France's Rhône Valley Is Having an Edgy Natural Wine Moment
7 hip somm-approved bottles to put on your radar.
France's Loire may be the epicenter of the natural wine movement, but if you look due southeast to the country's other major river valley—the Rhône—you'll find a collection of likeminded winemakers who farm with ancient and chemical-free methods and eschew additives and new oak. Their wines bear the same vibrancy and chuggability as their Loire brethren. Only here, they deal in Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, Syrah and Grenache instead of Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc.
It can be argued that the Rhône Valley's natural wine subculture began in the Ardèche—a swath of vineyard area on the western side of the river once relegated to bulk wine production. That's where outsiders like punk wine poster boy Andrea Calek moved in, because land comes at a fraction of the price of the storied hills to its east. Another explanation is that local vintners discovered they could make wine the way they wanted, unencumbered by the strict appellation rules that come with a Hermitage or Cornas label. Now, offbeat bottles are turning up all over the region.
Despite their (mostly) modest price tags, many of these wines are sought-after and hard to find. It's basic math: the wineries are small and their vineyard holdings equally so, so a limited number of bottles are produced each year. If you can't find them in a store near you, simply look out for them in restaurants or bars with sharp sommeliers at the helm. Or name-drop the producers. Even if the bartender can't bring you exactly what you're asking for, she'll know you have a discerning eye for wine and point you towards something as close in style and philosophy as possible.
Here, seven great bottles to keep on your wine list radar:
2013 Benoit Roseau Saint-Péray ($25)
Saint-Péray is a tiny appellation in the northern Rhône dedicated entirely to white wine. For years, it was known for turning out unremarkable, flabby renditions of Marsanne—until Benoit Roseau arrived on the scene. He works his vineyards biodynamically, vinifies with native yeasts in neutral vessels, and manages to capture luscious, silky fruit with a ginger-like bite and fresh acidity in every bottle.
2015 Domaine L'Anglore Tavel Rosé ($40+)
No other rosé has garnered as serious a cult following as this deep colored, exuberant and savory version from Eric Pfifferling's L'Anglore. Pfifferling, a former beekeeper who happened to own a small stretch of excellent, stone-studded terroir, farms without chemicals, harvests by hand and avoids any and all additions in the winery, including sulfur.
2015 Hervé Souhaut 'La Souteronne' Vin de France ($32)
A pioneer of high quality wine from Ardèche (an erstwhile bulk wine territory), Hervé Souhaut created his domaine in 1993. He ferments semi-carbonically using whole clusters for all his reds to curb tannin and emphasize fragrant fruit, but this Gamay-based bottling is the most pure, lively and gulpable of the lot.
2014 Gramenon 'Poignée de Raisins' Côtes du Rhône ($25)
Poignée de raisins translates to "fistful of grapes," and that's exactly what this juicy Grenache from the southern Rhône tastes like. To elicit intense freshness from their vines, Michèle Aubery-Laurent and her son Maxime partially destem the grapes, macerate for 10 days and age the wine in cement tanks for 6 months before bottling. They use no oak and neither fine nor filter.
2014 Eric Texier St.-Julien en St.-Alban ($27)
Eric Texier single handedly revived the Ardèche appellation known as St.-Julien en St.-Alban. There, he found a treasure trove of old Petite Serine vines (an old, sought-after Syrah clone) on granite soils—the perfect raw material for this unadulterated, peppery and brambly-fruited red.
2013 La Ferme de Sept Lunes Saint-Joseph ($46)
The darling of the natural wine bar scene in Paris, this biodynamic Saint-Joseph (100 percent Syrah) is dark, dense and funky. The farm ("la ferme") only started bottling its own in 2001, when owner Jean Delobre produced his first vintage out of a converted cowshed.
2014 Dard & Ribo Crozes-Hermitage ($43)
René-Jean Dard and François Ribo's sans soufre Syrahs are lively, silken and smoky rather than rich, extracted and tannic. That's because they've been adhering to a "less is more" strategy since starting out in the early 1980s. Ready to drink despite its youth, this Crozes is an excellent match for spring lamb or anything involving bacon.