Doug Frost, Master of Wine, Master Sommelier
December 11, 2021
The smartest thing I ever read about the Rhône Valley is from Tom Stevenson, “If you want to understand the northern Rhone, you look up. And if you want to understand the southern Rhône, you look down.” Or at least that’s how I have always quoted him. Of course, it’s a simplistic view, and a proper dive into these wines require far more nuance. But at its heart, it speaks to how critically important angle and aspect are to the fortunes of winegrowers in the north. And Stevenson’s dictum is no less true regarding the south where so often it is the stones, the cailloux or galets, that exemplify the finest source of grapes for wine.
The sandstone/silica/quartzite formations in the south (all those round and remarkable galets) are not the only distinctive feature there. The great amount of limestone, a soft, porous rock, has allowed the Rhône River to split off in all directions at various times, leading to a sort of river delta formation as the Rhône River heads ever southward to the Mediterranean. Much of Châteauneuf-du-Pape is heaped on top of these soils, with great mounds of glacial moraine providing the base for some of the region’s most famed estates.
But the glaciers had different tasks in the north where granite is the primary rock. Hard, crystalline and less easily manipulated by the waters of the Rhone River, where the river has cut its way through the dense rock, the channel is narrow and steep, offering an all-or-nothing proposition. The ideal vineyard faces to the south (maybe the southeast or southwest too) in order to get sufficient sunlight for ripening. Yet angles and aspects are not merely about photosynthesis; so too is the movement of air crucial, especially in spots that are frost prone. Of course, Stevenson’s advice is based upon the notion that you are starting out at the Rhône River’s edge. You scan the hills above you for just those places facing southward – it’s not hard to see and understand. Just look for where the vines are thriving.
In the north, it happens in fits and starts. Only about 3% of all Rhône Valley wine comes from the small, often parcellated appellations of Condrieu, Côte Rôtie, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas and Saint-Joseph, though their successes have helped fuel global adoption of Syrah and a fascination, if less accomplished, with the Viognier grape. The arc of the Viognier story could stand in for much of the northern Rhône; meteoric price increases in the recent years have led to something like mass amnesia. It has only been since the 70s and 80s that the life of local vignerons improved. In the 40s and 50s, growers throughout these northern hills ripped out their vines to plant apricot and peach trees in an effort to survive the post-war years. Viognier was nearly extinct, with only the diminutive Chateau Grillet (10 acres) and a few smallholders maintaining their plants. It’s the rise of the Michelin-starred restaurants and what eventually became known as the nouvelle cuisine movement that brought Viognier back from the brink. Aromatic white wines were needed to accompany at least some of the new dishes and, with Alsace in slow recovery, and with German wines decidedly unpopular (the post-war reasons should be obvious) new sources had to be sought out. The one-, two- and three-star restaurants from Lyon to Vienne, particularly with newly minted star chefs like Fernand Point and his acolyte, Paul Bocuse, kept the flame aloft.
Today, Viognier in Condrieu still covers only an area of about 420 acres in total; there are 3000 acres of the grape planted in California. Plenty is planted outside the Condrieu AOC, labeled as Collines Rhodaniennes, wines that can be charming or clumsy, much like Viognier everywhere. But at least Collines Rhodaniennes Viogniers are unlikely to be high priced or smothered in new oak. The dramatic differences in quality seem more winemaker driven than dependent upon the ideal blended terroir of chalk, flint and mica. The frequent maladies visited upon aromatic white varieties not far away in Alsace or Germany are unusual – moisture pressures are mitigated by la bise, the northern wind that keeps things dry, though shatter during flowering can add to the challenges. “The kiss” of that wind can be oppressive, as might become even more apparent farther south where it’s known as “le Mistral”.
I used to find it amusing to mock the legend of le Mistral, until I spent a December week shivering under its relentless howl. When it had ended and I found myself in Provence afterward, it was as if the air had been cleared off any dust or particles and the colors of the sky, lands and waters popped like I’d been eating mushrooms. I hadn’t. But those winds are a dominant factor in viticulture throughout the Rhone, not just in the south.
While dry wine is the general standard among Condrieu wines, there are also wines labeled as AOC Condrieu Selection des Grains Nobles. From grapes left to hang and raisinate on the vine, these are picked no earlier than eight days after the standard harvest, and cryoextraction is prohibited. But as Condrieu is pricey, this dessert version is loftier.
White wine is not how the northern Rhone earned its spurs, though it can be occasionally stunning in Hermitage (more of that later). But next door to Condrieu is Côte Rôtie and while Viognier is grown there it appears only in a supporting role. The rules strangely (or perhaps revealingly) allow for 20% Viognier along with Syrah but no one’s doing that; 2% or 3% will usually suffice. The grapes (most often grape clusters) are all thrown together for co-fermentation. Much as with Pinot Noir, there are those who swear by whole cluster fermentation and stem retention, and plenty of those who destem. Perhaps strangely, Hermitage producers often destem; Cornas and Côte Rôtie most often don’t. But like everything wine, it depends. Explanations about Hermitage tannins being sufficient may or may not explain it away. It’s a thing.
Counter-intuitively, stems or no, Côte Rôtie is seen as the most elegant expression of the Syrah grape in France, and perhaps everywhere. The wines at their best are tense, even edgy, but never really bombastic. Is it the addition of Viognier? Doubtful. Rather, it’s that the far north placement drives the style of the wines towards something like the nervy character of nearby Beaujolais Cru, if not the haughty, difficult Pinot Noir, not so distant to the north. The flowery impact of Viognier just happens to fit in to the cooler temperatures; the annual average in Côte Rôtie is under 54 degrees Fahrenheit. Beaune’s average is 52F (Avignon, in case you were wondering, is 57F).
The “roasted slope” that is Côte Rôtie is less roasted than sun-kissed – facing mostly south and southeast. Its granite soils are usually broken into two camps, often anthropomorphized as the two daughters of the Marquis de Maguiron, owner of Chateau d’Ampuis. As each married, she was given one of the hills of Côte Rôtie; the brunette received Côte Brune, and the blonde got Côte Blonde, bien sûr. But the blonde’s landscape is a bit shiny, seemingly lighter in the sun, with greater amounts of granite, limestone, silica, quartzite and such; the wines are seen as more aromatic and elegant, if not always lighter, as critics like to insist. Keep going south from Côte Blonde and you’ll find more and more Viognier, certainly when you hit the AOC boundary and enter Condrieu. Côte Brune helps mark the northern portion of Côte Rôtie, and the "arzel" soil there has more clay, schist and iron, resulting in a darker look to the soil, and wines that are often tannic and bigger as well. Guigal’s La Turque is Côte Brune and La Mouline is Côte Blonde. The legendary and long-departed Marius Gentz-Dervieux’s wines were from Cote Brune, so they should be bigger and more powerful, right?
Thus, my complaint with the standard differentiation; Gentaz-Dervieux’s wines were anything but. Some of this is certainly due to his way of winemaking; I never saw a stick of new oak in the place. During my visit decades ago, I noticed a very old puncheon and stupidly asked him how old the barrel was. He gave me a blank look and said ‘je ne sais pas”. It was really old but that was the way you made Côte Rôtie until Guigal came along and introduced new, small barriques to the area. Being Old School, I still think it was a mistake, but if you want to try to convince me otherwise with a bottle of La Turque or La Mouline, well, I promise to be reasonable.
For such a small place, the stars here are numerous; Marius’ nephew Rene Rostaing inherited his vines so you can be sure that those wines are very special. He has a La Landonne bottling, grown next to Côte Brune, enjoying similar soils but slightly more southeast facing. Bernard Levet, Clusel-Roch, Gilles Barge, Domaine Jamet, Jean-Luc Jamet and Xavier Gerard are all worth seeking out; and, of course, you will find Guigal relatively easy to find, if not afford.
Wander down the Rhône and you’ll spot vineyards all around you but few of them seem to offer just the right angle towards the south or southeast, aside from an occasional, small, isolated parcel in Saint-Joseph on the western side or Crôzes Hermitage on the east. Few are important, and much wine labeled with those two AOCs is a blend of the decent and the less compelling, but that difference is reflected in the price. But when you get to another bend in the river, and the town of Tain l’Hermitage swings into view, there is the broad and seemingly perfectly sculpted hill of Hermitage looming over it. The river once ran to the east of the hill, and the soils are part of the hulking chunks of granite that is a continuation of the Massif Central and not very much like the Alps to the east.
Almost 350 acres are planted, mostly to Syrah, but consider that 350 acres is less than two or three moderate sized Bordeaux estates combined. Even if prices are shockingly high to those of us who have been drinking the wines since the 70s, there are more buyers than sellers, the recipe for price increases. Moreover, while Hermitage suffered through the 20th century like much of the northern Rhone, 19th century Bordeaux records note that sellers of famed names (like Lafite) sometimes offered two versions, one of those “Hermitaged”. Bolstering Bordeaux with some Syrah was legal once, and it seemed to have been celebrated.
As in Côte Rôtie, the addition of white grapes is legal; yet Marsanne and Roussanne are grown to be turned into powerful if curious white wines, not generally to be added to the red. In the past, they have been frustrating purchases: wines that need a decade or more before they are even approachable, even though they will go through periods in which oxidation seems to be rearing its nutty head. That’s particularly true of the white wines with Roussanne components, a deliciously floral wine but a maddening thing to grow and ferment. I can’t remember the exact quote, but decades ago Jean-Louis Chave pronounced Roussanne a grape that nobody likes to grow and everyone hates but that he feels he needs nonetheless. It was stronger language, but time has softened it, I suppose. Still, perhaps it’s due to climate change, but Hermitage Blanc is getting fatter and easier to enjoy; I had a new version from Sorrel lately that was completely beautiful and ready to go.
Chave has long been the champion of Hermitage, not least because he famously blends differing portions of this great hill to create a harmonious whole, much as was more common in the days before the northern Rhone’s discovery and the last twenty years. Most people focus their praise upon the warmer sites on the western, sunnier vineyards such as Bessards (higher up but tilted to achieve a sunny and powerful version), Greffeux (with its granite, clay and limestone), L’Ermite at the top of the hill at Saint Christopher’s picturesque chapel, and Le Meal towards the east, south-facing with glacial deposits and ripe, jammy wines.
Of course, you probably know about Jaboulet, Chapoutier and Chave; you might also look for Sorrel, Fauret or Ferraton. Some of these wines are as long lived as anyone has a right to expect from Syrah; I’ve had forty- and fifty-year-old examples though thirty years is probably a more reasonable limit.
Cornas too may be capable of such aging, but it hasn’t always gotten the attention it deserves; and some of the Rhone funk that threw some drinkers off these wines may have been self-inflicted wounds. Still, some of the most compelling Syrahs I’ve ever tasted are from here. Always 100% Syrah, Cornas hangs its vineyard above the eponymous town, from 400- or 500-feet elevation to as high as 1300 feet of scrabbly, wild hills. Less than 300 acres in total, it’s only about two miles from stem to stern, the soils tend towards limestone in the north, and are sandier in the south. In the middle is lots of granite and many top wines.
Jean-Luc Colombo is a name you can trust, even if he’s not included among the sexier names; chief amongst whom is the elusive Thierry Allemand. You can also look for Vincent Paris or Alain Voge. Two of the greatest evet, Noel Verset and Auguste Clape, are represented by their children and grandchildren; they are more expensive these days but, I would argue, affordable and even fairly priced. As you might have noticed, I’ve long been in love with these wines. In truth, some of us still have their wines in our cellars and they become more and more evanescent as time goes on. A world away from New World Shiraz, somehow earthier than Burgundy and more substantial, they grow more delicate with time. Many of the newest bottlings are bigger and prouder but, I have no doubt, still carry on the tradition, the grace and the longevity of their predecessors.