There was a long period of relative obscurity when Bordeaux and Burgundy were closer to markets in northern Europe, but canny merchants knew their Rhônes well and a little addition of Hermitage to a Lafite was considered a good thing. For generations Burgundy was made unnaturally full bodied by the addition of some Châteauneuf.
The Appellation Contrôlée system was created in Châteauneuf-du-Pape to improve quality and guarantee provenance and it was instrumental in getting the Rhône better recognised. Though created over seventy years ago, when most of the south was planted with olive trees and many northern vineyards semi-abandoned, the appellations do give a clue to what is in the bottle. But like most classification systems, it is not perfect and the name of the producer is just as important.
The Rhône is divided into two unequal parts, north and south, separated by a twenty mile stretch of rather green country where there are no vines. The north is responsible for the most prestigious wines while the south is most important in terms of volume.
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How the trade works
Before 1990, most Rhône wines were sold by négociants like Jaboulet and Chapoutier. Even the co-operatives, always strong in the Rhône, tended to sell in bulk to merchants either in the Rhône itself or elsewhere. With the phenomenal success of Rhône wines came more estate bottling. The co-ops, jealous of the success and prestige of the big négoce houses also started to bottle themselves.
Today the situation is very different from what it was thirty years ago. There are far more growers, making and bottling their own wine and every year more growers are tempted to go it alone. Of the négoce houses, there have been some changes but the more prestigious ones, with vineyard holdings of their own, have survived and indeed prospered and remain a good source for wine at all price levels. The co-ops vary but remain important and can certainly deliver good wine.
A narrow, funnel-shaped vineyard extends on both sides of the Rhône from Vienne in the north to Valance in the south. The scenery is often dramatic with many of the vineyards perched precariously on the steep valley sides. The wines match the scenery: deeply coloured, fine, spicy reds made from the syrah grape and rich, full-bodied whites made from marsanne and roussanne grapes, or the more aromatic viognier up in Condrieu.
Production here is relatively small, accounting for less than 3% of the total for the Rhône Valley. Most of the wines are sold by appellation with three being white only, two red only and three others where both red and white can be made. The appellation Côtes-du-Rhône is rarely seen in the north and may well disappear altogether. On the other hand, full use is made of the vin de pays (IGP)/vin de France category which allows producers to make slightly simpler wines from young vines or from vines that for one reason or another were not included in any appellation.
There is no appellation Seyssuel. These steep vineyards on the left bank close to Vienne were once famous but fell into obscurity after phylloxera wiped them out in the 19th century. Since the late 1990s, however, there has been a move to reclaim this valuable land for the vine. Many growers are involved here and the results are extremely good. The wines are broadly similar to Côte-Rôtie in style but maybe riper and more dramatic, the vines, after all, face the evening sun and there is more heat here than in Côte-Rôtie. Full appellation status is probably just a few years away.
- Names to watch: Ogier, Villard and Villa.
- Word of caution: Limited production and quite high prices. The upside is that the wines are getting better and better as the vines become older.
- Keeping: 5 to 12 years. Maybe longer in certain vintages.
Red only. The "roasted slope", only half an hour's drive south of Beaujolais, this northernmost outpost of the syrah grape produces wines that at times can match Burgundy for delicacy and charm. The vineyard is very steep with an incline of as much as 60 degrees. Guigal is the most important producer attracting the highest prices, but there are dozens of smallholders making interesting wines.
- Names to watch: Gilles Barge, Clusel-Roch, Jean-Michel Gérin, Garon, Duclaux, Rostaing and Bernard Burgaud.
- Word of caution: Guigal has made new oak very fashionable and many growers use it sometimes to excess.
- Keeping: 5 to 15 years, up to 20 in great vintages.
White only from the viognier grape. The scent of apricot in a good example of Condrieu is almost intoxicating and best enjoyed with scallops.
- Names to watch: André Perret, François Villard and Christophe Pichon.
- Word of caution: Rapid expansion of vineyards means that there are lots of young vines and therefore wines that lack substance.
- Keeping: Most are at their best between 18 months and four years.
Reds from syrah and whites from marsanne and roussanne; reds are more exciting. The best Saint-Josephs have class and can be good value. Some of the best slopes are only now being replanted after years of neglect, so huge potential. Many top producers have started to bring out single-vineyard Saint-Josephs such as Chapoutier Les Granits, Jaboulet Clos des Vignes or Guigal lieu dit Saint-Joseph. All can be brilliant and though pricey, better value than top-end Côte-Rôties for example.
- Names to watch: Villard, Jean-Louis Chave, Jérôme Coursodon, Pierre Gonon and Pierre Gaillard. Among the négociants, Jaboulet, Chapoutier, Ferraton and Guigal make lovely soft-tasting Saint-Joseph in good years.
- Word of caution: Look for the grower's name. There is still a lot of indifferent wine about; happily much ends up on French supermarket shelves!
- Keeping: from 2 to 10 years, rarely longer and up to 6 years for the whites.
Reds from syrah and whites from marsanne and roussanne. Crozes-Hermitage accounts for more than half of the northern Rhône and its wines are plentiful and accessible. Both delicious vibrant quaffing wine and more reserved, finer, complex wines are made. Reds better than whites. Crozes-Hermitage comes in two parts. The largest is on the flat, close to the river and what would have been a river bed. It produces deeply coloured reds that are soft and fruity and without question a perfect introduction to the syrah of the north.
The other part is behind the hill of Hermitage, sometimes on granite but mostly on white clay and limestone. This is the historic heart of Crozes producing wines of interest and substance and the whites from here can be outstanding too.
- Names to watch: Look out for Gilles Robin, Etienne Pochon, Philippe Desmeure, Laurent Combier and Domaine Belle. Jaboulet's Domaine de Thalabert was the spiritual guiding light behind Crozes and remains extremely good.
- Word of caution: Avoid cheap overproduced Crozes.
- Keeping: 2 to 10 years but Thalabert in a good vintage may keep for 15 or longer. Drink whites young.
Syrah for reds, marsanne with a little roussanne for whites. This amazing southfacing slope has the greatest pedigree of any wine in the Rhône Valley. Its complex geology ensures added interest and complexity and in good years, Hermitage may sit at the highest tables.
- Names to watch: Jean-Louis Chave, Bernard Faurie and Marc Sorrel among the growers. Jaboulet's "La Chapelle" is often outstanding so too are some of the wines from Chapoutier and Guigal.
- Word of caution: Very limited supply of the best wines. Prices are set to rise.
- Keeping: 5 to 20 years. Whites are often 'dumb' between 4 and 10 years.
Red only from syrah. Small appellation nestling in a half amphitheatre of mostly granite, all facing fully south. Climate here is significantly warmer so Cornas is often among the first to harvest. Wines are black, thick and often tannic in their youth. Style is changing and quality is on the up, almost matching Hermitage.
- Names to watch: Auguste Clape, Alain Voge, Laurent Courbis, Thierry Allemand and Jaboulet's Domaine St Pierre.
- Word of caution: Cornas remains an uncompromising wine and rewards good food. Always decant.
- Keeping: 5 to 17 years.
White only made from marsanne and roussanne. The granite of Cornas gives way to limestone. The wines have more acidity and keep well. For some unaccountable reason, historically, most of the wine was sparkling but mercifully things are changing. Big potential for fine whites.
- Names to watch: Alain Voge, Bernard Gripa, Stephanne Robert, François Villard and Jaboulet.
- Word of caution: Producer's name is essential. Never buy the sparkling version, though Michel Chapoutier has started to make some, so watch this space!
- Keeping: 2 to 10 years.
The Drôme Valley
This is a major tributary of the Rhône that rises in the Alps and joins up with the Rhône to the south of Valence. At its western end there are a few vineyards, mostly of syrah and sold as Côtes-du-Rhône Brézème. This is a rare, very little known and amazingly good-value source for Crozes-like reds. Further east, the landscape becomes more mountainous and the grapes mostly white, clairette and muscat and wines are mostly sparkling. Clairette de Die is light and sweet, a bit like Italian Asti, while Crémant de Die is dry and full-flavoured.
Producing over 3.5m hl (hectolitres), this is the second biggest region for production of appellation contrôlée wine after Bordeaux. Most is red, though production of both white and pink is growing. Some 20 grape varieties are planted in the south though one in particular, namely grenache gives the region as a whole its identity: generosity, body, weight and a definite tendency to making big wines. More than half of the production is of Côtes-du-Rhône with the best sold as Côtes-du-Rhône Villages. Better still are the so-called crus led by Châteauneuf-du-Pape itself.
This large area to the north of Avignon makes the best wines of the south. Reds tend to be grenache-based with syrah, mourvèdre and counoise also used. Few wines combine immense strength with perfect elegance quite so convincingly.
- Names to watch: First Division: Beaucastel, Vieux Télégraphe, Janasse, Clos des Papes, and Clos du Caillou. Look out for estates such as Giraud, and Font de Michelle.
- Word of caution: Châteauneuf produces as much wine as the whole of the northern Rhône put together. A third is very good, a third acceptable and the last third, mediocre.
- Keeping: Drink from 3 to 15 years, more in great vintages. Whites are delicious young but then go dumb from 3 to 7 years old.
Villages include Tavel (rosé only) Lirac, Saint-Gervais and Laudun. There is more rain here but it is also hot and grapes are therefore early ripening. Most of the area lies in the département of the Gard and stretches from the river westwards towards Nîmes where at some ill-defined line in the soil, the Rhône becomes the Languedoc. This is an area that has much improved over the years and has become a valuable source for very fine, concentrated syrah wines in particular.
There are some great estates here:
- Domaine Maby for Lirac and Tavel and a supplier to the Society since the 1979 vintage.
- Château Courac: top syrah-dominated reds from Laudun.
- Domaine Sainte-Anne in Saint-Gervais is the top estate, responsible for planting the first syrah, viognier and mourvèdre in this part of the Rhône.
- Domaine Réméjeanne and Mas du Libian are two more outstanding estates.
- A little further on are the Costieres de Nimes, a large area of upland plateau, south-east of Nîmes. For the moment the Costières produces good everyday wines of good quality but there is potential to do much more.
There are fresh sub-alpine breezes at work here and as a result the wines often have a distinct freshness too.
Just north of Orange is the largely wooded and isolated Massif d'Uchaux. Many of its star producers here are able to farm organically. Stand-out estates include Château Saint-Estève where a Liszt-inspired piano festival is held every year. Domaine Cros de la Mure meanwhile produces some of the most exciting wines in the Rhône Valley.
The three 'Vs': Valréas, Visan and Vinsobres
These are three top neighbouring villages (with a 4th, Saint-Maurice broadly similar to Vinsobres). Vinsobres has full cru status and makes superb wine. Best names include Perrin, now the largest land owner and Domaine Jaume whose wines have been charming members since the 1979 vintage.
Valréas and Visan are planted on the same hill but tend to look north. Emmanuel Bouchard is one of the top names in Valréas. Adrien Fabre makes both outstanding examples of both Visan and Saint-Maurice.
All change in the Tricastin
The Tricastin is a much neglected part of the Rhône and coming down from the northern Rhône, these are the first vines one sees. It's a relatively cool area, far too cold for growing mourvèdre successfully, but the whites do very well and so does the syrah grape. The area has seen a name change as Tricastin is also the name of a power station on the river. The new name for the wines (which doesn't exactly trip off the tongue), is Grignan-lès-Adhémar. Delas makes a lovely red. Otherwise Domaine de Montine is outstanding.
This includes the villages of Cairanne and Rasteau along with neighbouring Roaix. Big full-bodied wines, grenache dominated. Rasteau is all power and might while Cairanne is more deicate.
- Names to watch: Top estates include Delubac (Cairanne), La Soumade (Rasteau) and Escaravailles, and Coteaux de Travers for both.
Plan de Dieu
Large flat expanse of pudding stones that seem to stretch as far as the eye can see, in the middle of which there is an airfield, (largely built for the Luftwaffe) surrounded by vines. Full-bodied style. Excellent for mourvèdre. Jaboulet are very good here as is the Meffre family.
Set against an iconic landscape with Mont Ventoux and the craggy Dentelles de Montmirail as the backdrop, some of these hillsides were first planted by the Romans and include some of the best-known names in the Rhône Valley.
Mountain wine, late harvested, always dramatic and very full-bodied though never coarse or overweight. These are generous reds, capable of long ageing. A little rosé is also made.
- Names to watch: Saint-Cosme, Moulin de la Gardette, Pallières, Raspail and Raspay-Ay. Perrin and Guigal do well here among the big négoce houses.
Next door yet different. Fruitier, a shade less powerful and more obviously charming.
- Names to watch: Clos de Cazaux and Domaine Montvac. Jaboulet buys well here.
Beaumes de Venise
The red is as full as Gigondas but rounder and less complex but this village is better known for its sweet muscat, a vin doux naturel and perfect for desserts.
At nearly 2000m this is some mountain which scores of cyclists are forced to conquer every year in the Tour de France. Its lower slopes are vineyard country though. Traditionally these were known as Côtes du Ventoux and were made and sold cheaply. Things are changing though with more estates such as the excellent Château Valcombe which crops short and makes full and concentrated wine, not dissimilar and better value than many Châteauneufs.