Côte-Rotie, points and prizes

Recently I went to an illuminating Côte-Rotie tasting at Roberson, an excellent wine merchant on Kensington High Street, one of a series of high cost but high reward evenings they host there. Côte-Rotie is an appellation in the Northern Rhone that produces syrah-dominated red wines, often brightened with a splash of the white grape viognier. Like pretty much everything from the northern Rhone it’s normally too expensive for me to buy – at Majestic the cheapest version costs £40; at Berry Bros it’s £32.65; the Wine Society, to be fair, has three between £20 and £30 (and I actually bought one there a few weeks back for £25); Roberson themselves have a small selection that starts at £300 a bottle and ends on £1,020 (reduced from £1,335). The upshot was that I tried more Cote-Roties in this single evening than in the entire rest of my life.

We tried 10 wines in all, served in three flights and ranging in retail price from £49.95 to £395, for the most famous and celebrated wines of the appellation. With my inexperience in wines of this style, and at this level, I was a little nervous about how my poor tastebuds would shape up. But things started pretty well as we were given a few minutes to quietly try the first three wines, and my conclusions broadly mirrored the consensus of my presumably rather more experienced co-tasters. Of these, a 2001 Rene Rostaing “La Landonne” was rather brilliant, in a complex but still understated way, and smelt rather a lot of zatar, I thought. My favourite of the second flight, again in line with popular opinion, was a 1998 Delas “La Landonne”, made from fruit from elsewhere in the same vineyard, even though it smelt rather a lot of damp swimming goggles.

My confidence buoyed by these minor successes, the final flight and unrivalled highlight of the evening was served: a full line-up of 1998 Guigal’s “la-las”, the nickname for three single-vineyard Côte-Roties, La Landonne (again), La Mouline and La Turque – incredibly famous wines that I never thought I’d get my mitts on, and the wines most often awarded a maximum 100 points by notorious wine critic Robert Parker. Though only one of the three 1998s – La Landonne – had got the full haul, this was my first chance to taste a 100-point wine.

And I must say I was baffled. Of the three I preferred La Turque, but I found them all a bit unyielding and unlovely. Give me the Rostaing Landonne, for a “mere” £80 a bottle, over these £400-a-pop leviathans. Perhaps I lacked the experience to judge how they will evolve, because they’re certainly not at their peak yet – but I couldn’t find enough fruit to make them particularly interesting either now nor in the future. I’m prepared, though, to accept that I am wrong. Pretty much everyone else disagreed.

And so my conclusion has to be that I either need to drink many more 100-point wines, or no more at all. And that, while the best of Côte-Rotie is pretty excellent, if you want to drink some syrah there’s much, much better value to be had elsewhere.

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