junguenet.
*1989 La Vieille Ferme Reserve (gold label) Cotes-du-Rhone ($7.59).
*1989 Domaine Brusset Cairanne, Cotes-du-Rhone-Villages ($8.49).
*1989 Goubert Beaumes-de-Venise, Cotes-du-Rhone-Villages ($11.99)
4 *1989 Domaine Saint-Roch Cotes-du-Rhone ($5.99).
*1989 Caves de Champclos Cotes-du-Rhone ($4.99)
*1989 Domaine Gramenon Cotes-du-Rhone ($7.49).
*1989 Cairanne Cotes-du-Rhone-Villages rose, Cave des Coteaux ($6.95).