A wine article that focuses on rocks? Yes rocks, those things on the ground that are bigger than pebbles and smaller than boulders. Rocks. Because rocks help make the wines of the Southern Rhone Valley, well…. rock. These are the red wine blends of Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas, and surrounding areas including wines that are sometimes just labeled Côtes du Rhône. The rocky soils of this area play an important role in growing grapes for these Southern Rhone beauties.
One side note about the grapes that go into these wines…. there are a lot of them!! In fact, over two dozen grape varieties can go into the blends of wines from this area. Chateauneuf du Pape itself can contain over a dozen different grapes, including some white varietals!
So what’s up with GSM and what does any of this have to do with rocks?
Although up to two dozen grape varietals are permitted to be used in the Southern Rhone appellations, three grapes predominate: Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre (GSM for short). It is the interplay between these grapes (as well as small amounts of other permitted varietals) that make the wines of the Southern Rhone Valley so wonderful and interesting.
Ok, so we covered the GSM thing but how do rocks come into play? Well, the vineyards in the Southern Rhone (particularly in certain areas of Chateauneuf du Pape) are literally covered with rounded rocks known as “galets” that over time washed down the Rhone River. Seeing vines seemingly growing out of a field of rocks is an amazing sight. Some growers even pile the rocks up along the base of the vines. And these rocks are a blessing and a curse as they hasten ripening in an already warm growing region by absorbing the heat of the day and releasing it at night (which can be a bad thing in warmer years), but they also protect the soil from becoming parched from the daytime heat and can protect the vines from bad weather such as the Mistral winds; the very cold winds that blow in from the north that are so fierce they can actually damage the vines.
As a consequence of the rocks and other aspects of soil and climate, the GSM wines of the Southern Rhone Valley (bearing appellation names such as Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Côtes du Rhône) tend to be not overly acidic or tannic, can have high alcohol and can vary from concentrated (Chateauneuf du Pape) to rustic (Vacqueyras) with earthy, spicy notes and both dark and red fruit flavors. These wines go great with roasted meats, game birds, sausage, and other cured meats.
Good examples of these types of wines include wines from one of my favorite Rhone Valley producers, Famille Perrin, such as the Perrin Côtes du Rhône (which is a true bargain at about $15) and the more expensive but worth every penny Gigondas, La Gille (about $40). Chateauneuf du Pape tends to be the most expensive wines from this region but are true classics. A very nice and not too expensive Chateauneuf du Pape is the Chateau Mont-Redon (about $50).
GSM wines really do rock, so give them a try!
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