December is upon us, nights are long and temperatures low, and by my reckoning that makes it Southern Rhone o’clock. I don’t think I’m alone here, even if Grenache, the region’s dominant grape, is not the trendiest, which you can tell because it’s largely ignored by ambitious new world producers (nearly 90% of all the world’s Grenache comes from France or Spain). But it is capable of producing wines of genuine greatness as well as wines that sit in that sweetest of spots, giving great pleasure to the consumer without causing significant pain to their wallet.
Take, for example, Rasteau. I literally took an example of Rasteau a couple of weeks back, having been offered a bottle as part of the celebrations of the region’s 10th anniversary as a full-blown Rhône cru – at the top of the local hierarchy, above Côtes du Rhône Villages, which itself sits above the common-or-garden Côtes du Rhônes. Rasteau is a name to remember, as you will generally find it to be a phenomenal hunting ground for generous, fruity, warming (fairly alcoholic, in other words) and good value reds, though it is also true that you will not generally find it at all.
Let’s take a quick look at the current selection available to Britain’s Rasteau-hunters. Here’s what you can find at Tesco:
Meanwhile at Sainsbury’s, there’s this:
Marks and Spencer offer this:
And at Waitrose not only is there no Rasteau, but customers looking for some are told they might like to just skip straight to the spirit aisle:
As for the wine specialists, the Wine Society currently lists one (at £13.95), as do Majestic (£14.99/6), Laithwaite’s (£14.79/12), Slurp (the same one as the Wine Society, but at £14.95), Lay & Wheeler (£14.95 in bond, and they only had four bottles of that at the time of writing) and even Rhone-focused Yapp Brothers (£14.50). The homogeneity of their pricing is just one of the remarkable things about this list; most obviously it is surprising that there is so little of this stuff about, given that Rasteau produces about the same amount of wine as Gigondas (33,494 hectolitres in 2016, compared to 36,832 in Gigondas), and everyone*’s got loads of that. Clearly the fine folk of Rasteau are also puzzled about this, which is why they are sending bottles to the likes of me (there is also a Rasteau vin doux naturel, which is considerably harder to find).
For a general idea of Rasteau’s stylings, the Wine Society have a Côtes du Rhône made entirely from Rasteau-grown grapes for just £9.50, from the reliably good Romaine des Escaravailles (also available at Cambridge Wine Merchants for £12.10). Further up the same producer’s ladder, the Wine Society normally list their Rasteau La Ponce in their Rhone en primeur offers, most recently at £95 in bond for 12, or about £12 a bottle once you factor in duty and tax, and it is reliably excellent value at that price. Cambridge Wine Merchants have La Ponce 2018 available for £19.99 (or £16.62 if you buy 12), and Escaravailles’ top-of-the-range Rasteau Heritage 1924 2016 for £29.99/£27.50
As for the bottle I got, it was Les Adrès 2016 from Domaine du Trapadis, which is made by a man called Helen. It was a full-throttle bottle, bursting with fruit and energy, impressive freshness for its 14% ABV, and velvety smooth, still young but raring to go. In the UK the 2013 is available from Natural Vine for £21.25 (as well as the same producer’s Rasteau Tradition 2013 for £17). It was an absolute pleasure to drink, though (obviously) it is much better value in France, where it costs around €15. Curiously, Trapadis are sufficiently environmentally concerned to be certified biodynamic but nevertheless bottle their wines with an Ardeaseal, a cork substitute made using “highly technological synthetic materials” (plastic, in other words) and “an avant-garde manufacturing process”. My trusty Le Creuset corkscrew took one look at the Ardaseal and snapped in two, but thankfully the contents of the bottle made the sacrifice worthwhile. I look forward to bottles of Rasteau being easier to get hold of, and easier to get into.