These Southern Rhône Crus Are Delivering Premium Quality Wine Without Breaking Your Budget

Drink Features Rhone
These Southern Rhône Crus Are Delivering Premium Quality Wine Without Breaking Your Budget

French wine can be many things. But it is rarely simultaneously all of these things: ultra-premium, progressively farmed, modern, rooted thousands of years in the past and affordable and delicious enough to drink, with pleasure, every day. 

But two under-the-radar crus—Lirac and Rasteau—in the Southern Rhône are managing to deliver on all of these points, thanks to a complex array of historical, circumstantial and geographical coincidences.

411 on the Rhône Valley

Wine has existed in the Rhône since the 4th century B.C. when the Greeks first introduced viticulture. Romans introduced the farming methods that turned the Rhône into one of the central hubs of fine wine production a few centuries later. 

But when Pope Clement V moved his home to Avignon from Rome in 1309, he really got the party started, turning the Rhône neighborhood of Châteauneuf-du-Pape (which translates to “the Pope’s New Crib”) into the world’s HQ for fine wine. 

Today, the Rhône’s wines are divided into four categories of classification. The Côtes du Rhône AOC classification is at the bottom and accounts for about half of the Rhône Valley’s production. Next up is the Côtes du Rhône Villages AOC, then the Côtes du Rhône named Villages, with 21 specific villages able to put their names on the label.

At the top of the heap are the crus. There are a total of 17 crus, with eight in the north and nine in the south. Considered the crème de la crème, the wines that emerge from these crus are prized for their terroir-driven expressions of premium land. About 20% of the wines from the Rhône are officially from crus, and many command prices that soar well into the hundreds per bottle. 

Arguably the most dearly priced cru, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, regularly commands eye-popping prices of $520 to $1,500+ a pop

But wines from two cultish Southern Rhône crus the average wine lover still doesn’t recognize—Lirac and Rasteau—are widely available for $15 to $25 a bottle.

Why So Reasonable?

How are these two crus delivering Chanel value at H&M prices? 

“Lirac is very small,” says Richard Maby, owner and operator of Domaine Maby. “We have about 1,000 hectares [2,471 acres] under vine, while the Châteauneuf-du-Pape, for example, has around 4,000 [9,884 acres]. Plus, we never had a pope build a castle here, and no celebrities have moved here and started wineries.”

But even more importantly, Maby notes, is that for decades, despite the auspicious terroir, much of the area’s production was focused on quantity, not quality.

“Twenty years ago, there were maybe two wineries producing great wines,” Maby notes. “But a lot of the people focused on quantity retired or sold their wineries. Now, a new generation is here, making the most of the incredible terroir.”

Indeed, producers from the Northern Rhône cru Châteauneuf-du-Pape are taking note and moving in. Around a dozen winemakers perched in the Rhône’s priciest hood have put down roots in Lirac in recent years.

Helen Jaume, whose family has been growing wine grapes since 1826 and making wine under the label Domaine Alain Jaume in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape since 1978, says her parents established vineyards in Lirac 22 years ago.

“They were one of the first to come here,” Jaume says. “Lirac at that point was fairly unknown, but we have found that once a market discovers us, once people try our wines, they realize how incredible the value is. The terroir here is truly special and capable of producing a complex, fresh wine that is drinkable now but can also age.”

Rasteau, meanwhile, has been a victim of changing fashions. The cru rose to fame for Vin Doux, a Grenache-based fortified wine that royals and power brokers the world over coveted—until they didn’t. 

“In some ways, it’s sad,” says Rejane Pouzoulas, co-owner of Domaine Wilfried. “I don’t even make a Vin Doux. But my family made incredible Vin Doux for many years. People are just so afraid of sugar now, that kind of wine is consumed maybe once a year at Christmas.”

Many winemakers, she’s quick to add, do still proudly produce a Vin Doux. Last year, the production of Vin Doux represented about 500 hectoliters, or about 1% of the cru’s total production. 

And the upside, Pouzoulas says, of the Vin Doux market’s downturn, is that it has allowed Rasteau to capitalize on its secret strengths.

“This is a very exciting time for Rasteau,” she says. “We have an extremely interesting terroir, and as winemakers, we are generally focused on farming organically, using minimal sulfites and seeking freshness and depth in our winemaking process. As a cru, we have moved in the past decade toward freshness and juiciness.”

Terroir Rooted in the Past but Positioned for the Future 

Wines from the Rhône are typically seen as big, robust booze bombs, but Lirac and Rasteau have been leading the retreat from that stereotypical style for a decade or more. The terroir makes it easy.

Lirac, the Rhône’s southernmost cru, has a Mediterranean climate with 2,700 hours of sun a year. The cru’s land, on the right bank of the Rhône, is exposed to the rising sun. There are three primary types of soil: limestone plateaus covered with a layer of red clay and pebbles; sand mixed with smaller stones; and soils of rounded quartz cobble stones and red clay. 

“The forest and our trees help our terroir,” says Rodolphe de Pins, owner operator at Chateau de Montfaucon. “Many of our vineyards have trees in or around them, and Lirac has 2,500 hectares [6,177 acres] of forest, which is a legacy from the time when Lirac was undervalued. Unlike other crus where trees were replaced with vineyards, we never cut our trees down. I keep olive trees in my 150-year-old vineyard because they cool the vines and bring biodiversity and helpful insects and birds into the vineyards.”

Rasteau, on the left bank of the Rhône, faces south and also has a Mediterranean climate, distinct slopes carved by erosion with varied exposures to the sun, and alternating marls (which is unconsolidated sedimentary rock) and limestone pebbles.

The name of the place is derived from the French work for rake (rateau). 

“The rake symbolizes the strength of our terroir,” says Frédéric Lavau, co-owner at Maison Lavau. “We are on the side of the Ouveze River, with a backdrop of the Dentelles de Montmirail, and the hills that our vineyards are built on are formed in hills and valleys like the tines of a rake, with layers that dig into the mountain and bring freshness to the grapes.”

In both regions, the famous mistral wind—which blows at an average speed of 60 miles per hour—blows for an average of 100 days per year. The fierce winds keep the vines dry, blowing away disease and pests, and keeps the flavors of the grapes fresh and lithe, even in the height of summer. 

The range of soils and elevation in Lirac and Rasteau, the dedication to organic farming and the whipping winds of the mistral leave both crus well-placed to combat climate change. 

A New Generation 

What nature doesn’t provide in terms of protection, a young and progressive new generation of vintners eagerly supplies in the cellar. 

For many vintners, that starts with the aging vessels.

“We began using bigger barriques for our white wines in 2018,” says Thierry Usseglio, owner-operator at Domaine Pierre Usseglio. “We want to maintain freshness, and with bigger barriques, we don’t get any buttery notes. We also make sure all of our wines are fermented at a very cool temperature over a period of ideally four weeks. The long, cool process maintains acidity in the wine and adds complexity and ageability.”

In Rasteau, Madeline Ferran, co-owner at Domaine des Escaravailles, says they began using amphora two years ago. Amphora are large ceramic vessels that were widely used to ferment, store and age wine in the Ancient world; while they went out of fashion for millennia, in certain pockets of the world, they remained in use. They are being “rediscovered” today by winemakers who are eager to get away from wood, which can impart distinct flavors like vanilla or mocha to wine. 

“We like how the amphora adds finesse and elegance to our wines, without adding any extra flavors,” Ferran explains. 

Another big conversation in both appellations is the use of sulfites and natural yeast.

“We add only one to three grams of sulfites at bottling,” says Jean-Baptiste Lafond, co-owner and operator at Domaine Lafond. “We add just enough to help preserve the wine and eliminate issues, but we find that if we farm the grapes well and keep the cellar very clean, we don’t need more than that because we don’t have any bacterial issues. We also only use indigenous, wild yeast to maintain a full and true sense of our terroir.”

Commercial yeast, Lafond explains, can tamper with the full-throated expression of a vineyard, creating a slightly generic flavor that while harmonious erases distinction. 

Looking Forward 

Both Lirac and Rasteau’s wine production are based on blends of historical varieties. In Lirac, the reds are based on Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault, the rosés are made from Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault and the whites are comprised of White Grenache, Bourboulenc, Roussanne and Clairette, with Picpoul, Marsanne and Viognier blended in as secondary grapes. 

While Lirac has historically been a red wine region, vintners are increasingly turning to whites. 

“The demand for white wines is way up,” notes Maby. “Lirac now produces more whites than anyone else in the Southern Rhône.”

Currently, whites make up about 15% of Lirac’s output, but Maby and others see those numbers going up, especially because white grapes like Clairette and Picpoul can ripen early at a lower alcohol percentage, capitalizing on the lower-ABV trend in the market that also moves bottles. 

Vintners in Rasteau, which is technically an all-red wine cru, would love to get in on the white wave.

“I make white wines, but they are released under the Vin de France label because they are not approved for Rasteau,” says Pouzoulas, who is spearheading a campaign in Rasteau to receive approval from the Institut National de l’Origine (INAO), a public body that regulates wine in France, to allow winemakers to produce whites and label them with the AOC. “It is a long process. We have to prove that there is historical precedent for whites in the region and prove that our terroir can produce a white wine that is worthy of being labeled as Rasteau.”

She is confident that they will ultimately succeed—but admits that the process will likely still take several more years. 

“In the meantime, other producers and I will continue to make and release whites, just not under the Rasteau AOC,” Pouzoulas says. “One day!”

The vintners are proud to walk the line between the great honor of producing wine fit for royalty, but within reach of all. 

“We like to keep our prices down, and we hope we can continue to,” says Ferran. “Wine should be accessible, something to be shared. It shouldn’t be elitist.”

A refreshing, if increasingly rare sentiment. 

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