I would strongly recommend the Charlemagne wine club to any wine lover within striking distance of Ealing in West London. Still going strong after 30 years plus they get it right. Plenty of informed speakers, diverse wines, sit down tasting, excellent value and a good balance between giving the wines attention and a social event. They meet the 3rd Monday of most months - see their website for details.
Charlemagne's March evening covered the Southern Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape star Vieux Télégraphe. The Southern Rhône and Languedoc-Roussillon have much in common with a similar Mediterranean climate and shared grape varieties. Vinously, the most significant difference is the greater use of Grenache in the reds at the expense of Carignan, and that's about it.
From a UK consumer perspective the Southern Rhône is way ahead. Back in the 1980s Côtes du Rhône managed to elevate itself above country wine status, a polite term for holiday plonk, to be a recognisable and reliable marque and join the likes of generic Bordeaux and Burgundy. The area single handedly represented the south of France on many wine lists and retail shelves and continues to be top dog today. Dine in an ordinary restaurant in France outside a wine area and more often than not Southern Rhône is the closest you'll get to the Med. on the wine list.
Fine. But what's extraordinary and harder to explain is how decades ago Châteauneuf-du-Pape became, and continues to be, an icon commune. Shrewd marketing by the town and the reference to papal connections moulded on the neck of every bottle would have been key factors. Perhaps being located on the main north-south communication artery is another. For many everyday wine consumers it's up there with the likes of Chablis and Sancerre as a French label to pay a premium for - an affordable luxury or gift to impress.
Chateauneuf is home to a handful of estates recognised by connoisseurs and, no doubt fuelled by Parkerisation, even wine investors. Vieux Télégraphe is one of these as the four vintages back to 2001 at the tasting illustrated. At around £50 a bottle it may seem modest value when compared to peers in the Languedoc, but I would argue it represents a bargain when compared to Chateauneuf's marketed to everyday consumers. All the big UK supermarkets list examples starting at £15 and up. One was sampled at the tasting and young (2010), sweet and dull sums it up. By contrast, the 1/2 million bottle production 2007 Guigal Côtes du Rhône at half the price was a decent drink, even when revisiting it after the might of Vieux Télégraphe.
Back in the Languedoc no area has anything like the perceived cachet of Châteauneuf and I hope never will. While it may generate better prices for good producers, too much mediocrity will be rewarded as is the case in the aforementioned famous appellations. Côtes du Rhône is another matter and the world perceiving, say, Coteaux du Languedoc as a desirable peer would be just recognition.
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