The mofo guide to Northern Rhône | French wine regions
Many famous wine regions scattered across the world that are intimately linked to famous waterways. The Gironde in Bordeaux, the Danube in the Wachau, the Tanaro in Piemonte, the Ebro in Rioja, the Douro in Portugal and of course, for those of us that genuflect at the altar of syrah and grenache, the Rhône in France.
The Rhône Valley is considered a benchmark for syrah and grenache wines and many Australian wine producers have modelled their wines on the top estates’ single varietal and blended wines from the region. Of course, Australia now produces wines that match the best of the Rhône but it remains an inspiration and is perhaps considered the spiritual home of syrah/shiraz.
For simplicity we can split the Rhône into two distinct segments and indeed, that is how we’ll attack it, for each half deserves our full attention.
First up, the Northern Rhône...
The Northern Rhône
The Northern Rhône follows the river from just south of Lyon to around the town of Valence. The most northerly cru, Côte-Rôtie, hugs the steep slopes on the western side of the river, as it carves its way through the Massif Central. The name itself translates to ‘roasted slope’ and Côte-Rôtie is the only red wine cru in the Northern Rhône to plant viognier, with up to 20% blended with syrah under the appellation rules, though in reality few producers push it that far, as viognier tends to overpower the blend at those levels.
The best wines are bold and focused with deep black berry fruits, spice, violets and hints of bacon fat and apricot kernel. Guigal’s three ‘La-Las’ are much admired and sought after wines from the appellation: La Mouline, La Turque and La Landonne - but there are a swag of superb wines that hail from this renowned terroir. Producers to keep an eye out for include Jamet, Michel & Stéphane Ogier, Jean-Michel Gerin, Domaine Yves Gangloff, Domaine Rostaing, Gilles Barge, Bernard Burgaud, Clusel-Roch, Levet, Domaine Bénétière and Clos du Pigeonnier.
Condrieu and viognier
The river swings south from here as we head in the same direction, and there’s a change in soil composition. This leads to the largest white wine-only appellation in the Northern Rhône, Condrieu (cohn-dree-oh), where just one grape variety is grown - viognier. The wines here are impossibly aromatic and carry some weight around their waists with a sense of latent power. Yves Cuilleron is a producer to look out for. Within Condrieu itself lies the tiny (9ha) Château-Grillet appellation where viognier again is the star of the show and just one producer, Neyret-Gachet, bottles wines from the appellation. Château-Grillet is said to be the source of all French viognier vines.
Next up, St-Joseph stretches south on the right bank (west) of the Rhône River for some 60km, its steeply-sloped vineyards tucking in and out of the valleys formed by small streams draining into the main river. It’s a long and wispy-looking appellation stretching all the way to Cornas in the south and peeking across the river towards Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage towards its southern boundary.
Red and white wines both find their home here. The wines from St-Joseph can present great value in the scheme of things. Syrah-based reds of great purity and verve, savoury dark and black fruits with notes of pepper and spice. The whites are roussanne, marsanne or a blend of the two… textured, medium-bodied affairs with aromas and flavours of citrus and stone fruits. St-Joseph is a firm favourite of mine in the Northern Rhône along with its neighbour just to the south, Cornas.
In Cornas, you’ll again find syrah strutting its stuff this time without the supporting cast of white grapes. Cornas yields the sturdiest and boldest wines of the Northern Rhône with plenty of tannin and shape to their form. The famous Auguste Clape Cornas hails from these parts and it’s impressive. Other personal favourites from this neck of the woods are Thierry Allemand, Marcel Juge, Noel Verset, Vincent Paris and Franck Balthazar.
Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage
Across the river from St-Joseph on the left-bank of the Rhône River you’ll find the famous hill of Tain-Hermitage and therefore, the world famous appellations of Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage. It’s a spectacular hill and if you are visiting I recommend taking a trek to its summit to get the lay of the land and some great pictures of the chapel. It’s most famous for its bold, age-worthy syrah but you will also find some amazing white wines produced from roussanne and marsanne.
The hill is a sun trap and it’s essentially three south-facing slopes that have some of the most famous vineyard names in the region - Les Bessards, Chante, Alouete, Rocoules, Méal and many others.
They’re not cheap those wines from the hill of L’Ermitage with names like Chave, Jaboulet, Chapoutier fetching high prices. If you want value, it’s best to head just to the north of the town of Tain Hermitage to Crozes-Hermitage which at around 1550 hectares is the Northern Rhônes largest appellation. As you would expect with such a large hunk of land, the quality of the wines runs from simple and mouth-filling to mind-bogglingly awesome, but if you stick to wines from the east-facing and southern facing slopes of Crozes-Hermitage you can’t go too far wrong, as this is where the quality lies. Again, here you will find syrah for the red wines and roussanne and marsanne for the whites. My personal favourite producer from around these parts is Dard & Ribo… whole-bunchy, slurpy goodness but can be tricky to track down.
Back over to the western side of the river now for the final appellation in the Northern Rhône - Saint-Péray which lies just to the south of Cornas. It’s kind of a curious place. 75 hectares of vineyards producing solely white and sparkling wines from roussanne and marsanne. There are the usual granitic soils of the Massif Central here but the most interesting wines come from the appellation’s limestone outcrops. Think nervy but textured white wines with characters of stone and citrus fruits, crystallised honey, white flowers and soft spice.
Hopefully that’s given you a thirst for the Northern Rhône. The winemaking takes a break at this point between Valence and Montelimar where we head into the Southern Rhône and a whole slew of amazing and quite different wine styles from an array grape varieties. The Rhône Valley’s a fascinating place, with two distinct personalities. Both are deserving of our time and palate, so see/cheers you soon!