Except for the village of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the southern Rhone is often overlooked by wine lovers. In 1991, Wine Spectator magazine voted the 1989 vintage from Chateau de Beaucastel - one of the region's top producers - wine of the year. Yet most people, including the French, look to Burgundy and Bordeaux for their bottles.
Southern Rhone wines tend to be high in alcohol (14.5 per cent is not unusual) but such levels cannot be avoided because of the region's dominant grape - grenache. Besides, high alcohol levels are rarely frowned on these days, thanks to the New World.
Blended carefully with grapes such as mourvedre and syrah, the wines can achieve great structure and elegance. Beaucastel is one of the few properties that stays true to this blend, however. The vineyards are authorised to blend 13 grape varieties. After the phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th century, most estates in the village focused on replanting grenache and mourvedre but Beaucastel's owners decided to replant with exactly the same vines they had lost.
A number of white grapes are permitted in the blend, softening tannins. The best wines are achieved by a complex blend, claims owner-winemaker at Beaucastel, Pierre Perrin, because, 'we don't have one perfect grape in our region, like pinot noir'. Put all the grapes together, he says, and the wine becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
The blend, Perrin points out, causes the wine to show different characters at different parts of its life, as the grapes mature at varying rates and react to oxidation in a range of ways. When young, the wines are accessible, appearing fruity and lacking in tannins (the grenache influence). After seven years, they go through a more gamey phase (from the mourvedre) and finally, after about 15 years, everything comes together.
The wines' approachability and ageing potential make them tremendously valuable. Beaucastel, probably the top producer, sells for about HK$550, Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe for HK$675 and Clos des Papes is available for about HK$400. These wines are showing interesting vintage variation, despite little winemaker 'intervention'. Vieux Telegraphe 2003 (a vintage characterised by heat waves across Europe) is concentrated with rich, ripe fruit. Clos des Papes 2002, on the other hand, made in a dreary vintage, is pale and is almost peaking. Vieux Telegraphe 2001 is glorious even now, lean and structured with a vibrant colour; and Beaucastel 2004 is pure fruit, a mere teenager of a wine - watch this one age.
Within France, grenache shows its best in the southern Rhone. Elsewhere, it has lifted the Spanish region of Priorat to fame (where it is known as garnacha) and so-called GSM (grenache, syrah, mourvedre) blends are increasingly being made in Australia. Maxwell, in McLaren Vale, blends grenache with syrah and viognier (Four Roads), and achieves a smoky, almost burned northern Rhone-style nose.