Nov. 3 2010 12:00 AM

One formidable French valley yields a variety of tantalizing wines


The Southern Rhone River Valley of France is home to fascinating history, strong mistral winds and rocky, heat-absorbing, sun-reflecting soil. It is also home to many rich, flavorful and historically under-appreciated wines.

The under-appreciation factor, which for years made these wines screaming bargains, is disappearing, but this region of France remains a great source of highquality wines without the higher price tag of many Bordeaux or Burgundy region wines of comparable quality.

The valley is home to many grape varieties, although certain villages and appellations may focus on only a few. The broadest geographic wine designation, Côtes du Rhône, is likely to be a red wine dominated by Grenache, giving these wines bright, red berry fruit components, but without heavy tannins. Syrah and/or Mourvedre likely will be added for more heft, color and complexity, and several other grape varieties may be present in minor concentrations, as well.

One of the most highly regarded southern Rhone appellations, Châteauneufdu-Pape (translated as “the Pope’s new castle” or “new home of the Pope”), is also likely to be dominated by Grenache, with Mourvedre and Syrah in a supporting roles. Château de Beaucastel, discussed below, may use 13 grape varieties in the final blend.

Many families have grown grapes and made wine in the Rhone for generations, or even centuries. Names such as Feraud at Domaine du Pegau and Jean Paul Versino at Domaine Bois de Boursan are synonymous with high quality Châteauneuf-du- Pape (a.k.a. CdP). And the Perrin family has been producing fine wines from vineyards across the southern Rhone for more than a century.

As a bonus, the family emphasizes sustainable, organic viticulture and winemaking.

A recent Greater Lansing Vintners Club tasting at the Kellogg Center provided a reference point for an array of available Perrin wines, spanning the range from the eminently affordable to the limited-availability Beauscastel Châteauneuf. Prices below are recent regular prices and Vintners Club sale prices at Goodrich’s Shop-Rite.

The only white wine tasted was Perrin Reserve Côtes du Rhône Blanc 2009 ($11.89/$9.79). Michigan State University hydrogeology Professor David Hyndman commented on the crisp, light mouth feel and clean, dry, mineral finish — a great palate cleanser and companion to shellfish.

On to the reds. Perrin Reserve Côtes du Rhône Rouge ($11.89/$9.79) is a dry, Old World style wine, a bit austere, with tight, tart cherry and grapefruit aromas. Moving a notch up the quality scale, as judged by appellation, Perrin Côtes du Rhône Villages 2007 ($14.69/$11.99), a 50/50 blend of Syrah and Grenache, shows fleshier, rounder, dark cherry fruit, soft tannins, and a somewhat floral nose. I would spring for the extra two bucks.

Perrin “Les Cornuds” 2006, from the Vinsobres appellation ($20.99/$15.99), another 50/50 Syrah and Grenache blend, had good depth, decent acidity, and a darker fruit profile with black olive overtones.

Moving south to Gigondas we sampled Perrin “La Gille” 2006 ($32.49). A big wine with no harsh edges, this wine is 80 percent Grenache and 20 percent Syrah. Concentrated, balanced, and complex, it somehow manages to be both powerful and round. Cellar worthy.

Now on to the Châteauneuf-du-Papes, and a bargain-priced Châteauneuf-du- Pape wannabe. Châteauneufs are at the top of the heap in the Valley, and command price premiums reflecting that quality and stature.

But virtually next door to the boundary of the appellation, and carrying only the more generic Côtes du Rhône designation, comes the Coudoulet de Beaucastel 2007 ($34.99/$29.99). This wine has been a staple in my cellar for years, and this 2007 version shines. Full-bodied with good supporting acidity, notes of pepper, vanilla and cherry, and enough tannic structure to support cellaring, this one is a winner.

The Perrin “Les Sinards” Châteauneufdu-Pape 2006 ($40.99) is primarily sourced from fruit grown near the Beaucastel property and may include younger fruit and fruit that didn’t make it into the flagship Beaucastel. Bright, red berry fruit, high acidity that will cut through fats when paired with richly marbled meats, moderate tannins, and a earthy component make this a tasty wine at a reasonable price point for a CdP.

Then there was the granddaddy of them all: Château de Beaucastel Châteauneufdu-Pape 2007 ($114.99/$99.99). The 2007 is big and powerful, yet more approachable than I expected it to be at this youthful stage in its life.

Beaucastel is somewhat unique in that it may use all 13 grape varieties in the final blend, but it also tends to include less Grenache and more Mourvèdre than many competing CdPs. This wine is made for the long haul. Try one now, or in 5 years, or 10, or 15.

Dark, rich, concentrated and mouthfilling, it has an ever-so-long finish. The supporting tannic structure is there, but not overwhelming because it integrates nicely with the fruit and the vibrant acidity.

And balance is what good wine is all about.

In Vino Veritas