Discover the fascinating wines of this region well established as a French fine wine heartland, but perhaps one that’s underappreciated in comparison with the likes of Bordeaux and Burgundy.
Introduction to the Northern Rhône
A single red variety – Syrah
The Rhône wine region takes its name from the Rhône River, which flows from its source in the Swiss Alps and runs through 250 miles of Southern France before joining the Mediterranean Sea to the west of Marseille. When considering the wines of the Rhône Valley, we generally think of two quite distinct regions to the north and south, with notable differences in climate, topography and the mix of grapes planted. This is an area known predominately for its red wines and these are in some respect more comparable with the wines of Burgundy to the north than with the wines made to the south. A single variety- Syrah- rules for red wine production and as is the case in Burgundy, this is a grape that can be an excellent conduit for the expression of place- those looking for terroir in a glass should be happy here!
Whereas the Southern Rhône conjures up images of hazy sunshine across sprawling open plains, vineyards interspersed with groves of olive trees and fields of lavender, the north is a different proposition. The vineyards that hug the banks of the river between Vienne and Valence are often on prodigiously steep slopes bordering a valley that in places looks to have been chiselled out of the granite that dominates the subsoils here. Producing wines in some of the finest sites of the Northern Rhône is not easy, with vineyard work in parts of Côte-Rôtie often being more akin to mountaineering than farming. The effort required to produce wines from these sites is not in itself a guarantee of quality, but the fact that the vignerons bother to continue doing so is indicative of just how good the wines can be.
Various wine styles
Despite the dominance of a single grape variety, the reds of the Northern Rhône are varied in their expressions, from light, sappy and vibrant to deep, brooding and complex. There are characteristics that seem to be present in most of the wines however- pepper, grilled meat and violets often waft from a glass of Syrah from this part of the world in a way that nowhere else seems to quite be able to replicate. While the reds offer perhaps the most eloquent expressions of Syrah found anywhere in the world, the whites can be equally beguiling. Three varieties are important here: Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne, with the latter pair often blended. The sweet, floral aromatics of Viognier make it irresistible in its youth, initially distracting from the fact that the best wines can be seriously deep and complex. The blend of Marsanne and Roussanne can produce wines with an ability to age for many years, gently evolving to wines with a deeply nutty and honeyed profile, with this pairing reaching its apogee in the superb whites of Hermitage.
The Nortern Rhône appellations
The vineyards of the ‘roasted slope’ are on steep slopes and rocky soils, producing some of the most prestigious (along with Hermitage) wines of the region. Given the quality, not to mention the effort involved in production, these wines can be exceptional value. A small number of wines (such as Guigal’s famous La-La bottlings) can fetch prices comparable to Bordeaux First Growths, but generally the top wines from the best single vineyards are favourably priced in comparison with, for example, the Grands Crus of Burgundy. Interestingly, a small proportion of Viognier is sometimes used in the blend here to help coax out the aromatics. The appellation is broadly split between the Côte Blonde and the Côte Brune, with latter producing more structured wines and the former more open-knit and perfumed expressions. Virtually all production here is relatively premium, but blends from different vineyards within Côte-Rôtie can offer an excellent introduction to the appellation and the style of a producer. Clusel Roch’s Côte-Rôtie Cuvee Classique 2016 (£185 per 6 bottle case IB, 92 pts Vinous) is a fine example that is hard to resist in its youth but will cellar with ease. Single-vineyard wines from the best sites can age for decades and often represent the pinnacle of a producer’s portfolio. Cult producer Domaine Rene Rostaing’s La Landonne 2017 (£515 per 6 bottle case IB, 95-97 pts Wine Advocate) comes from old vines on one of the Côte Brune’s most celebrated vineyards. This is meaty, concentrated, powerful and quite majestic.
To the south of Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu, St Joseph offers some excellent value reds, often approachable within 2-3 years of vintage and capable of ageing a further 5-10 years in good examples. It is important to look out for good producers here, as the appellation has some excellent sites on steep granitic slopes, but has been extended to accommodate lesser, more productive sites on flat plains. The best wines punch above their price point and Francois Villard’s St Joseph Reflet 2013 (£150 per 6 bottle case IB) is a good example of an ageworthy expression of this sometimes-overlooked appellation.
The famous hill of Hermitage (known historically as Ermitage) rises imposingly over the town of Tain l’Hermitage below, situated at a kink in the river that results in a southerly exposure for the vines. This is a famous and historic appellation, with vines believed to have been grown on this site since the time of the Ancient Greeks in around 600 BC. The wines, both red and white, are amongst the finest produced in France- deep and powerful, usually a little more structured even than those of Côte-Rôtie and generally requiring patience. Despite the depth and concentration of fruit, red Hermitage is often savoury in flavour profile, with smoky aromas, coffee, black olive and liquorice. Vineyards across this appellation all have excellent quality potential- there has been no expansion to lesser sites here and the appellation borders that are naturally provided by the geography are protected by government decree. The climats are planted to either Syrah or Marsanne and Roussanne according to their suitability (about one-fifth of the vines are white) with Les Bessards, Le Méal and L’Hermite amongst the most famous. Our recent picks include Ferraton’s Ermitage Les Dionnières 2015 (£295 per 6 bottle case IB, 94 pts Wine Advocate) and Domaine du Colombier’s Hermitage 2018 (£465 per 12 bottle case IB, 94-96 pts Wine Advocate).
A natural amphitheatre that is significantly less exposed to the Mistral wind that whips through the valley than its neighbours to the north, Cornas is focussed on Syrah and produces some of the burliest and darkest wines of the region. More prestigious than St Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage, the appellation is not quite considered in the same league as Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, although the top wines from here are capable of hitting the same heights. There is often a rusticity to the wines and in hot vintages the winemakers need to ensure that they don’t produce wines that are overripe. An excellent example of well managed winemaking is Francois Villard’s Cornas Jouvet 2017 (£160 per 6 bottle case IB, 94 pts Wine Advocate), with whole-bunch vinification employed to manage tannin levels. When Cornas is good (as it often is), the wines are seriously impressive and show remarkable depth.
If you would like to purchase any of the wines mentioned above, or would like to know more about our Northern Rhône wines, then please do get in touch with the Fine Wine team on [email protected] Prices correct in September 2020
An appellation for whites produced from Viognier. Wines from here are considered the finest expression of the grape bar none and these are unusual in the world of fine wine in that even the top wines are approachable and often at their best in youth, although many can age gracefully. These are profoundly perfumed, floral and fruity wines with an oily, textural mouthfeel. Domaine Niero’s Condrieu Les Ravines is a textbook example by an excellent producer.
Both reds and whites are produced here in the flatter lands surrounding Hermitage itself. The wines aren’t generally in the top tier but can offer accessible well priced junior versions of the best wines of the Northern Rhône. This is the largest appellation of the region and as with St Joseph, careful selection is important. Wines from conscientious producers (particularly in warm vintages) can be an absolute steal and can provide plenty of drinking pleasure while waiting for that case of Hermitage to enter its drinking window! Domaine Etienne Pochon’s Crozes Hermitage was one of the best value wines across all of our en primeur offers last year and Domaine du Colombier’s Crozes Hermitage shows how delicious wines from here can be after a few years in bottle.
St Peray is an appellation sited just south of Cornas planted mainly to Marsanne and producing good whites, including sparkling wines. It has fallen slightly into obscurity but is now seen as one to watch, with a number of excellent producers making wines here. Domaine Francois Villard’s St Peray Version is an excellent rich, barrel-fermented example. Outside of the traditional appellations for Syrah there are some very exciting wines being made in spots such as Brézème in the very south of the Northern Rhône and Seyssuel to the north on the opposite side of the river to Côte-Rôtie, but made in much the same way with often remarkably similar results. Domaine Garon’s Seyssuel Jardin de Rome is an exciting wine at a tempting price.
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to point out a personal favourite that is a superb all-rounder: Domaine Garon’s Côtes du Rhône La Part des Vivants. While the vast majority of Côtes du Rhône is produced in the south with Grenache dominant in the blend, this is Northern Rhône fruit, with the majority (about 80%) Syrah. This is peppery, fresh, fleshy and great at cellar temperature on warm day or at room temperature with meaty dishes in the winter. This has proved a very popular wine, not least with our team, who have worked their way through a few cases in the past year or so- stock up while you can!