Posted on | February 20, 2014
Written by | Roger Morris
First, the numbers: Among all French wine regions, Rhône wine sales to the U.S. trailed only Bordeaux in terms of volume through the first nine months of 2013. It was third to Bordeaux and Burgundy—both very high-ticket regions—in terms of dollar sales. But the real clincher is that Rhône sales to the U.S. rose an incredible 12.4% during that period while overall French wine sales here decreased slightly by 0.6%. Over the past eight years, Rhône wines sales to the U.S. doubled, reaching about 18 million bottles.
“Value and variety are driving Rhône wine sales,” says Shyda Gilmer, chief operating officer of NYC retailing stalwart Sherry-Lehmann. “You can still get wines for under $20 from Côtes du Rhône, Gigondas, Vacqueyras and other villages in the southern Rhône. People are discovering Rhône today the way they once discovered all the areas of Burgundy.”
“The health of the Rhône wine business has never been better,” says Bruce Neyers, national marketing manager for the importer Kermit Lynch. “There have been five to six consecutive good vintages, and there is great customer recognition of quality.”
Faith in America
Rhône suppliers say quality-for-price as well as mutual respect are what is driving this love affair. “Our Côtes du Rhône sales are up about 20% over 2012,” says Philippe Marchal, who, as French portfolio manager for Kobrand, handles the Château Mont-Redon brand. “It’s a great value at about $12 a bottle.”
Michel Chapoutier, who took over his family’s Rhône-based M. Chapoutier wine business in 1990 at the age of 26, emphasizes mutual trust. “Unlike some others, Rhône refused to jump with both feet into the Chinese market,” he says. “We decided not to turn our backs on our original big markets, such as the U.S. We didn’t abandon them. We were faithful, and now they are paying us back.” One might say that Rhône producers were as steady as the rocks of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
As demand has risen, quality has also increased in many established areas, and lesser-known regions are being discovered. “In the Northern Rhône, St. Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage have long been good wines, but not thrilling wines,” Neyers says. “Now they are thrilling. And the same thing is happening in southern Rhône. It used to be only Châteauneuf made great wines. Now you see great wines being made in Gigondas, Rasteau and Vacqueyras.”
Importer Robert Kacher agrees. “You have great values of $25 to $35 bottles of wine from, for example, Crozes-Hermitage,” he says. Kacher also imports wine from Seysseul in the northern Rhône, an area that has seen many new vineyards and great excitement.
Perception Fuels Reality
“We did an opinion survey in the United States last year of consumers and trade,” says Louise Rasse, export marketing manager for the Inter-Rhône trade group. “The unaided response among wine professionals of what were the important wine regions throughout the world placed Rhône at number 4, behind Bordeaux and Burgundy and just behind Rioja.” In the $10-$20 price range, 93% of trade respondents rated Rhône as of excellent or good quality.
Consumers were equally favorable in the survey. Rhône ranked highest among French regions in terms of quality in the
$10-$20 category and reported their purchases of Rhône wines had increased by 4% over the three months prior to the survey.
A Few Clouds
Not that everything is lovey-dovey, especially in the northern Rhône. “Southern Rhône gives us our biggest bang for the buck,” says owner John Murray at State Line Liquors in Elkton, MD. “But it’s become a harder sale with Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie and many of the northern Rhônes,” Sherry-Lehmann’s Gilmer agrees: “We sell less and less of Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage, and it used to be something we couldn’t keep in stock. Most of our sales now are to collectors who want to keep their verticals [wine from consecutive vintages] going.” And with the possible exception of Châteauneuf-du-Pape blanc, there is little reported demand for Rhône whites.
An interesting part of the growth in Rhône sales is that many suppliers view the Rhône Rangers in California—winemakers who grow Rhône varieties—as allies, a sort of Rhône outpost in America. “Look at what happened to Burgundy sales after they started making great Pinot Noirs in Oregon,” importer Kacher notes. “I’m proud at what these guys are doing in California with Rhône grapes.”
One of these California guys is Jason Haas, who sees both sides of the Rhône varietal business. He heads the family’s winery in Paso Robles at Tablas Creek, co-owned by the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel, plus the Haases’ Vineyard Brands are importers for Perrin’s Rhône wines. “It’s always been a positive interrelationship between Rhône and the Rhône Rangers,” Haas maintains. “I think on the East Coast, the popularity of Rhône wines opened doors for the Rhône Rangers, while on the West Coast the Rhône Rangers helped increase the popularity of Rhône imports.”
Kacher thinks that, in addition to good value, wines from the Rhône—especially the south—are prized for their consistency. “It’s a bit like Napa Valley in that average vintages in the Rhône are better than elsewhere else. Rhône wines are always ripe.”
And, as sommelier, wine consultant and restaurant developer Fred Dexheimer puts it, “Because of their variety and value, Rhône wines are always going to be popular in the U.S.”
Rhône: The Lay of the Land
The Rhône River cuts a canyon through mountains just south of Lyons. Here, on mostly crumbled granite soils, vineyards cling to steep mountainsides in the colder, wetter, continental climate. The Syrah grape stars in the north, via the Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage and, increasingly, Cornas appellations. Condrieu, made from Viognier, is the primary great white wine. Northern Rhône wines are made in small quantities, accounting for less than one-tenth of all Rhône production; not surprisingly, prices skew higher.
As the river continues south and begins to fan out as it approaches the sea, there is less rain, more sun and a Mediterranean climate—with plenty of accessible land to grow grapes for red, white, rosé and sweet wines. Here, most of the best red wines are anchored by Grenache grape, and primary whites include Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Marsanne. The most expensive are the reds and whites of rock-strewn Châteauneuf-du-Pape, although some of the better “village” reds, such as Gigondas, are rising in value. In addition to the village wines (there 18 of them), more-affordable, yet high-quality wines are sold as Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages and produced in red, white and rosé.