Rhône: Lesser-known areas and grapes are helping the region up its wine game

Rhône-style wines are growing in popularity, with increased appeal to experimental winemakers and consumers across the globe. The classic grapes of the Rhône Valley – namely Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Viognier, Roussanne and more – can create unique blends and the wines that are produced will vary from country to country.

Maggie Macpherson, Enotria’s Australia wine buyer, says the rise of Rhône-style wines from Australia is hugely exciting for her as a buyer. “People are very excited because you are not quite sure what you will get from Australia with these varieties,” she says.

“One producer in our portfolio is Chaffey Bros Wine Co, which has coined the term Barossa Nouveau for its Pax Aeterna Old Vine Grenache.”

While Barossa is often known for its powerful red wines, Chaffey Bros’ Grenache is described as having notes of “fresh cranberry, anise and spice with crunchy red fruits and a hint of savoury complexity”, tapping into the trend for lighter-style reds.

Australia is just one of the nations experimenting with these varieties and blends, but what does this all mean for wines from the Rhône Valley itself ?

Virginie Charlier, head of marketing and communication for Inter-Rhône, the trade body for the region, says: “Our red wines continue to perform really well in the UK on and off-trade, driving sales in terms of both volume and value. Reds in the Vallée du Rhône represent 80% of volume and the region continues to show good growing conditions and is largely perceived as a red specialist, with wines being praised for their quality and diversity.”

Charlier adds that whites are “still a bit of an unsung hero”, although she says the region is beginning to shout a little louder.

“Our whites are now being praised by wine experts for their quality, versatility and value for money. Volume in the off-trade is up 28% year on year and up 26% for the Luberon appellation. There’s a growing interest in varieties such as Viognier, Clairette and Bourboulenc, and we are predicting that white Rhônes will continue to expand presence in the trade as adventurous wine drinkers begin seeking them out and loyalty will follow suit.”

Other appellations have also been performing well, she says.

“Last year we were really pleased to see selected southern appellations performing extremely well in the UK off-trade. For example, the Gigondas appellation saw an increase of 131% in volume in the channel and, similarly, Lirac increased its volume by 132% and Vacqueyras is up 24%. Trade and consumers have started to recognise the excellent production and, again, that these appellations punch above their weight at every price point.”

UK agencies with Rhône producers in their portfolio are also reporting strong sales over the past year.

Katarina Luciakova, brand manager for Jean Luc Colombo in Hatch Mansfield’s portfolio, says: “Not surprisingly our Jean-Luc Colombo Côtes du Rhône had another good year in the off-trade. It is a well-established and recognised category by shoppers and they keep on coming back to what they know.

“This year we are adding another rosé to our Jean-Luc Colombo portfolio, but this comes from the Blue Coast – Coteaux d’Aix-en- Provence.”

HIGHLIGHTING STRENGTHS

Luciakova notes that, while there might be more interest from UK consumers for the lesser- known appellations from the Rhône, there is still work to be done to highlight the strengths of these.

She says: “There is a trend among consumers to reach for the well-known appellations such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Crozes Hermitage etc. These established names give consumers confidence to pick a good-quality wine.

“Jean-Luc Colombo’s speciality lies in organically produced Cornas and Saint-Péray wines. Unfortunately, these appellations are still missing from the well-deserved limelight, but we are doing our utmost to change that.”

Red wines from the Rhône continue to dominate in the UK but some of the grape varieties used for white blends, such as Marsanne and Roussanne, are now appearing more often on shelves as single variety wines.

Plantings of white wine grapes in the Rhône have increased but, as Luciakova points out, temperatures are also going up.

“This makes it a little more difficult to keep the freshness and acidity in the whites, which might be challenging in the future,” she says. “That said, for the consumers with some more wine knowledge, the whites of Condrieu and rosés of Tavel or Lirac are exceptions to the rule.”

James Fuselier, marketing and communications director at Cellier des Dauphins, notes that, because the producer also has some vineyards up in higher areas, it is now dedicating some of its cooler vineyards to growing grapes for both white and rosé wines.

He says: “Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Viognier are harvested early and deliver fresh and delicious crisp white wine styles, popular with consumers.”

But while Cellier des Dauphins is giving more attention to whites and rosés, the majority of its vineyards are for red wine production, and Fuselier points to Les Dauphins Côtes du Rhône Rouge and Villages Rouge, which he says had a great 2018 in the off-trade. The producer plans to introduce its new international Cellier des Dauphins Reserve range this year.

Fuselier also points to the rise in awareness for certain Rhône appellations, which he thinks is a trend that will continue.

“The reputation for Rhône valley wines is growing in a positive way as the wines offer great quality and value for consumers.

“Premier Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages, as well as the Crus from Cellier des Dauphins, are meeting in particular a growing demand, such as Vinsobres or Plan de Dieu.”

And looking ahead in the UK, retailers can expect to see an increased presence from Rhône wine producers this year.

In the UK, Inter Rhône will continue to support the region’s presence via activities aimed at trade and consumer audiences, including the London Wine Fair and other events, Charlier says. She adds: “We are excited to be hosting our first annual generic tasting in a few years, scheduled in London on March 7, for trade and media. A Rhône festival will also take place in autumn 2019, with consumer activities running with selected trade partners across the country.”

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