The Côtes du Rhône’s delicious white lie

When we say Côtes du Rhône you’re probably already thinking of rich, plummy red wines. And you can certainly be forgiven for making that assumption, (reds make up 89% of the region’s wine production after all). But that doesn’t mean you should be discounting white wine made there.

Despite only accounting for 4% of the wine produced, what Côtes du Rhône whites lack in quantity, they make up for in character, charm and variety.

So, white wine lovers, forget Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, even Chardonnay … and embrace the unique delights of the Côtes du Rhône.

So what’s so appealing about the Rhône’s whites?

As is the case with the region’s reds, the whites here offer a delicious and appealing range of styles. No surprise perhaps, when you consider the length of the whole valley (over 200km), the change of topography, soil and also the climate.

From the rounded peachy and apricot fruited, sometimes floral character of southern wines which gain their juicy ripeness from the area’s Mediterranean climate, to the more refined creamy, nutty and honeysuckle-scented wines of the north; the variety of the landscape and climate means there’s plenty to discover.

There is lots of encouragement from the press too: Decanter described white Rhônes as “weighty, food-friendly whites [that] are inexpensive”, while the Guardian’s Fiona Beckett praised them for offering “a broad range of full-bodied, complex whites that won’t burn a hole in your wallet.” Journalist Rose Murray-Brown MW in the Scotsman urges us,grab what you can before Rhône whites become even more fashionable and prices start to rise.”

How does the region differ?

Grenache Blanc is one of the native grapes used in top Rhône whites

In Southeastern France, the valley starts between the granite-blessed Massif Central and the Alps in the north. Steep and narrow, as it heads towards Montélimar, Orange and the Mediterranean it gradually opens out to offer hills, then gentle undulations and plains. Soils change as well – from the granite and schist of the north to the clay-lime-marl of the south’s gentle slopes.

On this path south, the climate also changes. You start with typical inland continental – hot summers and cold winters, then gradually move into the appealing, temperate warmth of the Mediterranean – warm summers and moderate winters, accompanied by the strong Mistral wind.

Three Côte du Rhône whites to try:

Taking all that into account, it’s no surprise that the grape varieties change through the landscape as well, just like they do for its red wines. Northern vineyards champion floral and exotically flavoured Viognier, often a varietal wine (ie pure Viognier) or a blend of Roussanne and Marsanne, the two found in prized white Hermitage, Saint-Joseph and Château-Grillet.

Due to the labour intensity and expense of working these steep northern vineyards, most of the white wine output is cru or more expensive appellation wines. The most accessible Côtes du Rhône whites largely come from the south. There, winemakers promote white wines made from a delicious array of native varieties – Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, Clairette and Bourboulenc, with small quantities of Terret Blanc and Picardin.

And what can you expect from these more southerly whites?

Broadly speaking, Côtes du Rhône Blancs are a gorgeous blend of the white grapes listed above. They have a satisfying weight and aromatic character (particularly if they include generous portions of Viognier or Clairette), with incisive, citrus-fresh minerality. These are perfect food wines, as well as being, for the most part, very appealing on their own. Largely they’ll remain fresh and unoaked, with only lees-ageing (lees are the sediment particles left after fermentation) bringing out the creamy roundness. Some will show a little oak, to lend extra toasty weight and complexity.

Côtes du Rhône whites – explore them now!

Now, more than ever, it’s a great time to discover the white wines of the Rhône – more advanced techniques have helped to produce brighter, more minerally and aromatic whites. Plus, of course, there’s an enthusiastic, new generation of winemakers taking charge, with greater knowledge and experience from all over the world. Armed with this, they bring with them new ideas and an energy to try new things.

So next time you want a wine to go with a chicken dish – chicken pie, spicy marinaded chicken with pecan rice, a creamy noodle dish or seafood, delve into the white wines of the Côtes du Rhône. You’ll find they make a perfect partner and are also appetisingly vibrant and fresh to enjoy all on their own. Cheers!

Sir Harold Evans and the birth of The Sunday Times Wine Club

Sir Harold Evans, the pioneering former editor of The Sunday Times, is remembered as one of the most important figures in post war Fleet Street history. Among his many considerable journalistic achievements on both sides of the Atlantic, there is another legacy that he leaves behind in our world, that is perhaps not as widely known. In the early seventies, with Tony and Barbara Laithwaite, he was instrumental in creating and setting up The Sunday Times Wine Club.

Sir Harold Evans

It was the Summer of 1972, Starman by David Bowie was making its way up the charts, England were busy retaining the Ashes and Billy Jean King had just won her fourth Wimbledon title. In the political world Edward Heath was in 10 Downing Street, across the pond Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had just published the first revelations of the Watergate scandal for The Washington Post while in Denmark Queen Margaret II succeeded to the throne, the first female Monarch of that country since 1412. The less said about the vintage in Bordeaux, the better.

Newspapers were going through a golden age. Unrivalled in today’s terms, with no social media or the internet, they were at the heart of the national conversation. The Sunday Times world famous Insight team had already published investigations into the Profumo affair and revealed that Kim Philby was the third man in the Cambridge Spy Ring before Harry Evans became editor in 1967. Harry, as he then was, quickly made his mark, leading the newspaper’s investigation into the thalidomide scandal which led to greater compensation for the payouts to victims.

Under Nicholas Tomalin the Insight team had also published a series of articles on malpractice in the wine business. Believe it or not in those days you were allowed to bottle wine in the U.K. directly from the barrel. By all accounts some unscrupulous wine merchants were importing ‘wine’ from north Africa and labelling it whatever they wanted. Pomerol in Bordeaux and Pommard in Burgundy – sometimes from the same tank! Possibly.

The article prompted a letter from another Durham graduate, Tony Laithwaite who started his career washing bottles in Bordeaux. He wrote to his fellow Durham Univeristy alumni at The Sunday Times, Harry Evans, and said that his young company, under the railway arch in Windsor, had no truck with fake wine as he imported wine direct from the growers in France; as he described: from ‘château bottled clarets, from châteaux that do actually exist – no fantasy at all.”

Harry published the letter in full and with a circulation of nearly 4 million, sales from Arch 36 received a welcome fillip. A few reader offers ensued and a year later the club was born with Allan Hall, writer of the ‘Atticus’ column as the resident writer. Hall wasn’t a wine writer but had flair and had recently inspired the Beaujolais Run with his prize of a bottle of Champagne for the first arrival of nouveau to be delivered to his desk at The Sunday Times. It was won by an enterprising wine lover who had procured the use of a private plane.

But they needed a President. Who better than the great wine writer, soon to be the most successful wine writer in the world – Hugh Johnson, (described by Tony as a dapper laddie in a bow-tie!) When I corresponded with Sir Harry Evans from New York in 2018 he said Hugh was ‘key to the whole enterprise.’

Hugh Johnson, Tony Laithwaite & Will Lyons

“Harry had made me travel editor in 1967,” recalls Hugh over a coffee in Kensington. “Earlier I had been their wine correspondent so when his Insight team had a story about dubious wine being bottled in Suffolk he asked me to look over it. He then thought it was a good idea to get me involved in the Club, I didn’t need much persuading and was made President.”

With Tony hunting through the vineyards of France sniffing out authentic characteristic wines of marked character’those early days must have been great fun as Hugh and Tony both traversed the globe, often with members in tow, to find new wines. Cruise ships were chartered; sailing trips around the Mediterranean were organised onboard the Star Clipper, a four-masted barquentine and the Marques. Private planes were occasionally hired and a festival in London was launched which still takes place every year in the Spring. Hugh recalls, in one of his many distinguished books, a one day trip to Bergerac where they landed on an airfield which doubled as a football pitch. They even got a mention in Private Eye when the Pseuds Corner column included two of their tasting notes. (Not sure if those were written by Hugh!)

On another occasion three hundred club members gathered at Quaglino’s in Mayfair to celebrate the club’s fifth birthday. Harold was the guest of honour and Hugh recalls in his memoir ‘On Wine’ that his speech was ‘so poignant and so funny that when he left to go back to work at half-past ten, the whole company rose, clapping and cheering, to see him off.’

That night the editor closed down The Times and The Sunday Times for a year.

Tony remembers it as an historic evening. “Harry’s final words were: ‘Thank you and now I must leave you to go back to The Sunday Times … and shut it down.’ The only part of the Sunday Times that carried on working that year was The Club with adverts in The Observer and The Telegraph!”

It was the same year the club tie was launched, with a vintage guide printed on the inside, as Hugh recalls, ‘the only tie to go out of date within a year.’ It was never to be repeated!

Today the club is one of the largest in the world.

“We owe a huge part of our success to Harry,” says Tony speaking from the vineyard at Harrow & Hope in Buckinghamshire. “Bordeaux Direct was a tiny company, a few thousand cases a year. We would still be a little company if it was not for The Sunday Times Wine Club and Harry made it all happen.”

When I became vice-president of The Sunday Times wine club in 2018 keen to learn more about the early years of the club I wrote to Harry in New York. Our initial meeting in London was postponed and we were due to meet this Summer in Manhattan. I had planned to take him to the Knickerbocker Club for lunch to tell him that the club was in rude health and thriving and of course to hear stories of the old days.

Will Lyons, Wine Club Vice President

I was reminded of something Tony once said to me when I was writing a weekly wine column for The Wall Street Journal. Tony said “that all he really wanted to do was to bring back to Britain a little of the passion for wine he experienced as a young man in the southwest of France.”

Well I think together with Barbara and Hugh he has done that and we’re all very lucky to have enjoyed the foresight of one of Fleet Street’s giants.

Will Lyons

Club Vice President

From the vineyards of Castelli Martinozzi

Many of our winemakers across the globe are still experiencing lockdown much like us here in the UK. We’ve been staying in touch with our global winemakers and receiving updates on how they are coping. The winery behind our delicious Brunello di Montalcino from Castelli Martinozzi in Tuscany, have sent us this warming video message from the heart of the vineyard.

Although a cloudy day, we’re happy to hear the good spirits from the winery and just like Federico, we will look forward to enjoying a glass of Castelli Martinozzi Brunello di Montalcino 2020.

Ciao from Tuscany.

Heartfelt thanks from Prosecco maker and old friend Alessandro Gallici

We’ve just received this moving video message from northern Italy.

While we’re very happy to see Alessandro healthy in his Prosecco vineyards it’s another reminder that what we in the UK might see as a little drink to make staying in more bearable is helping keep wineries, families going.

We’ve been working with Alessandro for 20 years and he’s become a good friend in that time. He’s been a regular smiling face at our UK tasting events for many years too. Many customers will have met him in person and many, many more have enjoyed his Prosecco.

We’ll let him tell you for himself what it means to have your support during this difficult time …

Dreaming of Bordeaux

There is so much to love about Bordeaux it’s almost impossible to know where to begin. An early evening stroll along the Quai des Chartrons in the City perhaps, before finding an outside table at somewhere like Café Gourmand and watching the world go by. A visit to one of the many wine producing villages along the Médoc, that magical, vine covered peninsula which begins on the outskirts of Bordeaux and finishes where the Gironde estuary tips into the Atlantic ocean. Or a quick stop at Saint Emilion’s cosy L’Envers du Décor wine bar for a midday glass of chilled, tangy, leafy white wine, grown on the gravel soils of the nearby Graves.

The wine route is full of many glorious destinations but my first love has always been Bordeaux. In another world, many of us involved professionally with wine would be there now, scurrying around its cellars tasting barrel samples of the new vintage during the hectic en primeur week. The 2019s can wait. As the world stops for this extremely difficult time, and we look out for friends, family and neighbours, many of whom are now isolated, we can take solace in a few moments of reflection on the beauty of this most glorious stop along the wine route.

The scenic route

The heartland of Bordeaux is the Médoc. The Left Bank of the Gironde were the deepest gravel banks are found and communes such as Margaux, St-Julien, Pauillac and St-Estèphe established themselves some two hundred years ago as some of the greatest places in the world to grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Blended together these produce age worthy red wines that have been sought after by collectors for many decades.

If you are driving from the City, there are two ways to reach the vineyards of the Médoc. One involves navigating through the rather uninspiring suburbs of Bordeaux before hitting the auto-route and driving at speed up to your first tasting in the cellars of St Julien or wherever it maybe. This is obviously the quickest route and recommended if time is short. But I like to get up an hour early, turn off the sat nav in my hire car and take the ‘scenic’ route along the more sedate D2 road. Rather like driving out of Melbourne, past the MCG cricket ground, down towards the Mornington Peninsula or leaving San Francisco and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge heading to the Silverado trail in Napa, one cannot fail to feel a pang of excitement as to what lays ahead. The pulse is quickened.

The first wine producing village of note is the commune of Margaux, where the road curves and passes straight in front of Château Palmer. Look right and fluttering above its turrets you’ll notice a Union Jack, a nod to its former proprietor – the Englishman – Colonel Charles Palmer. You are now within yards of perhaps the most famous Château in the world, the grand neo-classical Margaux, its columns standing proud at the end of a plane-tree-lined drive, surrounded by its vineyards which sit on a bed of sandy, limestone gravel. Here the wines are marked by their medium bodied texture and seductive aromatics. There is something unmistakable about the perfume of wines from the commune of Margaux, which at their best can take on notes of violets and rose petals. 

My favourite way to end the day

Will Lyons awaits a plate of oysters and a carafe of chilled white at La Cabane De L'Aiguillon
Will Lyons awaits a plate of oysters and a carafe of chilled white at La Cabane De L’Aiguillon

Time is running away with us. Soon the road will snake out of Margaux and after a straight drive through some agricultural land Saint Julien will be upon us. This is what the old British wine trade referred to as the ‘thirsty corner’ as the road takes a sharp turn past Château Beychevelle and Château Ducru Beaucaillou. Beyond lays Château Leoville Barton, flanking either side of the road. From here on in the Château come thick and fast – a roll call of some of the most magical and romantic names in wine. In Pauillac you pass Latour and Lafite before finishing high up in Saint Estephe where the vineyards stretch northwards towards the unsettled Bay of Biscay.

After a busy day of tasting, one of my favourite things to do is to continue towards the ocean to the bay of d’Arcachon where on the sea front you’ll find simple cabins serving oysters with nothing more than buttered bread and a slice of lemon. La Cabane De L’Aiguillon is my choice. Half a dozen oysters with a carafe of chilled, tangy white wine. Heavenly.

Will Lyons

Club Vice President

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The Art of Lunch

There were several Brown Derby restaurants in Los Angeles in the 1930s. Perhaps the most famous was the second in the chain, opened on Valentine’s Day in 1929 at 1628 North Vine Street.

Taking its inspiration from Spanish colonial architecture it quickly became a favourite with the Hollywood ‘set.’ Being close to the studios it was soon patronised by a roll call of movie stars and celebrities among them Clarke Gable, Groucho Marx, Lucille Ball, Joan Crawford and Humphrey Bogart. The golden generation of Hollywood. But it wasn’t until 1937 when its place in culinary history was eventually cemented.

There are many stories as to how the Cobb salad was born but my favourite is one recounted in the pages of The Wall Street Journal. The story goes that one night Bob Cobb, one of the owners of the restaurant, was working late, very late. Midnight was approaching and having not eaten he delved into the restaurant fridge and prepared himself a salad comprised of mainly left overs. Cold roast chicken, hard-boiled eggs, avocadoes, a few slices of bacon, tomatoes and of course mixed leaves and lettuce. He saved the strongest flavour until last – crumbling some Roquefort cheese over the top. That night the Brown Derby restaurant found itself a new signature dish – the Cobb salad.

A mixed salad on a desk with a computer screen in the background
Will Lyons shares his tips for eating and drinking while working from home

Cobb salads are best made at home. It’s a perfect lunch for those of us who are perhaps spending more time in the house than we would normally. Just grab the leftovers from the fridge and throw them all together. It doesn’t have to be lettuce it could be spinach or watercress. If you really want to go posh you can always add some sort of seafood. Why not lobster? If you’re feeling particularly flush and ‘Hollywood’.

You’ll need a glass of something to go with it. Something with plenty of uplifting acidity, vitality and Spring like fruit would be my choice. I know it’s not original but actually a chilled glass of Sauvignon Blanc would be an ideal foil. The grassy, gooseberry and citrus character, coupled with the lively tension in the wine, works well, particularly if you have dressed the salad with a squeeze of lemon.

I would avoid anything too complex, oaky and creamy. Think in terms of lighter style wines, what the club’s president Hugh Johnson may refer to as ‘fridge door wines.’ I’d be considering anything with zesty acidity. Riesling from Germany, Chablis, Vinho Verde from northern Portugal and the racy Picpoul de Pinet made down in the Languedoc just east of Narbonne. It’s translated as the ‘lip stinger’ and the quality of this wine has never been better.

All of these styles are fairly moderate in alcohol which means you can enjoy a glass and have a productive afternoon, whatever that may entail. In the Golden Age of Hollywood it could involve shooting a few scenes with Clarke Gable, well we can all dream!

Will Lyons

Club Vice President

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No half measures: why I choose to savour wine rather than abstain

Lent is upon us. A time for reflection, abstinence and preparations for the celebration of Easter.

I don’t know about you but I’m not too fond of giving up anything, let alone wine, or beer for that matter. All things in moderation or not so moderate, depending on your mood is my preference.

When I first started writing about wine, I used to give up alcohol in February on the advice of my first boss, “the shortest month,” he would say. “But beware of the leap years!” These days my tasting schedule is such that I simply can’t find the time for a month without wine and besides I enjoy a glass of wine with my evening meal, who doesn’t? But herein lies my point ‘a glass’ or maybe two.

Since January I have been keeping a watchful eye on how much I consume, nothing drastic just a gentle observation on portion sizes and how many glasses of wine I like to enjoy. I bought a little measuring jug and some weighing scales and as if by magic eight weeks in I’m nearly a stone lighter!

Six glasses in one bottle

One of the new habits I have enjoyed is pouring out a 100ml glass of wine to go with my evening meal. I have come to love this measure, it’s enough to give you a proper taste and experience of the wine you are serving, but it’s not enough to distract from your late evening activities whether that is catching up on writing, emailing friends or whatever. Of course, if you want a second glass or a third by all means pour it!

I recently wrote a column for The Sunday Times on half bottles and wrote that you can get 6 ‘generous’ glasses from a full bottle of wine and four ‘decent’ glasses from a half bottle of wine. This provoked a fair bit of feedback with some enthusiastic imbibers vehemently disagreeing.

A few days after the column was published a story appeared in The Times with the revelation that if you want to cut back on alcohol use smaller glasses. According to researchers from the University of Cambridge when restauranteurs placed 370ml glasses on the table, rather than 250ml, wine lovers drank 17% more!

Two glasses of red wine on a table with the beach in the background
There’s no need to fill those large glasses to the top

I was asked about it on Matthew Wright’s Talkradio ‘Wine Down Friday’ segment which you can listen to here. Over  a glass of the club’s excellent Santo Patrono from Bolivia I explained I’m all in favour of large glasses but small measures.

As an aside, preferably the wine glass should be made from very thin glass which doesn’t interfere with one’s enjoyment of the wine, Zalto and Riedel are my choice at home.

The traditional 125ml is a much-maligned serving of wine and shouldn’t be sniffed at. To prove my point at a recent dinner I asked the Sommelier to pour out 125ml in a large Zalto Bordeaux glass, my guests were quite surprised just how much it was. Like listening to a beautiful piece of music or faced with a wonderful natural landscape great wine can intoxicate both the senses and be an intoxicant. It is savouring the former which we should try and achieve in Lent. Far better than abstinence which makes it a very long time to Easter indeed!

P.S. I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter? Do you agree? What size do you feel is the ideal pour? Post a comment below and I shall reply.

Will Lyons

Sunday Times Wine Club Vice-President

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Join Will Lyons for an evening of Rothschild wines

For those fortunate enough to have made the journey from Beirut, crossing Mount Lebanon and the fertile soils of the Beqaa valley, the Temple of Bacchus is one of the most extraordinary and impressive temples of the Ancient world.

It’s the scale that hits you first, more than 100 feet rising above the ruins of Baalbeck. Constructed by the Romans, around the time of Nero, in the 1st century AD, walking underneath its ancient stone columns one cannot fail to be humbled by the sheer scale of this celebrated sanctuary to the God of Wine.

There are many ways in which you can appreciate the complex world of wine: geography, science, viticulture even the intricacies of taste. But history has always been close to my heart and it is through this particular lens that I gain my most enjoyment. And in wine there is a lot of it.

Will Lyons will host an evening of Rothschild Wine at Waddesdon Manor
The Waddesdon Manor cellar where Will Lyons will host an evening of Rothschild wines

It was the celebrated American wine writer, Matt Kramer, who pointed out earlier this year at the Sauvignon Blanc Symposium in Marlborough, that in the context of ‘vinous history’ New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is barely a day old. He’s right. Leaving aside the birth of commercial wine production in New Zealand (which stretches back around 40 years) and looking to some of the first plantings in the Victorian era in the early 1800s even this pales when placed aside the vineyards of Burgundy, the Rhône valley and Bordeaux. Regions which can chronicle their history in terms of centuries as opposed to decades.

Wine, history and the Rothschild’s

It is a little of this history that I would like to share with you at Waddesdon Manor. In October the club will be hosting a very special evening in the cellars of Waddesdon, a nineteenth century estate surrounded by history and home to one of the largest collections of Rothschild wines outside of France.

As wine dynasties go Rothschild is almost as impressive as the ancient sand coloured columns of the Temple of Bacchus. Boasting not just one but two Bordeaux First Growths in Châteaux Lafite and Mouton-Rothschild the dynasty also owns properties in Argentina and Chile which we will be tasting alongside their more famous cousins from France.

Will Lyons will host an evening of Rothschild Wine at Waddesdon Manor
Joana Vasconceleos created these candlesticks with bottles of Château Lafite Rothschild

To explain the wines we’ll be joined by Rothschild wine expert, Peter Tompkins, who will lead us on a tasting of eight different examples before we ascend upstairs for an autumnal three-course dinner with ingredients sourced from the estate.

Of course there will also be time to explore the grounds and gardens; home to two spectacular giant candlesticks made by Joana Vasconceleos with bottles of Château Lafite Rothschild. And there is even an exclusive opportunity to see the first major exhibition of British painter Eliot Hodgkin. Then there are the cellars themselves where there is an eighteenth-century figure of Bacchus himself – the God of Wine. I do hope you can come and join us. It should be a magical evening.

An evening of Rothschild wine on Saturday 12th October

Arrive at Waddesdon Manor from 6pm to enjoy the gardens, the Eliot Hodgkin exhibition and visit the aviary.

At 7pm enjoy a tasting in the Wine Cellars where Peter Tompkins (Rothschild Wine specialist) and Will Lyons will introduce a selection of eight Rothschild wines, followed by a three-course dinner served in the Manor Restaurant which will be inspired by autumn produce from Waddesdon Estate and Eythrope Garden. Rothschild Wines will be specially selected to suit each course during dinner.

For an additional fee hotel accommodation is available at Five Arrows Hotel, on Waddesdon Estate.

Waddesdon’s wine shop, stocking more than 129 Rothschild lines will be open and all sales on the night will be discounted by 10%.

See full details and book your tickets here.

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