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Wines of the Southern Rhone

Wines of the Southern Rhone

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The Rhone river brings its alpine waters from Switzerland through the southern half of France and dumps out into the Mediterranean by the charming town of Arles. The whole Rhone region is lovely, but if we're talking wine one must distinguish between the north and south.

From Lyon down to the town of Valence the Syrah grape is the star, with rich whites of Marsanne and Viognier playing supporting roles. However immediately to the south things open up, both geographically and emotionally, and you're in the land of Cotes du Rhone, an expansive appellation that has been providing great value bottles and helping poor students get laid for centuries. The principal red grape is Grenache: it's thin-skinned, late-ripening, and present in most of the reds of the region, but climate change is forcing Grenache to ripen too early, bringing the sugars, and therefore the alcohol, too high before the grapes have reached their most flavorful maturity. In the Southern Rhone's best known appellation, Chateauneuf du Pape, solutions lie in the original rules for the wines: with 18 different grapes allowed in the cuvée there's the opportunity to favor even later ripening varietals, like Mourvedre, as the weather skews warmer. Having this many grapes to choose from is unique to CDP and one of the ways the various wineries can distinguish themselves, although the same variables apply as in any other vineyard: soil, elevation, aspect, rainfall, and who's making it. In some vineyards however there are some special characters: the Mistral is a wind that blows forcefully for many months of the year and serves to dehydrate the grapes and keep humidity low, and large stones called galets warm the vines at night, but also keep the moisture from the nearby river in the soil.

These characters are at play in one of Chateauneuf du Pape's most reliable (and affordable) representatives, Domaine du Vieux Telegraph—so delish I wrote a song about it.

An outlier, but an utterly fantastic and ethereal wine is Chateaux Rayas, made solely from Grenache in sandy soil. At a tasting in San Francisco a '98 was the wine of the night, slapping aside some stiff competition (La Tache, e.g... )

Famously employing 13 varietals, including white ones, is Chateau de Beaucastel, structured, elegant and intense.

Then there are the wines of Henri Bonneau which are made per the whims of whichever Bonneau is currently at the helm, and benefit from a winery cave famously full of mold and mildew that science has yet to classify...

Around the ancient walled town of Avignon lie appellations that will bring that Southern Rhone savoriness to your table for less of your hard earned bitcoin. Gigondas and Vaqueyras are known for big, spicy and often herbal reds, and Tavel makes only rosé, but the good kind. There is also a small amount of white wine from the southern Rhone, and like white Bordeaux it's less famous, so therein lies opportunity... Go south, young wine drinker!

Domaine des Tours 2016

By Matt Penman

About the Wine
Ah, there's nothing like a brand, now, is there? At its best it represents a certain level of quality and some kind of coherent vision, or, dare I say it, an opinion? We can sit back and be more than 50% confident that we gave our money to someone who knows more about a thing than we do, or has better taste... For my part I'm more than content to give my hard earned jazz dollars to Emmanuel Reynaud for the produce of his three reputable wine estates: Chateau(s) Rayas, Fonsalette and des Tours. Rayas remains more or less out of reach for Monday night drinking, but the other two, while not exactly dirt cheap, represent excellent value for those with a spare President Grant in their pocket (and maybe... no kids?) Friends and I have enjoyed many a bottle of Fonsalette, but I was a relative newcomer to the delights of des Tours... now I see that it's the Tesla Model 3 of the range, the Meanwhile segment to Stephen Colbert's nightly Monologue... .the most humble, yet rewarding of an esteemed family.

Shall we talk about this particular bottle? OK, the nose screams Southern Rhone Chateauneuf du Pape (it's very close by), all cigar box, well-used leather chaps, old man's study with a backend of wild and water-deprived herbs. On the palate the initial sweetness gives way to savory play, each sip doing a spicy mambo across the mouth (is it the Grenache? The Syrah?... The Counoise????!). The finish is long. impressively so, and I think I taste a suspicion of bitter herbs on the finish, but it might also be some sage caught in my teeth from the baked gnocchi with veggies and brown butter sauce that accompanied the wine. A perfect pairing? No. (That was a couple of nights ago—coconut lentils with lemon and a Binner Riesling from Alsace—sometimes you just get lucky). But this wine is such a cold weather crowd pleaser you'd have to make an effort to jack it up.

Varietal: 80% Grenache noir, 20% Syrah
Region: Gigondas, Romane Machotte, Rhone, France
Price: $28

2019 Pierre Amadieu Gigondas Romane Machotte Rouge

By Kristin Korb
Bass & Vocals

About the Wine
Back in the pre-pandemic days of June 2019, I had the good fortune to play a cruise with Jazzdagen Tours on the Rhône River from Lyon to Arles. Morning bike rides along the river took us through small towns connected by ancient bridges, tree-shaded paths with views of the Rhône, and apricot and cherry orchards right in the middle of harvest. We were lucky enough to have a well-connected tour guide that knew the farmers. There is nothing like picking fruit off the tree and tasting it right there. The sweet, juicy, intense fruit flavors mixed with the warm sun and good company brought smiles and memories that I will always remember. As you travel south, Gigondas is one of the main wine regions along the Rhône River. Although we never made the land excursion over to Gigondas, my tastebuds have. This is the season of hearty stews, oven roasted veggies, and candlelit evenings with our nearest and dearest. The 2019 Pierre Amadieu Gigondas (Romane Machotte) is a bold wine that will support the big meals and cozy nights ahead of you. In the nose, you'll catch a hint of strawberry, leather and herbs. When you take your first sip, the strawberry comes forward along with a lovely mix of tannins and black pepper. The finish is long and luscious. While there is a fair bit of fruit in this, it isn't a berry bomb. It is well balanced with the tannins. Drink it now and buy a few extra bottles so you can save a few for cozy winters to come.

Region: Gigondas, Romane Machotte, Rhone, France
Varietal: 80% Grenache Noir, 20% Syrah
Price: $28

2019 Pierre Amadieu Gigondas Domaine Grand Romane

By Rob Evanoff

About the Wine:
La vie en rhône! Ambiance can be faithfully recreated but there's nothing like experiencing the real thing. You can hang out in the replica Eiffel Tower every weekend till the cows come home but it will never match when you first stand at the iron base in Paris and stare up its glistening girders, gazing upon its 10,100 tons of metal majesty, its 2.5 million rivets riveting thru your imagination, that you realize it's truly one of the wonders of the modern world regardless of what Fodor's or Yelp says. The same can be said for having linguine in Liguria, Guinness in Galway, Torta ahogadas in Guadalajara, and cozying up to the waft of a fresh croissant or baguette in the purview of a medieval castle while sipping a peppery GSM blend out of a Baccarat tumbler. Mon Manège à Moi (Tu Me Fais Tourner La Tête) One of 9 "crus" (approved wine-making appellations) in Southern Rhône, Gigondas (name of Roman origin) produces, nearly exclusively, only red varietals (and a smidgeon of rosé but no white). For much of its wine-producing life, these exquisitely-crafted, yet immediately drinkable Grenache-heavy wines were used to thin Burgundies, widely-disregarded as a poor man's Châteauneuf-du-Pape but they are no longer a Tuesday night door gig as they've carved their own path to become gigantic. Amadieu's 2018 DGR vintage was exceptional with 2019 pushing forth its hints of herb-encrusted garrigue, the intoxicating piquantness found throughout the Provence and the South of France. With notes of dark cherry, currants, thyme, forest pine and black olives, pair this spicy juice with an assortment of figs and stinky cheese (Bleu, Gorgonzola, Epoisses), rinse with Boeuf Bourguignon and Pommes de terre Dauphinoise and then elope with a soufflé au chocolat.

Better yet. Go full Gigondas. Pair with a first class ticket on Air France, go shopping along Champs-Élysées, buzz by Cannes for the Film Fest (17-28 May) and then whisk yourself to the slopes of the Dentelles de Montmirail, close your eyes, let your mind unwind, click your Balenciaga heels together and whisper to the waves of warm wind, there's no place like Rhône.

Region: Gigondas, Rhône Valley, France
Varietal: Rhône Blend (Grenache 65%, Mourvèdre 20%, Syrah 15%)
Price: $34.99

Rasteau from Cotes du Rhone

By Darryl Hall

On November 23 2021, renowned entertainer Josephine Baker was interred into the Pathéon, a shrine-like mausoleum in Paris dedicated to individuals who have contributed the highest levels of achievements to French life: philosophers like Voltaire, Rousseau, writers like Dumas and Hugo, and scientist Madam Curie among others. Josephine Baker was the first woman of African (and American) heritage to be bestowed this high honour. I identify with her in several ways; an African American, an artist in music who most likely had little to no initiation to French language, culture or cuisine (wine /cheese, etc), before leaving the States. I left NYC in 2004 as a jazz bassist to settle in France, a far away country I knew nothing about, geographically smaller than Texas, but with an enormous footprint in civilisation and world history.

This bio backdrop is important to understand the conversation to follow about Rasteau ("Rast-O"), a French Cotes du Rhone wine which I discovered only five years ago when I moved to La Drome, named after a river and region in the southeastern Rhone Alpes, two hours south of the third largest city in France and capital of French cuisine or gastronomie, Lyon. The Rhone river originates from the western Alps on the French side ( the Alps mountain region extends through Switzerland, France, Italy, Germany, Austria and Slovenia). The region known as Cotes du Rhone begins south of Lyon and extends all the way to the southern middle fringes of France to Avignon. My frequent travels along the highway Autoroute de Soleil A6, to/fro Paris (~6hrs by car, ~3:40 via TGV train), intersects this region, rich in food cultivation, from Charolais beef, Dijon mustard, Bresse chicken, to some of the best wines of France, Burgundy (or in the gallic vernacular Bourgogne)—Clos de Roche, Chablis, Pouilly, Macon.

Rasteau is named after its village, indicating a home grown prestige and distinction: others with village names include Gigondas ("Ji-go-daz," Vacqueyras ("Vak-ir-az"), Vinsobres (Van-so-bra"), Visan("Vee-zah"), Sablet ("Sa-blay"), and the most renowned Chateauneuf-du-Pape. These are among the most premium of southern Cotes du Rhones (CdR). They are labeled A.O.C. or Appellation d'Origin Controllée, meaning strict guidelines are adhered to for territorial standards, equivalent to "cru," a status term found in Bordeaux, but never used to describe wines from CdR. Guidelines include terroir (cultivation of grapes, soil and climate) specific to each village. These regions make red, white, and rosé wines, but reds are predominantly produced. Rasteau also produces sweet wines for dessert, however we are discussing the normal dry red wines for drinking with meals.

Initially introduced to me by my mother-in-law, I did not know what to expect after favouring Bordeaux wines for several years prior: Haut Medoc, St. Estephe, Cote de Bourge, St. Emilion were the ones I came to love. Wine bottle shapes vary like the shoulders or gambas of an upright bass. The CdR bottles generally follow the Burgundy wine tradition, with softer shoulders and a longer neck (like a woman) whereas the Bordeaux bottle stands statuesque with upright shoulders. Immediately after opening my first bottle, the Rasteau was ready to serve. CdR wines are not temperamental or needing to be opened for minutes or hours in advance to "breath" before serving (plug and play!) The colour typically is husky or deep dark red, somewhat like how we've come to describe the classification of the colours Bordeaux and Burgundy. Its characteristics of cépage or grape variety is overwhelmingly Grenache Noir, of which 50% minimum is required for A.O.C. approval, followed by Syrah and Mourvedre. Two of my favourite houses or wineries of Rasteau are Bonpas (Grand Orateur) and Ortas (Prestige or Haut du Village). Both houses are renowned for their wide selection of prestigious A.O.C. and good value vines from CdR . One could do very well with a bottle of Rasteau within a price range between 10-25? . Because it may be difficult to access which brands of Rasteau may exist in your corner of the world, (outside of France), here are a few rules of thumb when choosing a bottle.

First, I look for a good ratio between the three main grapes used to produce Rasteau wines: Grenache 60-70%, Syrah 20-25%, Mourvedre 10-15%. Don't mistake Rasteau Vin Doux Natural which is a sweet wine made for desserts and which is usually 80-100% Grenache.

Vintage is not critical but a Rasteau at least 1-5 years old is typically ideal. I would not focus on which years yielded the best grapes because they have been fairly consistent due to the predictable Mediterranean climate in the Cotes de Rhone Valley. Exceptions over the last 10 years would be 2013 and 2014 which suffered cool and wet summer seasons. Rasteau wines are good to hold up (shelve) to ten years tops.

There exists an abundance of information online to learn more about the many aspects of the appellation Rasteau CdR wine which I'm not qualified to cover. I therefore will "cut to the chase" and talk about my personal experience with the Rasteau brands mentioned above. While the Ortas Grand Orateur may out-do the Bonpas selections, it's not by much as Rasteau wines by these two houses maintain consistent quality. The flavour of a Rasteau is round and full bodied. The initial smell or nose is very aromatic, of black fruits, spices, plums (hence Grenanche Noir—black and not gris or gray). In my experience, the taste has consistently been fruity and robust with soft tannins and mild acidity. The tasting experience is much more enlightened with food than drinking stand-alone. I came to love Bordeaux wines because they compliment the cuisine from the south west of France very well, which I love, notably duck or canard. From foie gras, Margaret canard ( breast of duck) to Confit canard ( leg and thigh of duck marinated in its oily fat then cooked baked or slightly pan seared). Cotes du Rhones work just as good if not better at times because of their strong flavour matched with its measurable alcoholic level, usually at least 13.5-15%, good for "washing it all down." Rasteau wines are also far less expensive than the counterparts of prestigious Bordeaux Chateaux types. Rasteau is great for "gras" meats or those rich in fat. Fat is what gives the meat its flavour in a lot of ways. A clean cut sirloin or pavé can be great, but an entrecôte or faux filet, two of the most popular French cuts of beef, are tastier when cooked with some "grease" or fat (gras) attached and uncut. The same results happen when pairing Rasteau to lamb, pork roti (roasted) or chicken roti. With strong tasting cheeses (8 months + Comte, Munster, Rochefort, Abondance, Camembert, which France has plenty of, Rasteau again brings out the colour of flavours very well.

Again, these are first hand taste experiences which have helped me shape these thoughts. To sum it all up, Rasteau wines are like the Toyotas of French wines compared to the BMWs and Mercedes of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Quality, value, price and a history of saviour-faire (know-how), offering many similar features except for the name prestige and being in the game a little longer.

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