Classics

Why Collectors Are Seeking Out Rhône Wines

Collectors are zeroing in on the Rhône Valley. Here’s how to join them

Betsy Andrews By June 7, 2021July 16th, 2021
View of the Rhône Valley, taken from the church porch of Tupin-et-Semons, France. Photo courtesy of iStock.

Back in 1996, Raj Parr first became aware of the Rhône Valley’s huge potential for collectors. He was just getting his bearings then, as assistant to Larry Stone at San Francisco’s Rubicon. “The list was filled with Chave, Guigal, Rayas,” says Parr, name-checking Rhône legends. “Everything was 15 or 20 years old, so I knew these wines could age.” And they were cheap: A Hermitage Rouge by 16th-generation vigneron Jean-Louis Chave might have been $40. 

A quarter century on, Rhône wines are more expensive, but the value remains. “It’s still in its heyday,” says Parr.

Indeed, the Rhône is an up-and-comer to rival Burgundy. Recently, the focus has been on the northern Rhône’s savory Syrah-based wines. But the southern Rhône’s big, rich Grenache-dominant reds have long had collectible appeal too, says David Gordon. As beverage director at Manhattan’s Tribeca Grill, Gordon has amassed the world’s biggest collection of the southern Rhône’s signature appellation, Châteauneuf-du-Pape. 

For collectors thinking of building their cellars with these wines, Gordon, Parr, and other Rhône-savvy sommeliers have advice.

The age-worthy stars

Study up on the best appellations’ most prized producers, such as Hermitage’s Domaine Jean-Louis Chave. “When I started 17 years ago, the Rhône’s collectible side was pretty much Chave,” says sommelier Matt Conway, a partner at New York’s Restaurant Marc Forgione. “Anyone smart is still collecting it.” In Crozes-Hermitage, Alain Graillot is a vigneron to follow.

Côte-Rôtie, the most northerly AOC, has Marcel Guigal to thank for its prestige. His single-parcel La Mouline, La Turque, and La Landonne — the La-La wines — are the “crème de la crème,” says Christy Canterbury MW, a former Rhône buyer for Zachys

Some Rhône wines are blockbusters because their lauded vignerons have passed on. Côte-Rôtie’s Gentaz-Dervieux ceased production after the 1993 vintage, when Maurius Gentaz retired; he died in 2011. His wines now go for upwards of $1,000. Vintages from the late Joseph Jamet are Domaine Jamet Côte Brune’s most collectible. So too with Noël Verset, whose 75-year career in Cornas ended in 2006. 

Other Cornas names include Thierry Allemand and Auguste Clape, whose son and grandson continue his legacy, while newcomer Franck Balthazar is earning attention. In Saint-Joseph, the new generation at Pierre Gonon is making “some of the best wines in the world,” says Conway.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s storied Château Rayas has not released wine since 2009, so all Rayas wines, especially those by the late Jacques Reynaud, have soared in value. It’s the same with Henri Bonneau, whose final vintage was in 2010. 

Select for vintage

Vintage matters for collectibles,” says Gordon. “The value can be quite different from one to another.” It’s best to check the vintage reports: Vinous, Decanter, JancisRobinson.com, RobertParker.com

Just keep in mind that “vintage is in the eye of the beholder,” says Canterbury. “If Wine Spectator says a vintage is phenomenal, that’s not one I’ll drink. I might want a fresher, livelier vintage.” 

“I avoid ripe or off years and go to more classic vintages: 2017, 2016, 2014, 2010, 2007, 2006,” says Conway. “They’re a safer bet.” And vine age affects the vintage. The sweet spot for collecting is within “the window of time when a producer had old vines. When they replant, the wines might not be as desirable.” 

With improved technology and a warming climate, newer vintages are more consistent. “The 2019s are just about to be released, and they’re great,” says Gordon. “If you purchase wines now at the release price — anywhere from $50 to $150 for most — you can drink them for 10 years, and they will go up in value.” 

Track social media

“In 2006, if I loved Gonon, I would tell friends the slow way,” says Conway. “By the early 2010s, you had guys like Raj Parr, with top U.S. buyers following them on Instagram.” The buzz “lent positive reinforcement to the growers.” When Gonon, who went organic in 2006, began getting social media attention, sustainable farming spread to other next-generation producers at estates like Graillot and Clape. As more producers implemented sustainability, along with whole-cluster fermentation and fresher styles, social media elevated them to cult status. 

Yet, the Instagram stars are still affordable. “Pierre Gonon is hot. But you’re talking $150 a bottle,” says Gordon. “Not many people are buying Chave Cuvée Cathelin at $1,000 and hoping it goes up to $6,000, but you can buy Gonon, drink some, and sell some in three or four years. You’ve made money and drank great wine.”

The Rhône has such unique microclimates, expositions, and layouts that you have to take it vineyard by vineyard.

Don’t wait

Next-tier Rhônes are remarkably accessible now. With restaurants shuttered in 2020, wines that were normally exclusive to them ended up on retail shelves. That’s especially true of the Southern Rhône, where productions are bigger. “Janasse, Marcoux, Pierre Usseglio — respected names that, in time, could become as expensive as some others — are easy to find, especially in lower-end cuvées,” says Canterbury.

Rhône-loving experts have also made new discoveries. Conway recommends Saint-Joseph’s natural winemaker Domaine de l’Iserand, launched in 2011. Its Les Sabots de Coppi “is popping up at $45 or so,” he says, “and it has great aging potential.”

Gamble on mixed cases

“Drink the category first, both old and new,” says Canterbury. “You have to know what the wines might become.” Auctions provide that opportunity, particularly for collectors bidding on mixed cases. “They’re fantastic values. Get a case of random Côte-Rôtie, pick through, and see what you like. If three of the 2012 wines go into your next roast, that’s okay.” 

Following the lead of Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, some producers are mixing cases themselves. Château de Beaucastel offers a specially packaged Caisse Oenothèque containing four different vintages. 

Even for collectors not planning on bidding, it’s a good idea to check out auction lots. “If you’re looking to see which producers can age, the wines at auctions are built for that,” says Thomas Pastuszak, executive wine director at NoMad Hotels & Restaurants. 

Taste at festivals

Festivals, like Pastuszak’s Reboule du Rhône that showcases wines of the Northern Rhône, are a more direct way to check ageability. “Seasoned collectors are excited to share their passion with the newcomers, novices get to taste older wines, and for collectors, it’s a great opportunity to try younger producers,” he says.

For would-be collectors willing to splurge, some events offer a once-in-a-lifetime taste of rarities. For 2019’s La Tablée in New York, Gordon helped organize a dinner featuring 13 wines from Gentaz-Dervieux. “We had only one bottle for each vintage,” he says. All of them were sourced from Rare Wine Company, which also sells Rhône finds online.

Turn to the experts  

Also, work with a trusted source. “Relationships matter,” Gordon says. “Make friends with a local retailer and tell them what you’re interested in.” He suggests tasting through 2017 and 2018 vintages now. Once the 2019 wines ship, a shopkeeper who has been working with an interested client will be more likely to let them know when allocated wines come in.  

Interested collectors willing to spend might also consider hiring a consultant. “The Rhône has such unique microclimates, expositions, and layouts that you have to take it vineyard by vineyard,” says Conway, who advises private clients. Those clients can feel confident leaving the buying in the hands of someone who “studies the Rhône like a geek.” 

No matter the choice, Pastuszak advises collectors to always buy more than one bottle. That way, there’s wine to taste in three, five, or seven years. “One of the most satisfying things about collecting Rhônes,” he says, “is checking in on them over time.”

3 Rhône wines to try:

Les Clos des Grillons Rouge 2019

Les Clos des Grillons ‘Les Grillon Rouge’ 2019 ($27)

Natural winemaker Nicolas Renaud, a former history and geology teacher, knows the terroir of the Rhône well. His parcels include many old vines, and this red blend is soft and lush, and shows “spicy red fruits on the nose,” says Raj Parr, who suggests drinking it slightly chilled.

J.L. Chave Sélection Hermitage Farconnet 2017

J.L. Chave Sélection Hermitage Farconnet 2017 ($65)

Though Canterbury calls this wine “electrifying in its purity, density and structure,” she also says it’s “approachable already,” with refined tannins and an acidic tension that make it refreshing and ageable. It smells of blackberries, black cherries, and garrigue; the palate adds high-toned red berries, bay leaf, and cracked peppercorns. 

Saint Préfert Châteauneuf-du-Pape Réserve August Favier 2018

Saint Préfert Châteauneuf-du-Pape ‘Réserve August Favier’ 2018 ($90)

Floral with notes of herbs of Provence and black cherry, this concentrated but balanced wine — made primarily from organic, old-vine Grenache — gains freshness from whole-cluster pressing. “2018 was a very forward year for the southern Rhône, and this is a seamless example from the vintage,” says David Gordon.