Friday, January 4, 2008

There's No Place Like Rhone...

Today's Headline: California Hunkers Down for Fierce Arctic Storm.

As I snuggle with my mug of coffee this January morning, cold, grey forces ravage my normally mild and serene Bay Area environment. With every intention of blogging on the delights of obscure Spanish wine regions (sneak preview!) instead my mind wanders to a far-off place, transported by this dismal weather. London? Seattle? The windy streets of Chicago?

Lest ye forget, I have a bit of a one-track mind. So the Oz of my wind-swept fantasy has fields of gnarled vines, nested amongst massive melons of stone, where centuries of tradition mingle with a fierce independent streak: I am transported to the vineyards of the Southern Rhone valley, where le Mistral winds beat the vines for about a third of the year, before ushering in the glorious sun that gives this unique region of France its ripeness--leading to a higher standard alcohol percentage than any other region in France, and yielding wines of deep body and structure. In the very creative camera of my mind, I see the wines of the Southern Rhone as a kind of crazy lollipop, one where every lick reveals an exciting new flavor (Cherry! Blueberry! Cinnamon! Sage? Pepper? Leather?? Tar??!), that takes both time and patience to finally reveal a luscious core.

The Southern Rhone is very distinct from its Northern counterpart, not only as far as geography and topography are concerned, but for the style of winemaking. While the austere North yields broodingly beautiful red wines from the Syrah grape alone, the South has a potential palette of 23 grape varieties from which to create liquid masterpieces. This being said, Grenache, Syrah, and Mouvedre tend to be the primary grapes used in blending. Adding to the delightful quirkiness of the region, each distinct appellation (for example, the more famous Gigondas and Châteauneuf-du-Pape) within the Southern Rhone has its own recipes for which grapes dominate their wines. And of course, the recipe is never quite the same from chef to chef! Which is probably why I enjoy the wines of this region so much, why it is a place that is such a fantastical journey for the senses. I delight in exploring the many distinct flavors that are created here, so surprised by the massive depth of flavor and yet still impressed by the presence of a charming subtlety in the best of wines. And to think that this can be achieved in such harsh conditions, days of unending cold and massive force winds maddening for the citizens, and brutally destructive to many crops, including the vines. But this is the case in many of the great wine regions of the world, where extremes of temperature or terrain are overcome to produce wines of distinct character.

So as we all deal with some form of bad weather this winter, this is something to ponder: what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. And, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. As for the Savvy, we prefer to stay safe and warm with a glass of luscious red wine. I personally have hunkered down with a bottle of the beautiful 2005 Chateau Fortia Chateauneuf-du-Pape, a gorgeous red that slowly offers up perfumed layers of rose, cherry, and fresh sage as it opens in the glass; perfect for passing time on a stormy winter night in.


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