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A View from the Rhone

Guy Sarton du Jonchay, managing director of the Rhone’s Vidal-Fleury wine concern, was in United States recently, and, although schedule conflicts prevented me from tasting wines with him, we were able to speak by phone.

Vidal-Fleury has long had a very good reputation as a Rhone producer, both north and south.  In 1984, they were purchased by E. Guigal, which has allowed it to be managed as a separate brand for the past 28 years.  Today, it produces about 80,000 cases annually from a new winery whose construction was overseen by Sarton du Jonchay.

Growth of the Rhone Brand.  Sarton du Jonchay points out that the Rhone is fortunate to have wines with great consumer appeal (and reputation) at both the high end and the low end of the price scale.  Basic Côtes du Rhone wines are widely known throughout the world and continue to grow in quantity and quality.  At the high end, Côte Rotie in the northern Rhone and Châteauneuf- du-Pape in the South have both maintained their superior status among serious wine drinkers who also have matching budgets.  Rhone shipments to the U.S. are up significantly, he says, and he continues to see a bright future here for Vidal-Fleury and other Rhone producers.

What’s New?  There is always upward movement as villages try to upgrade their classifications to Côtes du Rhone then to named village status, but probably the biggest development has been producers latching on to the craze for more rosé, especially at the basic level.  Of course, rosé is no longer the primary purview of just Tavel.  “Five years ago, there was a big movement toward more white wines,” Sarton du Jonchay says, “but that seems to have stabilized.”

Syrah vs. Grenache.  As a rule of thumb, Syrah has generally been the primary red grape upriver and Grenache down river.  But a few years ago, several Châteauneuf producers started using more Syrah in their blends.  Sarton du Jonchay does not see that continuing on a large scale.  “In terms of image, Grenache is coming back,” he says. “It’s not an easy grape to grow, but Grenache is still king in the southern Rhone.”

Gigondas vs. Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  Many critics, including myself, have been encouraged by the increase in quality of Gigondas, which, on a clear day, is visible from the gravel pit that is Châteauneuf-du-Pape.   The price is right, so can Gigondas be a serious competitor to Châteauneuf? Sarton du Jonchay doesn’t see it as even a contest.  “In terms of complexity and status,” he says, “Gigondas can’t compete.  Its structure is always lighter, and it has aging difficulty.  It can lose its fruit quickly, and it needs to be protected from oxygen.”

The Lure of Languedoc.  Many Rhone producers now make wines in the Languedoc, which is next door, has cheaper land and offers more-lax growing regulations.  “The advantage of Languedoc is its varietal approach and its often more-modern winemaking,” he says, but for now, Vidal-Fleury isn’t looking there and has no interest in growing other international varieties.  “We like the GMS [Grenache-Mourvedre-Syrah] approach, but we’re doing it in southeastern Rhone using the Vin Pays d’Oc labeling.  So I think we will stay in the Rhone Valley with our traditional grapes.”

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