In Châteauneuf du Pape, walking the fine line between elegance and rusticity is difficult, but Domaine Pégau embodies the precision of this balance like none other. Their progression over the last ten years to highlight a more lifted style while maintaining a sense of opulence is a hot topic for lovers of the Southern Rhône Valley. While the estate produces several cuvées, their Cuvée Réservée fulfills the best value and sharpest focus on this fabled terroir.
The Reservée has always been the prime CdP for value, but Laurence's recent move to raise the Grenache and lower the Syrah percentage in the blend has done wonders for its clarity and persistence. Licorice, dark fruits, woodsmoke, game, and wild garrigue are hallmarks of every bottle of CdP. Pégau captures these notes with an impressive mineral streak and fine-grained tannins that stand out from the pack. A rack of lamb alongside Pégau has become one of my ultimate pleasures.
Laurence Féraud works with her father, Paul, in carrying on a steep tradition started by their ancestors in 1607. The backbone of the estate is their old Grenache plantings dating back to 1907 in the famed La Crau vineyard, where limestone mother rock sits below the iconic, round galet river stones. They use whole clusters for vinification, and the wines age in large foudres crafted nearly a century ago. Both elements are crucial in preserving a sense of vibrancy in their Grenache-dominant blends.
Truth be told, the Southern Rhône pulled me into France way back when I was finishing college. Today, I pull bottles from this region with much less regularity—much of that has to do with producers chasing after power and points. However, Pégau never succumbed to altering their methods. I can't tell you how refreshing it is to have a select few producers that still makes wines that they love to drink and their ancestors would be proud of today. Pégau is everything sacred about tradition and should be celebrated as often as possible.
A visit to the Northern Rhone for my birthday started by hitting the road at dawn. I was short on sleep from the previous night's festivities in Burgundy, but the anticipation for the next stop on the tour was all of the fuel I needed: Domaine Auguste Clape.
The style here has always pushed for maximum ripeness, choosing to pick at the last moment before the ominous fall rains begin. These fruit-forward Cornas from porous granite soils endow the wines with tremendous structure but with a pleasurable side of lusciousness. It's often argued that of the Big Three, including Hermitage and Côte Rôtie, Cornas offers an up-front approachability thanks to its southern and warm amphitheater setting. However, the savage scorched earth quality where Cornas derives its name is the foundation of this fabled domaine.
Clape's five hectares of vines in Cornas cover over 10 parcels, such as Allemand's Reynard and Chaillot and Nöel Verset's Sabarotte. This dizzying array of Cornas terroir plays a huge role in the success that's spanned so many decades here. The wines are produced most traditionally with 100% whole cluster fermentation and aging in old barrels, with the two Cornas cuvées seeing 22 months in large foudre.
Finding adequate words to place Auguste Clape into the context of Northern Rhone's history is difficult—Eric Asimov does a much better job in the NYT. Auguste started bottling under his own name in 1955 and stopped all négociant sales in 1968. Sadly, the day after I visited his son Pierre-Marie, he passed away at 93. Auguste is a pioneer of the Rhone alongside Noël Verset, Raymond Trollat, and Marcel Juge.
Domaine Gramenon's brilliance comes in harnessing sun-baked Southern Rhône and producing fleshy wines with a level of briskness and refreshment that's simply unrivaled. If Southern Rhône has pulled you toward Châteauneuf du Pape, or even quaffable Côtes du Rhône, you must try Gramenon.
Drinkability isn't the sexiest descriptor, but damn, Gramenon epitomizes a quenching trait more than any other name in this region. They're often the first wines emptied on a crowded dinner table, showing soft tannins, seamless texture, and fruit so fresh as if just plucked from their gnarled gobelet vines.
Michèle Aubèry-Laurent and her husband Philippe founded Gramenon in 1978, and 11 years later, the couple bottled their first wine. Their grand vision was to create an estate where organic farming and biodynamic principles extended beyond wine, growing their own produce and raising animals too. I suggest you use the modest pricing below to reacquaint yourself with the alternative and natural side of the Süd.