Fine Rhône contenders waiting in the wings

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Wine investment is far from a specialist subject of mine but even I can tell that too much fuss is made of red Bordeaux in this respect and that a host of other wines is clamouring for attention from the world’s investors.

Burgundy is one of them but Burgundy is particularly complicated. Even a four-year-old, perish the thought, could distinguish between Bordeaux’s Château X and Château Y with reasonable ease. But it takes a fair amount of application to grasp the nuances of difference between, for example, Gevrey-Chambertin, Gevrey-Chambertin Premier Cru, Gevrey-Chambertin Cazetiers, Mazis-Chambertin, Gevrey-Chambertin Clos St Jacques, Chambertin Clos de Bèze and Le Chambertin and why they might ascend in this price order.

If you are looking for a French red wine that is worth ageing and for which there is a secondary market that is not crammed with other investors, you might well consider the northern Rhône – home of Syrah, the grape the Australians have made so popular as Shiraz.

The Rhône is a red wine valley of two halves – very different halves. The rich, spicy Grenache grape and a warm Mediterranean climate dominate the much larger southern Rhône, whose most famous wine by far, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, is so variable in style and quality that it is not an obvious choice for investment. Beyond the blue-chip names of Chx de Beaucastel, Rayas, Vieux Télégraphe and Clos des Papes it is easy to go astray. You can, after all, find Châteauneuf-du-Pape selling for as little as €10 on supermarket shelves. It’s not easy to tell which are the bottles worth 10 times this amount.

The northern Rhône on the other hand has quite a bit to be said for it. There are basically just two appellations, Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, of serious interest to investors, but any number of wines made in the less famous appellations of St-Joseph, Cornas and Crozes-Hermitage that can give an enormous amount of pleasure. All of these wines tend to be hand-crafted in typical Burgundian fashion rather than being the product of a large, often institutional estate as is so often the case in Bordeaux.

Not long ago the northern Rhône was dominated by a handful of large merchants, Chapoutier, Delas, Guigal, Paul Jaboulet Aîné and Vidal Fleury with just one or two individual growers of note, of whom Jean Louis Chave was by far the most admired. Today, however, each of these merchants has been transformed and they are are being definitively challenged by dozens of individual growers who would much rather make their own wine than see their grapes disappear into one of the merchants’ blends.

Chapoutier has gone from being a brilliantly distributed, high-volume, questionable-quality producer to a sort of experimental biodynamic farm run with unusual intensity by Michel Chapoutier, who has also invested in Australia and elsewhere in France and introduced Braille labels. Delas now belongs to the champagne house Louis Roederer. Paul Jaboulet has recently been rescued, as I reported earlier this year, by the Swiss businessman who also owns Ch La Lagune in Bordeaux. Vidal Fleury now belongs to Guigal and Guigal hardly belongs to this earth.

If any individual could be said to have put the northern Rhône on the roster of wines traded in international salerooms it is the soft-spoken control freak Marcel Guigal (pronounced ghee-gal with two hard Gs), rarely seen without a flat tweed cap and now responsible for about a third of all the wine made in the northern Rhône at all price levels. But it is his so-called La-La wines that set record prices. Based in Ampuis immediately below the “roasted slope” that gave its name to Côte-Rôtie, he produces three wines, La Mouline, La Landonne and La Turque, that are so consistent, long-lived and dramatic that collectors really do fight over them. To acquire any sort of allocation, you have to buy enough of his basic Côtes du Rhône to set up your own off-licence (which is why this is often available at particularly appealing prices). One of these wines from a good vintage can easily cost over £300 a bottle.

But the irony is that the oak-enriched style of these three wines is very distant from the more ethereal charms of traditional Côte-Rôtie, which was always distinguished by its stereotypical “femininity” from the other famous red of the northern Rhône, “manly”, super-solid Hermitage. Because there are so many keen youngish producers within the appellation now, we can choose from a wide range of styles of Côte-Rôtie, with the likes of Barge, Gangloff, Jasmin and Rostaing capable of delivering the more hauntingly perfumed traditional style. A fine young Côte-Rôtie from one of these producers need cost no more than £220 a dozen in bond, about the same as one of the very much less glamorous bordeaux 2005s but much more individually crafted and, although the total Côte-Rôtie vignoble has tripled to more than 200 hectares in the last 30 years, very much rarer.

With time Côte-Rôtie’s youthful flavours of tar and treacle toffee give way to a more Burgundian cocktail of autumn leaves, mushrooms and spice.

There has been considerably less change in Hermitage to the south in Tain l’Hermitage because the granite hill of Hermitage itself is so finite. It has hardly been possible to expand the original 130 hectares that were delimited in 1937. Nevertheless, the best Hermitage, such as those produced by Jean-Louis Chave (once again run by a Jean-Louis, California-trained son of Gérard), Chapoutier and Delas can deliver uniquely French, solid, savoury concentration that owes all to that hill and very little to fancy winemaking interventions.

The great thing about the Rhône is that it has enjoyed a virtually uninterrupted run of good to great vintages ever since 1993, with only the rain-sodden 2002 an exception. Perhaps the best run of current vintages in the northern Rhône is 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001. There are some great 1999s with masses of stuffing but many quirky wines that, when I tasted a range a year ago, would not have appealed to palates raised on technologically perfect New World wines. The range of very similar 2000s I tasted a few weeks ago seemed much cleaner with brighter fruit, even if they were less dramatic overall than the 1999s. Some wines had noticeable but refreshing acidity and there was, as is so often the case in Europe’s older wine regions today, a marked contrast in styles between traditionalists and modernists.

Some 2000 northern Rhône reds of interest:

Côte-Rôtie, Cuvée du Plessy 2000 Gilles Barge Fragrant and old-fashioned. Diffuse rather than concentrated but refreshing.

Côte-Rôtie 2000 Jamet A well-made classic.

Côte-Rôtie, La Mouline 2000 Guigal Rich and velvety though still extremely youthful.

Côte-Rôtie, La Turque 2000 Guigal A particularly successful vintage for this dramatic, big, bold wine.

Côte-Rôtie, La Landonne 2000 Guigal Chewy, introvert and muscular. Leather notes. Needs lots of time.

Hermitage, Gambert de Loche 2000 Cave de Tain Lovely opulence from the well-run local co-op.

Ermitage, Le Pavillon 2000 Chapoutier 18.5+ Drink 2011-22. Exotically masculine Hermitage perfumes – not just the leather but the cologne too!

Ermitage, Le Méal 2000 Chapoutier 18.5 Drink 2010-20. Autumnal, almost compost notes. Very lively.

Hermitage 2000 Jean-Louis Chave 18.5 Drink 2009-20. Rich, seductive and very complete with lots of freshness still. Not a blockbuster but very nuanced.

Tasting notes on scores of 2000 northern Rhônes on purple pages of www.jancisrobinson.com. See www.winesearcher.com for international stockists.

More columns at www.ft.com/robinson

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