However, except for a few of its wines – Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie – the Rhone Valley was not really known for producing wines that were all that good.
One man who helped to change that was Jean-Luc Colombo, who started a Rhône Valley revolution of sorts in the late 1980s when he first started bottling wines he produced from his vineyard in Cornas, the smallest appellation in the Northern Rhône Valley.
“Jean-Luc is a visionary,” said Ian Ribowsky, the U.S. general manager for Vins Jean-Luc Colombo, during a recent tasting at Jacques Scott Wines and Spirits. “He is either loved or hated in France because he called the French out on the way they were making their wines.”
Before Colombo’s revolution, wines from Cornas, and other appellations in the region as well, were generally so stark with strong tannins and acidity that they required many years of bottle aging before they could be enjoyable to drink.
On top of that, most Rhône Valley wineries were contaminated with a naturally occurring yeast known as Brettanomyces – usually referred to as Brett – that in small amounts adds complexity to a wine’s flavors, giving it earthy, leathery characteristics. Too much Brett and a wine develops what many will refer to as barnyard aromas, specifically the odors of barnyard manure.
Colombo was not looking to produce these kinds of traditional Rhône Valley wines. He wanted to create wines that could be drinkable right away and most of all, he wanted them to smell of fruit, not barnyards.
To do this, Colombo de-stemmed the grape clusters before fermentation, helping to make the tannins less aggressive in his wines. He made his wines using a cold fermentation technique in stainless steel tanks instead of using old oak fermenters, helping to reduce oxidation and keeping the flavors fresh and pure. He did all this in a very clean winery, without Brett, and then aged his wines in new oak barrels or not at all.
The result were wines from the region like no one had every tasted, or smelled.
“He preserved the primary aromatics,” said Ribowsky. “That is his signature for his wines.”
Northern Rhône Valley
The combined Northern and Southern Rhône Valley is one of the largest wine-producing regions in France.
The principal red grapes grown in the Rhône Valley include Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignan and Cinsault, while the main white grapes are Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne.
“To me, the Rhône Valley is the star in France,” said Ribowsky.
Perhaps not many others would say that of a country that also includes Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne, but one thing the Rhône Valley offers that the others do not is more versatility in the wines it produces. Colombo, for example, makes Provence-style rosés, bright white wines and full-bodied, fruity red wines in the Southern Rhône Valley, as well as Syrah-driven, elegant reds with beautiful aromatics in the Northern Rhône Valley.
“This is where Syrah was born,” said Ribowsky.
In Cornas, where Colombo bought his first vineyard – Les Ruchets – in 1982, only red wines made entirely of Syrah can be produced. The unique characteristics of terroir in vineyards in Cornas, which had been hidden by the traditional winemaking techniques in the area, were revealed by Colombo’s modern approach. The deep red wines from Les Ruchets have flavors of dark berries and black cherries and aromas of violets, cherries and spice.
Further north in the Northern Rhône Valley, Colombo bought the La Divine vineyard in Côte-Rôtie and employed his groundbreaking winemaking techniques there as well. As in Cornas, only red wine can be produced in Côte-Rôtie, but up to 20 percent of a white grape – Viognier – can be blended in.
Ribowsky said that rather than lightening the color of the wine as might be expected when adding a white wine to a red wine, Viognier actually darkens it.
“It’s a chemical reaction,” he said.
Colombo only uses about 5 percent Viognier, but it has a significant effect on the wine that goes beyond just adding the aromatics for which Viognier is known.
“This is a thinking person’s wine,” Ribowsky said. “It is the most elegant expression of Syrah on the planet.”
Both the Cornas Les Ruchets and the Côte-Rôtie La Divine are wines that have the structure to improve with age over a decade or even two and their price points – both more than $80 per bottle – reflect that. But not all of Colombo’s Northern Rhône Valley Syrahs are that expensive. The Cornas Terres Brûlees is an expressive and fruit-forward wine that consistently rates between 92 and 94 points and costs around $50. The Collines de Laura is a 100 percent Syrah sourced from vineyards in various Northern Rhône Valley appellations and is an unoaked wine that offers pure aromas and flavors of red fruits, violets and spices. It is priced less than $25, making it an excellent value.
Southern Rhône Valley
Although the Northern Rhône Valley is dominated by two grapes – Syrah and Viognier – the Southern Rhône Valley is much more diverse. In fact, as many as 19 different grapes can be used to make the Southern Rhône Valley’s signature wine, Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Jean-Luc Colombo’s red wines from the Southern Rhône Valley blend Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. The Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which has 45 percent Syrah and 35 percent Grenache, is a viscous but balanced wine that is 13 percent alcohol by volume, at the low end of the range for the wine which has seen increasingly higher alcohol levels in recent years.
Ribowsky said the lower alcohol levels are what Colombo wants.
“The alcohol levels of all his wines are no more than 13.5 percent,” he said.
At just over $50, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the anomaly of Colombo’s Southern Rhône Valley wines because the others are less than half that price.
Colombo’s entry level Rhône Valley white and red wines, called “Les Abeilles,” are blends, with the white a blend of mainly Clairette Blanche with 20 percent Roussanne.
Les Abeilles means “the bees” in English and 10 percent of the net profits from these wines are donated to the University of California Davis to support research into why honeybees are mysteriously dying in large numbers, something that could eventually affect agriculture worldwide.
Both of the Les Abeilles wines fall under the category of “cheap and cheerful,” and the white wine in particular, with its floral aromas, bright acidity, structure and long finish, stands out as a great value for money.
Colombo’s “Cape Bleue Rosé” is a Provence-like rosé that is more complex than its pale salmon pink color might suggest. It is dry, with the expected flavors of raspberries and cherries, but with herb undertones.
Priced under $20, this is a great everyday wine for the Cayman Islands.