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Northern Rhone Valley

Rhone Valley - Northern Rhone

                                    

The Rhone Valley is in the southeast of France and broken up between two parts – Northern Rhone and Southern Rhone.  The Rhone is one of the oldest wine regions in France and wines from each of the regions are distinctly different.  The region gets its name from the Rhone River which begins in the Swiss Alps, travels down through the canyons of the Jura Mountains and then washes out into the Mediterranean just west of Marseille.

Known for being home to what is considered the best Syrahs in the world (namely Hermitage and Cote Rotie), Northern Rhone is sought after by wine buffs everywhere but there are often two problems.   The first problem is lack of availability as the whole of the North is smaller than the single appellation of Chateauneuf du Pape.   The second problem is that they are often very expensive so are saved only for very special occasions.     However, there are some appellations in the North that are producing some fabulous wines that are not going to break the bank.   

For red wine unlike its Southern neighbor, the North focuses on Syrah - usually producing wines with 100% Syrah or sometimes may blend it with a very small amount of Viognier.    The style of Syrah varies greatly between the different sub-appellations of the region.   See appellation notes below.  

The white varietals of the region are Viogner (a focus varietal of Condrieu), Marsanne, and Rousanne.   

Terrior differences between Northern and Southern Rhone

There is only an hour’s drive between North and Southern Rhone wine districts.   However, there is little in common between North and South except the river that gives them their name.  

  • Climate -- Continental climate (North) versus Mediterranean climate (South).   In the north – winters are hard, cold and wet and the summers hot with late spring and early fall fog.  The southern is dryer and hotter.
  • Vine training - In the north, the vines cling to narrow rocky terraces on the steep slopes that loom over the river – they are positioned above and so close to the river they almost seem like they could fall in.  In the south the vines are spread out from the river over flatter lands and gentler hills.
  • Soil  – South is clay, sandy limestone, gravel or just plain stones.  The North soil is slate and granite.
  • Winds -- Mistral (savage and cold) winds run through both regions and cool down the vines on hot days helping grapes retain their acidity.  At harvest time it acts like a giant hair dryer making the grapes free of humidity and mold; some say it causes evaporation to concentrate the sugar  and acid inside the grape.  It can be so violent though that it can rip apart vines if the vines are not sheltered and pruned low to the ground – old gnarled ones are twisted and black.

 

In October 2014, Michael and Katie roamed the Rhone Valley -- revisit Michael's blog on the experience.

Appellations

Hermitage

  • Hermitage was classically considered the best appellation of the northern Rhône, but in recent decades Côte-Rôtie has caught up in many ways. However, Hermitage is still one of the best appellations in France, with the best wines generally reaching world-class levels. Many serious believers think that Syrah makes its best wines here, and indeed, they combine richness, power of flavor, and subtle texture in a way that few other Syrahs can replicate. White Hermitage, made from Marsanne and Roussanne, is only made in tiny proportions to the red, but is considered either equally good or better!
  • Prices of Hermitage start for whites at $75 and go up from there.   Average bottle price for Hermitage is around $200 for some of the better wines which compared to Burgundy or Bordeaux is low where you sometimes have to pay $750 and up.   

Crozes-Hermitage

  • From easy drinking... to fine wines! On the left bank of the Rhône, the Crozes-Hermitage vineyard sits upon the 45th parallel. The largest vineyard amongst the northern appellations, the appellation is spread across 11 local authorities in the Drôme.  Crozes Hermitage lies 20km to the north of Valence and 3km to the north of Tain-l’Hermitage.
  • Created in 1937. At the time it was restricted to the village whose name it assumed because of its plots that were awarded Hermitage AOC status. It was not until 1956 that the 10 surrounding local authorities were included in the appellation. 
  • composed of thick layers of pebbles from different glacial periods, mixed with red clay to form relatively flat landscapes known as plateaus or terraces (Chassis, Sept Chemins...). To the north-east lie terroirs where the hillsides are relatively steep. Towards Larnage and Crozes-Hermitage are found pebbly terraces covered with loess or kaolinic white sands; while the areas to the north (Erôme, Serves, and Gervans) lie atop granite soils covered in loess.

Cote Rotie

  • No gentle slopes here: on the right-bank of the Rhône, Côte-Rôtie wines draw their character from the extremely steep hillsides that sometimes reach a gradient of over 60°. 
  • Cote Rotie translates to ‘roasted slope’ in English- although fog and rain are common, the appellation is very hot because of the way the sunlight bakes the slopes of the vineyards and the appellation is south facing and protected from the northern winds.
  • The very narrow vineyard is planted on terraces fewer than 50 vines wide. Located a few miles from Lyon, this is the northernmost appellation in the Rhône Valley. Côte-Rôtie is grown, made, and protected by “Probus’ centurions”: around 100 passionate winemakers that work the vines of these 60 vineyards. 
  • Côte-Rôtie is the only red cru in the Northern Rhône to plant and blend Viognier (up to 20% is allowed) alongside the Syrah. The viognier complements the Syrah with finesse and aromas. 

Condrieu

  • Single grape varietal – Viognier. Native to Condrieu (though according to some sources, it is native to Dalmatia) and whose cultivation, legend would have it, was encouraged by the Roman Emperor Probus
  • The Condrieu terroir, on the right-bank of the Rhône - yhe appellation’s vineyards are found 40km south of Lyon, and 10km from Vienne
  • The appellation’s narrow terraces are generally composed of granite and “arzelle”: a mixture of decomposed granite, mica, shale, and clay that gives Condrieu wines their fruity aromas of peaches and apricots. 
  • Condrieu’s wines have a reputation for excellence that already dates back several generations, back to the Popes of Avignon, and more recently, Curnonsky, the Prince of Gastronomy, named it as the best white wine in France.
  • It then underwent a turbulent period: phylloxera, World War One, the great depression, and the process of industrialization almost left the village abandoned. In the 1950s, the Condrieu wine market, the region’s oldest, disappeared... there were simply not enough winemakers. Soon there would remain only 10 or so farmed hectares out of the 170 that were defined when the AOC was created. 
  • When the viognier almost disappeared in the 1950s, a passionate few winemakers kept the appellation alive long enough to see a renaissance in the 1980s. Today, the AOC covers 110 hectares.
  • Continental climate, similar to Lyon, with slight Mediterranean influences. Temperatures are, however, very high in summer due to the region’s exposure to the sun and rocky soils that store heat.

St Joseph

  • On the right-bank of the Rhône, the Saint-Joseph vineyard sits upon the 45th parallel, planted on steep hillsides that have been carved into terraces since ancient times.
  • One-time  known as “Vin de Mauves”, the Jesuits gave it its current name in the 17th century. 
  • Today, the appellation is known for its red wines made using Syrah grapes. These wines are both strong flavoured and refined, expressing notes of pepper and spices, often accompanied by notes of violet mixed with minerals. 
  • The appellation also produces 10% of all white wines made using Roussanne and Marsanne grape varieties. 
  • In the northern area, the vines are subjected to a semi-continental climate and grapes are picked later, while the southern zone is more temperate with a Mediterranean climate. If the vineyard contains some variations inherent to the soil and exposure, Saint-Joseph wines are remarkable for the combination of continental and Mediterranean influences.
  • The vineyard for the most part occupies terraces on fairly steep inclines, a key factor in the terroir’s drainage and exposure to the sun. Granite is the main component of the appellation’s soil, but other soil varieties are present and influence production. 

Cornas

  • Cornas is small, with only 104 hectares under vine. Cornas became an official appellation in 1938.
  • Located just a bit south of St. Joseph.
  • Cornas is shaped by the 11 streams that run through the appellation.
  • The terroir is naturally warmer than other vineyards in the Northern Rhone, so the region is almost always one of the earlier appellations to harvest.
  • Cornas remained a small, relatively unknown appellation until Robert Parker scored a wine 100 Pts, which made previously, uninterested collectors take notice of what was often considered to produce a rustic, tannic, character driven Northern Rhone wine. Today, that is no longer the case as Cornas wines are now growing in demand.

Northern Rhone Region Grape Varietals

Syrah

Syrah lends hints of spice as well as colour, structure and tannins, giving wines that can be impenetrably dark and intensely, richly flavoured with great aging characteristics.

Roussanne

Roussanne produces fruit that is high in acidity and in aromatic qualities that produce a wine that is racy and lively with the potential to age. An excellent blending wine. Straw yellow in colour, offer a remarkable nose and age nicely. A noble grape variety, it gives wines a satisfying colour and an elegant touch of apricot, hawthorn, unroasted coffee, and honeysuckle in the nose, with discreet hints of narcissus.     

Marsanne

Marsanne produces deeply colored wines that are rich and nutty, with hints of spice and pear. Marsanne requires a hot, dry climate with a lot of exposure to the sun. Rustic and sturdy, these vines are happy in poor soil, but good hillsides with stony earth provide the most harmonious development.  The wines can be high in alcohol and can be oak aged to develop more body.    As Marsanne ages, the wine takes on an even darker color and the flavors can become more complex and concentrated with an oily, honeyed texture. Aromas of nuts and quince can also develop. 

Viognier

Viognier produces smooth, generous wines. In the glass, it is pale in colour with slight hints of green. Fresh but highly aromatic, Condrieu contains floral notes of violet, or fruits such as mango and apricot. At its peak, if radiates touches of musk, gingerbread and tobacco.

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