For a long time I have been a Rhône ninny. The Rhône valley is a place where the French make grand and powerful red wines, mostly of the grand and powerful syrah and grenache grapes. Here the French also make fat, doughy, dry white wines from a whole set of white grapes, all of them bearing lovely names like marsanne, roussanne, (the fairly well-known) viognier, bourboulenc, clairette, and piquepoul. Don't they all sound as if they ought to be the names you choose for your next cat? How delightful to have two or three cats, named Clairette, Bourboulenc, and Piquepoul.
Anyway I have been a Rhône ninny because after my first few tastes, for a long time I avoided these wines. The whites struck me as too floral, too raw, too greasy, the reds as almost horrific in their acidity and licorice-loaded pepperiness. And mind you, when I say I've avoided these floral whites and these peppery reds, you mustn't think that I've been avoiding the really great wines of the Rhône, whether the northern or the southern regions. "Avoiding" legends from the Hermitage AC (think north, and syrah), from the Côte Rôtie (the same), from Cornas (ditto)? Avoiding Condrieu (north, viognier), or white Hermitage (north, marsanne, roussanne), or even Châteauneuf du Pape (a southern Rhône blend of as many as 13 permitted grapes, heavy on the grenache, syrah, and mourvèdre)? No, hardly. As the young Claudius complains of the charms of his overly tall young wife, "Oh, I rarely see her face. I never get up that far."
Image from guardian.co.uk
What I mean is that very fine Rhônes are a bit like Urgulanilla's face: one knows they are there, but they remain remote in price and availability. One settles for the body. No, I've been avoiding what are called Côtes du Rhône wines, which are the humbler southern cousins of those big, classy, expensive, age-them-for-thirty-years Hermitages and Côtes Rôties. In other words, I've been avoiding precisely what is judged to be friendly, approachable, and everyday. Because I'm a ninny.
... and distinctly more pleasant than the Côtes du Rhônes of my chequered past. Perhaps this means that the winemaking techniques used, by M. Colombo for a start, are changing this entire AC's product to suit the palates of jam-loving, acid-hating ninnies like me. (We read that M. Colombo is a modernist whom the old-school vignerons resisted. Ah so -- again with the global red.) Or perhaps the wines haven't changed, but in my case experience has done its work, and a memory of a ghastly Rhône tasting from my early days in the retail wine business (ye gods, is Châteauneuf du Pape meant to taste like shoe polish?) may be properly consigned to oblivion. This Les Abeilles, a grenache, syrah, and mourvèdre blend -- why call it "the bees"? -- is very good.
And the hauling in of a reference to the great old BBC drama I, Claudius is not completely gratuitous. Wines have been made in the Rhône valley since Roman times. The emperor Claudius himself was born at Lyon -- today France's gastronomic capital as well as capital of the Rhône département -- when it enjoyed the half-Latin, half-Celtic name Lugdunum ("hill of Lug," Lug being a Celtic god whose name meant light). Something you want to remember when you adopt that fourth cat.