Through a lecture, photographs and a guided tasting Master Sommelier Peter Neptune led a full audience into a visit of the Rhône Valley recently at a seminar offered by the Wine Cask.

From the maps and slides he followed the course of the mighty Rhône River from high in the Alps, south of Lucerne, through the vineyards of Valais, northeast into Lake Geneva, and down through vineyards of Savoie. From there, the Rhône joins the Saône River at Lyons and turns due south. On its last stretch between the ancient Roman city of Vienne in the north and the walled city of Avignon in the south is the territory where the Rhône wines are grown.

There is logic in dividing this Rhône Valley into two distinct entities (separated by a gap of about 35 miles) based on climate, soil and most favored grape. The Syrah-dominated north is smaller, as the valley is extremely narrow with steep slopes rising up from the river. The slopes are among the steepest of any place where grapes are planted on earth and the workers that tend these vines have extraordinary balance; they must sometimes hold on to cables to keep from falling.

Vines are predominantly planted on the western – more wind-sheltered – side of the river and put down deep roots into the mostly granite-based soil. The reason for this planting and rooting is the Mistral, a howling wind that blows down from the north and would uproot anything but the most protected and deep-rooted vines. The Mistral does have its good points. When wind velocities get too high, the biologic activity in the stomata on the underside of leaves temporarily shuts down. As a result, the growing season of these vines is extended by this slowed plant metabolism. The Northern Rhône region’s cool summers also contribute to this effect. The long growing season enhances the grapes with a vast array of aromatics such as acacia blossoms, honeysuckle, violets and roses. Flavors range from gamy and meaty to black fruit, and high tannins provide age-worthiness.

General characteristics of an excellent Syrah from the Northern Rhône include the aromatics as well as near perfect balance of alcohol and acid (pH) so the wines don’t get the flabbiness that might come from excessive alcohol. An excellent example of this quintessential “cool-climate” Syrah is the Côte-Rôtie, Jasmine 2002 ($59).

Although Syrah is the main Northern Rhône grape, there are three white grapes that produce tiny quantities of wine from this region. Viognier here is low-yielding with apricot-honeysuckle character. It can be bottled unblended in Condrieu or blended in small proportions to add fragrance and softness to Syrah in Côte Rôtie. Roussanne, another low-yielding grape with subtle floral aromas, and Marsanne, higher in alcohol and body, are both blended into the red wines of Hermitage and St. Joseph, but occasionally bottled as vin blanc. One such was the 2003 Villard Condrieu Les Terraces ($60) with lush aromatics that lead into a surprisingly complex, dry wine.

Another white was the Hermitage Blanc, Guigal 2003 ($48) blended from Marsanne and Roussanne that Neptune contends can develop with age over 20 years in the bottle. The vineyard in Hermitage, perched high atop the village, has been producing wines since Roman times.

Southern Comfort

The Southern Rhône wine-growing region reflects the spreading out of the river such that the steep slopes give way to rolling hills and a hotter climate. Grenache is the varietal produced in greatest amount here, but there are 12 other varietals, including Cinsault and Mourvèdre. Marsanne, Roussanne and Clairette are the other major whites. Most of the Southern Rhônes are blends and count on Grenache for the red fruit and herb garden flavors and aromas.

The Gigondas, Domaine Les Pallières 2003 ($30) truly thrived in the heat of that vintage and shows dark, robust, plumy flavor. This wine is about 80% Grenache with at least 15% Syrah and Mourvèdre, and the remaining percentage from a variety of other Rhône reds.

Probably the most famous of the Southern Rhône appellations is the Chateauneuf de Pape (“New house of the Pope” named for the summer castle built there in the early 1300s by Pope John XXII). If you’ve seen photos of these vineyards, you have no doubt seen the “pudding stones,” rocks the size of tennis balls that essentially cover the stony soil. These stones store the heat of the sun and reflect it back onto the vines at night, which results in elevated grape sugars and full-bodied, dark, spicy wines such as the Chateauneuf de Pape Rouge “Cuvée Prestige,” Roger Sabon 2003 ($65). It’s a true multi-dimensional wine for cellaring or savoring.

The word on the 2004 Southern Rhône vintage is get some! After a very warm May, June and July, August was wet, letting the grapes’ flavor profiles match their high sugars. The reports call these wines full-bodied, tannic, with great mature fruit. Some analysts have predicted that these concentrated and complex wines will be some of the best French wines of the 2004 harvest.

Next Stop Piedmont

If you missed the Rhône tasting, fear not. Peter Neptune returns to the Wine Cask November 11 for a lecture on the wines of Italy’s Piedmont Region with a seminar, guided wine tasting and detailed materials appropriate for both novice and seasoned wine tasters. Tickets are limited so do not delay. The event will be held from 2 pm to 4 pm at the Wine Cask, 813 Anacapa Street. Cost $45. For reservations call: 966-9463.