(A review I had sitting round that seemed perfectly tailored for this month's theme.)
While at the Jersey shore for July 4 weekend, I stopped by the Spirit of 76 Liquor Store in Mannesquan (the town that gave us Jack Nicholson, who happened to be out walking on the beach the very moment I was in the store, stargazers), and found myself, somewhat out of habit, buying a couple of white Côtes du Rhônes. Well, one of them was emphatically a Côtes du Rhône: a bottle of Guigal. The other, a Tablas Creek “Côtes de Tablas,” hails from Paso Robles in California, though as its name suggests, it’s very much in the Côtes du Rhône style. In fact, as many might know, it’s a partnership between California’s Vineyard Brands and the Perrin Family from the Rhône, who, alongside Marcel Guigal and Michel Chapoutier, can lay claim to being that region’s finest large-scale winemakers, given that they are the force behind arguably the premier Châteauneuf du Pape, Chateau Beaucastel, and yet also make one of the finest bulk wines you’ll find anywhere, La Vieille Ferme from the Cotes du Ventoux. The idea is that the Perrins bring their expertise (and root stock) to Tablas Creek, Vineyard Brands makes the wine, and we, the drinkers, get some of the finest – and most genuine - Rhône Rangers wines in existence.
The Côtes de Tablas 2007 is Tablas Creek’s entry wine, albeit at a rather forbidding $23. The white is a blend of the Rhône’s finest white grapes – Viognier, Marsanne and Rousanne – with some of the workhorse Grenache Blanc thrown in for good measure (and acidity). A somewhat bright yellow with a green tinge, its perfumed, peachy nose gives away its substantial Viognier content, while floral touches around the edge of that perfume hint at the Roussanne. Full-bodied and rich, but with a tart attack, a powerful mid-palate, lots of apricot and other tropical flavors, a nice mineral backbone and a spicy finish, there’s no doubt that this is a serious, artisinal wine. And yet it felt a little green in places, a touch awkward, as if it was still trying to resolve itself or as if it had slightly over-reached. (Its attempt to impress was not helped by our lack of glassware; I found a plastic cup more rewarding than a cheap, outwardly blown glass.) In short, it was the kind of wine you know you want to love, but end up having slight reservations over.
Two nights later, we opened the Guigal Côtes du Rhône 2007, a very similar blend – albeit with Viognier making up at least half of the blend. (As a negociant based in the northern Rhône, Guigal is able to load up his Côtes du Rhônes with significant amounts of Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne, whereas estate producers from the heart of the Côtes du Rhône, in the southern part of the valley, are typically limited to the old-style grapes like Bourboulenc, Clairette and Grenache Blanc, all of which are ALSO in the Guigal.) Again, this was a bright yellow green; very little difference in the color. But my wife and I both agreed, instantly, that it was smoother than the Tablas Creek – perhaps not so tropical, and with more of a lemon tinge to it, but that it was brighter, more rounded and just all around more pleasant and pleasing. Guigal’s white Côtes du Rhônes have long been hailed as a benchmark, but this one, from an exceptionally hot vintage, was of emphatically high quality. The proof was in the pudding, to mix a metaphor: we kept coming back for another glass. The bottle was finished before we knew it. (Hey, we were on holiday!)
As a taste test, this was somewhat illuminating. It wasn’t just that we preferred the $14 wine to the $23 wine; it was that we preferred the wine that came from the original source, as opposed to the wine that came from a transposed source. And so, while on a given day – say, while visiting the town of Châteauneuf du Pape – the Perrins may lay claim to being the finest of Rhône winemakers, on this particular summer seaside week, it was Guigal who scored the victory.