Thu 16 Apr 2015

Appellation Spring: the Côtes du Rhône

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Spring in the southern Rhône is not reliably balmy (20 degrees on arrival, eight on departure) but it guarantees a quiet, untouristy Avignon, the joy of a deserted Pope’s Palace to explore, with nothing but a bit of piped plainsong for company, and the space to dance on the remains of the pont.

Alas, my own celebratory twirl, just after the Wales XV’s surely unsurpassable 61- 20 victory over Italy, was scuppered by the rest of Six Nations Super-Saturday. Talk about a bridge not far enough!

It’s also the end of the black truffle season, with generous last hurrahs festooning the chic plates of every restaurant worth rooting out. And should you tire of this embarrassment of black gold, there’s always an old-fashioned daube avignonnaise to warm the cockles (more on that later).

Spring vines in Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Spring vines in Châteauneuf-du-Pape

No need for that on a cerulean and blossomy spring day in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, whence we tootled pleasantly in our shirt-sleeves to Vacqueyras and Gigondas. The Dentelles de Montmirail basked prettily in the sun as we continued north to Vinsobres and Valréas, and beyond, almost to the point where the mediterranean south gives way, sometimes abruptly, to the continental northern Rhône. I recall once driving through sleet in Tain l’Hermitage only to start tearing off layers of thermals on arrival at Montélimar.

My target on that occasion was not a nougat-matching workshop, but the Coteaux du Tricastin, some 30km south-east of the town. Originally designated vin délimité de qualité supérieure (VDQS), this region has relaunched itself as AOC Grignan-les Adhémar and in quick succession, has earned its place both in The Society’s current List and in my heart. It’s ridiculously cheap and utterly delicious. A fine 2013 bottling from Delas (£6.95) is currently flying off our shelves. A delightful 2012 from Domaine de Montine is also in stock for £7.95 and shows the appeal of this region’s wines with aplomb.

Château de Grignan

Château de Grignan

Grignan is a pleasant little town, with a narrow back street that twists charmingly up to the eponymous Château. Cue the Adhémars, its proprietors, a powerful and landed local family, one of whose scions married the only daughter of the Marquise de Sévigné, 17th-century doyenne of witty and elegant letter-writing. Many comic (and tragic) scenarios are based on the notion of a visiting ma-in-law who refuses to go home, but this one liked the place so much that she is buried in the church below.

The real heroine of Château de Grignan, though, was Marie Fontaine, widow of a naval officer whom, with admirable timing, she married just before he inherited a fortune and died, leaving her with the means to restore the place to its former glory in 1912.

The Adhémar family name lives on in a number of places close by, including Montélimar itself (derived from Le Mont de l’Adhémar) and, with the town, these define the 1800ha of grenache,syrah, cinsault, carignan, mourvèdre and viognier laid down by the appellation.

Now, back to that beef stew, and what puts the Avignon in the daube avignonnaise we enjoyed on our return to the city. Our waitress explained that it was, oh, just beef, olives and good red Rhône wine, Madame but a lifetime of trying, repeatedly, to recreate this kind of thing at home has turned me into another kind of griller.

The famous 'galet', or pudding stone, soil of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, pictured at Château Mont-Redon

The famous ‘galet’, or pudding stone, soil of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, pictured at Château Mont-Redon

It emerged that the meat is beef cheeks, which would certainly explain the unctuousness of the sauce. Secondly, the olives are black, local, home-cured, well herbed and stone-in. Thirdly, the wine is set alight, without assistance from the spirit world, at least not the one labelled marc du Châteauneuf.

The view from Château de Grignan

The view from Château de Grignan

This is a new one on me and I can’t wait to try it though I suspect that even in these days of creeping alcohol levels, it may be challenging. I even wondered if I’d been teleported to April 1st, and indeed, having now looked up this dish, I note that it’s traditionally lamb and white wine (uncombusted) that define a daube avignonnaise. The one I ate near the Place de l’Horloge, was nothing of the kind and so tasty that I’m sticking with it, just as it is still sticking with me and my midriff.

So, once browned in olive oil, the meat goes into the casserole with all the other ingredients not mentioned in the first spec, but charmingly and collectively described as ‘tout ce qu’il faut’: the time-honoured rhythm section of chopped celery, carrots and onions, softened in the residual browning fat, a good sprinkling of garlic and a bouquet garni of fresh Provence herbs (bay, rosemary, thyme) with a pinch of the dried variety for intensity. The wine is flamed (good luck!) in the browning pan and that goes in too, with the olives. Three or four hours in a slowish oven work their magic.

The partners of choice are olive-oil mash, and, of course, a goodly glass of Grignan-les-Adhémar which will dance on the palate, if not on the pont.

Janet Wynne Evans
Fine Wine Editor

To read more about Château de Grignan log onto chateaux.ladrome.fr.

Another fine place to visit is Château Suze-La-Rousse, near Bollène, headquarters of the Université du Vin and atmospheric venue for wine education, tastings and food-matching classes.

The Class of 2013 Rhône, our current showcase of the best for drinking this spring and summer, is available until Sunday 26th April while stocks last.

Categories : France, Rhône

Comments

  1. David Braybrooke says:

    As a lifelong Rhone wine fan I agree with Janet Wynne Evans that the Grignan-Les -Adhemar is delicious. Well done the WS for finding it.

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