The Classic Southern Rhône Wines of Perrin & Fils

March 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

Perrin wines are rather unassuming at first glance. Not flashy. But they’re often brilliant, sometimes mind-rocking, always interesting. You owe it to the classic, gracious, stately side of yourself to drink these wines.

From Portland Press Herald, March 16, 2011

We tend to seek out the new in whatever realms we drift in, partly because it’s exciting and partly for ego upgrade. Be it pop stars, gadgets, politics or wine-and-food, we restless postmoderns like our hunts. But excitement for excitement’s sake is simply distraction, and as for the delusion that the self is ennobled by striving, Google Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. Today I’ll raise a flag for intimacy with the not-so-new.

Where else can one’s mind go when considering (and tasting) the wines of the Perrin family? The Perrins have been making wine in the France’s Southern Rhône since 1909, so well and so consistently that the familiar labels may fail to set your heart aflutter as it peruses your local shop or wine list. Comes a time, though, when your heart matures, and gains the ability to flutter at ever subtler stimuli. Perrin & Fils wines are for such subtle hearts, and for drinkers who are good with elegance, patience, harmony and class. That they bear little blast of trendiness might make them seem less relevant to you, but in fact it makes them more so.

The Southern Rhône is profoundly rural France, rustically Provençal in character though not in a touristy way (very windy, spotty wi-fi). In the Northern Rhône, the red wines come from Syrah alone; in the south there are 13 possible varietals blended according to demands of terroir and winemaker preference, and the best wines reflect that freewheeling provenance. But only disciplined winemakers are going to be able to wrest the graceful soul from such hodgepodgey origins.

Perrin wines express that soul, while staying true to the olive-oil/garlic/wild-herbs personality of the region. Most are brisk, spicy, and rocky, reminiscent of open fires and tough old clothes wind-blown ragged and caked in dust. Perrin holds some of the oldest vineyards in France, which have hosted vines brought from the Phoenicians and Greeks. It’s the real deal.

And it comes across in a stunning variety of wines, starting with the Vielle Ferme line, through the Perrin Reserves and Crus, all the way up to Châteauneuf-du-Pape standard-bearer Château de Beaucastel. The range itself is part of what’s so interesting, because it invites you into a relationship with the family and a certain outlook.  (The winemakers still have Perrin for a surname, into the fifth generation now coming up).

Maybe that’s what we’re truly seeking when we hunt for “the new”: a relationship with something real, somewhere real, real people. We find this relationship so rarely that we look and look again, restlessly; with the Perrins you can rest.

You’ve probably seen the Vielle Ferme 2009 ($8, or $13 for the 1.5L size) the last time you stopped at a moderately well-stocked convenience store, which is part of what’s remarkable about it. The Perrins don’t own the Luberon properties that produce these wines, but manage the vineyards. The white surprised me most, because I’d remembered it as excessively fruity. The 2009 was somewhat floral but very clean (it sees no oak), flinty and green-appley, above all alive. The red (same price) is almost maddeningly easy. Something naughty made me want to find flaws but there aren’t any; it’s a perfectly balanced blend of half Grenache and the rest Syrah, Carignan and Cinsault, just perfect for don’t-think-about-it occasions.

Perrin Réserve Côtes-du-Rhône Rouge 2009 ($12) is the best intro to red Côtes-du-Rhône I can think of, pure and straightforward. It hits all the right notes — licorice, spearmint, twigs, moderate spice — with none of the overbearing twang that sometimes plagues CdR. The Côtes-du-Rhône Villages 2009 ($14) is a huge step up, due to different vineyards that permit more Syrah. My notes from a few weeks ago have a lot of exclamation marks, but I just remember how prime the fruit is, like cherries or a red plum in July: that succulent, that oozing, that vital, that smooth.

For me the best values, though, are two of the Perrin Crus. The crus are the myriad vineyard-specific wines that express the deepest soul of the Southern Rhône, and Pierre Perrin is a master at finding and developing the sites. The Cairanne 2007 ($23) is extraordinary, from a site near Gigondas: packed with spice, soft and voluptuously feminine, figgy and deep. 2007 Rhône has already been called a vintage for the ages, and while the Cairanne is singing right now, buy a few bottles because in just 2-4 years it’ll be singing from even deeper down. The Vinsobres 2006 ($20), from the northernmost Southern Rhône village, is more upright, with liqueur-y body, mocha and teriyaki, robust.

The Réserve Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc 2009 ($10) is quite round while remaining fresh and almost evanescent; I liked it fine, though it was only when I tasted Perrin whites in the >$30 range (Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc Roussanne Vielles Vignes 2007, $165, call my name!) that I really found the same strength of character the reds offer up so effortlessly.

I haven’t even touched on the Beaucastel wines, frankly because they cost a good deal of money and are made for cellaring which most of you don’t do. If you’re wealthier and more patient than I assume, then puh-leeze: buy the Coudoulet de Beaucastel Côtes-du-Rhône 2008 ($31), a savory, opulent, gamey wine draped in wet wool, smoke, jus and currant. It’s almost as intricate and Johnny-Cash-like as the Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2007 ($96, a bottle of squid ink and truffles you should drink when your newborn finishes med school), but more open to friendship.

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