Last month, a new Southern Rhône wine appellation was born—or, rather, its status was elevated. After 10 years of organizing and lobbying the INAO, the government administration that regulates France's regional wine designations, the village of Cairanne is now celebrating its upgraded cru status, which commences with the 2015 vintage. In France, it takes eight full years of administrative procedure to demonstrate that a village deserves a higher rank. But once achieved, for winemakers, it promises a better image of the terroir they love dearly, and stronger sales for their wines, which can fetch better prices.
The French appellation system was developed in the mid-1930s as a way to preserve terroir, a confluence of soil, grape varieties, and tradition—basically to ensure that wines of quality remained as such. Appellations in France are ranked on a multi-tiered ladder that varies by region, which, to a casual drinker, can seem quite complicated. Since this system was initiated, appellations have been continuously forged throughout France, the basic idea being that a region needs to prove its winemaking and soil deserve recognition. With its focus on terroir and winemaking practices, France's appellation system has long served as a model for geographical wine indication throughout the Old World.
After 10 years of lobbying, Cairanne is now celebrating its upgraded status, which commences with the 2015 vintage.
The Rhône Valley’s appellation system starts on the most basic level with the ubiquitous Côtes du Rhône label, typically red blends made of grapes from a wide geographic spectrum, and generally of average quality from anywhere in the Rhône Valley. One tier up is Côtes du Rhône-Villages wines, focused on a more specific geographic area, but not yet recognized as the top quality in the region. Then, there are the cru wines (cru translates to growth), which hold the status of appellation communale, a limited area with specific rules about vinification. These wines are judged to be from the best vineyards and to bear the deepest, most observable expression of terroir. In the Rhône, there is a division between the South, where wines are typically a blend, and the North, where reds are 100 percent syrah and whites are 100 percent viognier.
Cairanne is a village whose wines were, until recently, considered Cotes du Rhône-Villages, but now with its elevated status, Cairanne has become an appellation communale. "We did it by focusing on the quality of the wines and of the terroir, as well as the unanimous passion of the winemakers," explains Denis Alary, a winemaker whose family has been in Cairanne since the 17th century. "My family has been talking about this for forty years," he continues. "But it was a very complicated job."
As president of the Syndicat des Vignerons de Cairanne, an association comprising 37 winegrowers in private wineries and three cooperative wineries in Cairanne, Alary led the effort to lobby for the region's cru status. This involved, first of all, a delineation of the very best terroir. As well, wines that receive the cru appellation status can only be harvested by hand, not machine (hand harvesting, in general, is practiced by smaller estates producing higher-quality wine, as opposed to large-scale wineries). There are also rules limiting how much sulfur (a preservative) a winemaker can add to his/her juice. In other words, some of Cairanne’s winemakers may have to change their winemaking ways if they want a higher status label on their bottles.
These newly promoted appellations are indicative of the Rhône Valley’s emergence from the shadows of Burgundy and Bordeaux.
Prior to Cairanne, the most recent Rhône Valley appellation upgrades were Beaumes de Venise and Vinsobres, created in 2005 and 2006, respectively, and the sweet wines of Rasteau, created in 2010. These newly promoted appellations, all in the Southern Rhône, are indicative of the Valley’s emergence from the shadows of famed areas like Burgundy and Bordeaux. The Rhône Valley’s prominence has long been attached to its most well-known name, that of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in Southern Rhône, where expensive, complex red blends and some whites are made on unique terroir of pebble stones. Nowadays, the Rhône is beloved amongst connoisseurs for its syrah-based wines, notably from Hermitage and St.-Joseph.
"Burgundy had made understood the notion of terroir and appellation," explains Christophe Tassan, a Rhône Valley native and current sommelier at private San Francisco club, The Battery. "The Rhône became known as another option, first because it was more affordable, and second because the notion of cru in the Rhône came to be seen as a notion of terroir, each village tastes differently. Châteauneuf-du-Pape led the way in establishing the Rhône Valley appellation" since it was one of the first French AOCs, declared in 1936, states Tassan.
Villages in the Rhône each have unique, individual character, hence the need to recognize them as separate appellations.
Per Tassan, villages in the Rhône each have unique, individual character, hence the need to recognize them as separate appellations: "Cairanne to me shows a gentleness. You don’t have the heat of Chateauneuf ... there’s a freshness." In Cairanne, 95 percent of the wines are a red blend, featuring mainly grenache. "You have all these flavor profiles that define the grenache—smoked pea, dark pea, spices, ripe raspberry. It’s a beautiful balance in between heat and strength, freshness and tannins."
While Cairanne winemakers are celebrating their elevated status, however, there is one aspect of appellation-making that cannot be ignored: its politics. That’s what makes Caleb Ganzer, head sommelier at New York City wine bar Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, skeptical about it all. The French appellation system "got us out of the dark ages of winemaking, cleaned the industry up a little bit. But now it’s no longer really a mark of quality. You buy a wine that says Bordeaux, or Costières de Nîmes or whatever," but it doesn’t mean the wine is good—only that certain rules are followed, explains Ganzer. "There’s a lot of bad wine that makes its way onto the market even with AOC name."
To illustrate this point, Ganzer references a revolution in Italy’s appellation system, instigated in the late 70s by the rebellious winemaker Sergio Manetti of Montevertine, a producer whose wines, today, are limited production and very expensive. His winery is situated within the Chianti area of Tuscany, where the standard practice for that eponymous appellation was to add the white grape trebbiano to a base of sangiovese. But Manetti wanted to make the best wine he possibly could, and he didn’t feel that the Chianti DOC (denominazione di origine controllata) wines, which, at the time had no limits on yields, were of high quality. Manetti believed in the power of sangiovese alone, and decided to make his wines 100 percent dedicated to the grape.
Ganzer explains that when the Chainti appellation pushed back, "Manetti was like ‘screw you guys, I’m just going to make a 100 percent Sangiovese [labeled] Vino di Tavola," which is a lower classification on the market. Other producers followed Manetti’s lead, and, "once the rules were broken, it was a free for all," says Ganzer. Ultimately, they created their own appellation—IGT Toscana, which is technically lower in status than a DOC wine. But their wines were regarded as great, and so they were able to fetch high prices.
"There’s a lot of bad wine that makes its way onto the market even with AOC name."
As wine standard have risen, Chianti appellation laws have changed, according to Sarah Hexter of Rosenthal Wine Merchants, the company that imports Montevertine. "The [DOC] consortium has placed limits on yields, raised minimum extract amounts," she explains. "They’ve changed the requirement regarding the use of white grapes; a minimum of 75 percent sangiovese is required, and it is now possible for a wine that is 100 percent sangiovese to be labeled Chianti—all of these factors have led to improvements in quality, generally speaking."
This indicates that appellations, today, are stricter than they were in the past, something that’s indicative of the serious approach that Alary and his consortium of winemakers have taken while establishing the Cairanne cru. Still, they don’t always make sense, exactly. In Sicily, for example, on the volcanic terroir of Mount Etna, many top producers’ most prized vineyards are located at very high elevation, where they are excluded from the DOC. So, the appellation, which they fought hard to establish in the 1960s, doesn’t entirely help winemakers market their juice. And a similar effect could take place in Cairanne.
Jules Dressner, whose company Louis/Dressner Selections imports two top Cairanne producers, Oratoire St-Martin and Domaine Richaud, echoed this sentiment, explaining that some vineyards from these estates "are not within the cru limits, so some of it will become declassified to Cotes du Rhône-Villages." But, "it won’t impact the winemaking" because these producers will simply continue making wine the way they always have—with integrity.
Appellations are fluid entities, constantly revised as winemakers and bureaucrats evaluate their efficacy. This, of course, is a political process, and therefore controversial. The bottom line, though, is that with the newly established Cairanne cru, more of its wineries will have a chance to make their names known, and by extension, elevate the Southern Rhône region as a whole.