A more-or-less blind tasting of a pile of Rhônes, attended by about 10 people, including the Stupids. I say “more-or-less blind” because we knew what some of the wines in the tasting were going to be. And we thought we knew more, but that’s another story… In theory, this was to be a tasting of Northern Rhônes- the common American practice of mixing Chateauneuf-du-Papes with Cornases in tastings simply because the same river flows by their respective vineyards makes as much oenological sense as mixing Burgundies with Bordeaux. But there’s always some wise guy that knows better.

We start with wine number one. One sniff and JD and I grin at each other and start scribbling on our note-sheets. A funky, animally accent over intense youthful raspberry perfume, coupled with relatively low alcohol and a supple, Burgundian texture was all we needed to know: ’94 Gallet Côte-Rôtie.

That disposed of, wine number two had unbelievable amounts of poop on the nose, which abated a little bit over time. MUCH thicker texture, MUCH higher alcohol, LOTS of leather and flowers, VERY mouthcoating- what else could it be but ’90 Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape. See? There’s always a wise guy! It’s drinking surprisingly well- a real crowd-pleaser. And that fat, soft, alcoholic ringer served to really outline the contrast with wine number three; lots of raspberry fruit, a touch of violet and lilac, very young and tight, high acidity and tannin. Gotta be a ’95 Northern Rhône, with this depth and perfume it’s gotta be a ‘95 Gallet Côte-Rôtie. None of these people are going to like this, but give it a decade in the cellar and it will be quite special.

Wine number four is way too easy to guess. Guigal’s house style really stands out, for better or for worse, in these kinds of group tastings. Lots of brett and oak, but a forward, flattering style. It’s fully mature, it’s a bit fat, it’s an ’85 Côte-Rôtie. Very nice, indeed.

I didn’t choose my ringer well. Wine number six dinged everyone’s bell. Big blueberry fruit, a cloud of dust, and a hearty Hi-yo Silver! It’s so Californian that it’s calling me “dude”. Sierra Vista’s 1996 Red Rock. I note that the vines here are traced to Chapoutier’s Hermitage vineyard; if true, so much for the theory that clonal differences overwhelm terroir. This is a wonderful domestic syrah with no pretenses to acting French.

Another relatively mature wine at position seven. Somewhat more austere than the ’85 Guigal C-R, but of a similar age. Darker fruit, more reserved perfume, a little less oak, a bit more structure. Certainly it’s Guigal’s ’85 Hermitage, made (I believe) by Bernard Faurie. I liked it the best of all the Guigals in this tasting.

Number eight is way too easy. Smells a lot like number four, but with a bit less weight and more tannin. Bien sur, c’est le Guigal 1983 Côte-Rôtie. Drink up, it’s still very good but the fruit is fading fast.

Number nine was our Waterloo. We had such an easy time identifying the first eight that we started getting cocky. Hey, didn’t we see someone walk in with a bottle of La Chappelle? Process of elimination, this has to be it. Pretty closed, a bit over-ripe, dark and a bit clunky. Wow, the ’90 (or is it ’89?) is sure going nowhere fast. Well… pulling the bag off completed our humiliation- it was the ’94 Chapoutier La Bernadine. Outsmarted ourselves again. This ain’t great, but it’s at least drinkable.

One of the group strolled in late with his wine prebagged. He had an air of “You’ll never guess THIS one!” about him. And indeed, the guesses were all over the place. Quite mature, nice soft texture, missing something in the middle, not terribly long or complex. Ignoring the various shouts from the peanut gallery (“Hermitage! Cornas!”), we thought, “Not much syrah in this.” Our guess: a Côtes-du-Rhône, kept a bit too long. Maybe an ’85. The latecomer tried not to look impressed, then unbagged an ‘88 Coudelet de Beaucastel. OK, so we were off on the year. But give us half a point, anyway. Shoulda been drunk already.

Things that I took away from this tasting: this is a group of pretty fine wines, some approaching greatness. It’s also evident that most wine drinkers don’t really understand the Rhône, especially those with a California cabernet point of reference. Aged Rhônes are something of a challenge, what with their tendency to be all secondary aromas, relatively low alcohol, and not much primary fruit. Younger Syrahs of the Northern Rhône persuasion (at least those made in a traditional manner) are also a challenge- the nature of their structure and the buried subtleties make evaluation difficult for those who don’t drink them regularly or have not tracked many through their ontogenies. This is a fancy way of saying that I didn’t agree much with the group’s rankings.

SY (3/99)