Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
November 2005 "A Small Town in France"
There's a small town in France I've never been to except in the privacy of my dining room. I visit every now and then courtesy of my palate, my imagination, and a scant number of wines brought into this country by restless importers willing to veer from the beaten path. And I've created an image of romance around its name that may not live up to reality if I ever set a dusty foot on its gravelly hillsides.
You know what this town looks like: a cluster of stone buildings with tiled roofs separated by impossibly narrow, steep streets, perched on a hilltop and surrounded by vineyards. There's a church at the very top and a plaza where the local market is held once or twice a week. The plaza is hedged by cafés and shops, the inevitable boulangerie and patisserie, and of course a vinotheque offering wines from the local co-op. The dogs look scruffy but well fed, the people rugged from an agricultural life. They are guardedly friendly, innately suspicious of outsiders, and bemused by the sweating, overweight Americans trudging through their town complaining loudly at the lack of a soda machine. This village could be in the Loire, Alsace, Provence or the Dordogne, and with few variations even in Italy or Spain - anywhere we can conjure a locale from a name on a wine label.
My fantasy town is Rasteau. You may have heard of it, then again maybe not. It bears a minor distinction in the hierarchy of the appellation controllee laws in that its name can appear on a wine label above the generic appellation "Côtes du Rhône-Villages." Eighteen other villages share that modest distinction, sort of an official, "Hey, not bad!" from the Parisian bureaucracy. This places them below the 14 crus (such as Châteuneuf-du-Pape and Vacqueyras) that stand alone as village names, but above anonymous Côtes du Rhône-Villages and Côtes du Rhône.
To be honest, I'm not sure why Rasteau has grabbed hold of my imagination, though a nice half-bottle enjoyed with my wife over an unexceptional lunch at a Paris bistro several years ago lingers in my memory. I've had wines that were bigger from Sablet, more concentrated from Visan, and earthier from Vinsobres. Cairanne is probably the best-known "named village" here in the States. Most of the villages have never made it to my retail shelves, and Rasteau makes only infrequent cameo appearances. I always look for it, and when I find it I buy it.
There's nothing to set Rasteau's wines apart from those of its neighbors, yet I find myself drawn to its bouquet of lavender and violets, its stony structure that underlies even the most delicate examples. These are "bistro wines," not made to stand out in a blind tasting but to be enjoyed with dinner and conversation. The wines span a range of styles yet maintain an essential similarity, a character that says family. Rasteau is not Pauillac, Cornas or Gigondas. But these are wines I like to drink, at the price range I'm willing to pay.
Wine at its best can transport us away from the cares of the day to a distant place of quieter, steadier rhythms, if only for a moment or two before reality asserts itself. A "California" wine can't do that for me; its escapism lies merely in the alcohol. But a wine that speaks of a place, even one that exists primarily in our imagination, can lift a meal above the mundane and serve as a vacation in a bottle.
That's why we are willing to pay more for wines from small appellations or the world's most famous vineyards - to taste the expression of the place where the wine was made and the year in which the grapes were grown. Romanée-Conti, La Tache, Chateau Margaux, To Kalon, Stag's Leap, Bien Nacido - these are among the place names that command the ultimate price premiums on wine labels. Rasteau and its sister villages are not in this pantheon, but they offer some of the same sense of place - of terroir - at a more down-to-earth level.
One reason I love Rasteau - both the wine and the town I've never seen - is that it must certainly be different than the place further south in the Côtes de Provence where my traveling party and I were run out of town by an angry mob when we naively drove through the square one market day. After we managed to escape through the warren of alleyways away from the shouts and pummeling of fists on the car roof, I looked up the town in our guidebook. "A bucolic hill town of friendly winemakers," it said.
And very coarse wines. A sense of place, indeed.
I urge you to explore the named villages of the Côtes du Rhône-Villages to find one that suits your palate. Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorites from Rasteau, most of which are available at least in the Washington, D.C. area:
Darriaud 2002, $10: Light in color but aromatic with lavender, thyme and stone. Delicate and traditional, best with cheeses or light dishes. (Boutinot Wine Estates, Livingston, NJ.)
M. Chapoutier 2003, $10: Earthy, mushroomy, with some blackberry fruit that emerges about 30 minutes after opening. (Ginday Imports, Alexandria, Va.)
Perrin et Fils, L'Andéol, 2001, $15: Rich, structured and tight, with hints of orange peel, lavender and stony tannins. (Vineyard Brands Inc., Birmingham, Ala.)
Domaine la Soumade, Cuvée Prestige 2001, $15: Lightly aromatic with herbs and garrigue. Medium bodied, with good depth. (Eric Solomon European Cellars, Charlotte, N.C.)
André Brunel, Les Sambiches 2000, $16: Soft and supple, yet fairly big, with good Rasteau character, though perhaps peaking. (Robert Kacher Selections, Washington DC.)
Cave de Rasteau Tradition 2003, $11: Medium-bodied, lightly aromatic with lavender and thyme, true to type. (Alfio Moriconi Selection - Total Wine, Potomac, Md.)
Cave de Rasteau Prestige 2001, $15: Delicate and soft, with good Rhone fruit, hints of sage and stone. It makes you come to it, so it may not impress those who never want to work for anything. (Alfio Moriconi Selection - Total Wine, Potomac, Md.)
Chateau du Trignon 2001, $20: Massive, tannic and brooding, the alpha-male of Rasteau. Age-worthy, yet probably most appealing to the American palate because of its heft. Everything the other wines have is here, and more so. (Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, Berkeley, Calif.)
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Dave McIntyre is Wine Editor of Foodservice Monthly, a trade publication for the restaurant industry in the mid-Atlantic region. His writings have appeared in Wine Enthusiast, The Washington Post, Washington Life, Capital Style, the newsletters of the American Institute of Wine & Food, Decanter.com, Sidewalk.com and WineToday.com, among other publications. He has appeared on radio on NPR's Kojo Nnamdi Show and on WTOP's "Man About Town" segment. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Capital Area Chapter of the American Institute of Wine & Food. Dave McIntyre's WineLine is archived on Robin Garr's WineLoversPage.com. E-mail Dave at McIntyreWineLine@yahoo.com.