I’ve talked about France’s Rhône region in a few previous posts—rosé winemaking, carbonic and semi-carbonic maceration, and of course Southern Rhône red blends. So I think it’s time for an overview of the Rhône and it is, in my mind, easier to do so by separating out the North and South. So, let’s start at the top and work our way down of this very narrow French wine region. Here we go…
[Information based on WSET Level 3 material]
Alright, so let’s set the scene, shall we? The Northern Rhône is home to many steep slopes that line along the Rhône River—these, of course, are where the best vineyard sites are located. These slopes help protect the vineyards from the mistral wind—a wind so strong it can easily damage grapes. FUN FACT: Vines are supported by individual stakes or a teepee-like arrangement of stakes—another source of protection from the affects of the misrtral.
The climate of the Northern Rhône is moderate continental; temperatures are significantly cooler here than in the Southern Rhône region.
When it comes to grape varieties, the Northern Rhône is fairly easy: Syrah is the only black grape permitted. FUN FACT: Planted amidst the cooling affects of the mistral, the Northern Rhône is the northern-most limit where Syrah can ripen successfully. And, because of that, as you may have guessed, the best sites are planted on slopes with a south-facing aspect to receive as much light and warmth from the sun as possible.
WINEMAKING FACT: Although Syrah is the only black grape variety permitted, when it comes to winemaking, producers, in some appellations, are allowed to blend a little bit of *gasp* white wine—specifically Viognier. The addition of the floral, white grape is two-fold: 1) it helps stabilize the color extraction from the very deeply colored and tannic grape and 2) it adds a bit of aromatics.
Talking about white grapes, Viognier is undoubtedly the star of the show. When not blended with Syrah, on its own it makes a full-bodied, perfumey wine with low acid and high alcohol—as this is a late ripening grape variety. RANDOM FACT: If not handled carefully during the winemaking process, Viognier can develop an oilly character, and that oily-ness can overwhelm the subtle fruit and floral aromas innate in the grape. And, given its subtlety, I guess it goes without saying that oak is generally not used for fermenting or aging, but if it is, it’s done so with a very light touch.
The other two white grapes to know in the North are two of my personal favorite Rhône whites: Marsanne and Roussanne. They are usually blended together—the Marsanne adding the richness and weight, the Roussanne adding the acidity and perfumey fruits. It is noted that these grapes are not as aromatic as Viognier, but they do have the ability to age well, developing complex nutty aromas.
Although generic Côte du Rhône can be made in the North, most of the wines produced usually come from one of the cru appellations, which are:
- Côte Rôtie
- Crozes Hermitage
This is the most northernly appellation in the Rhône region. The name literally translates to “roasted slope,” which is a clue about the terroir. Indeed, this is where some of the steepest vineyards can be found and, obviously, provide great exposure to the sun. Only red wines are produced in Côte Rôtie, however producers are allowed to blend up to 20% of Viognier into their Syrah. FUN FACT: These wines are distinguished from other regions in the North because of their aromatic, floral freshness that comes through the deeply colored and full-bodied, spicy wines.
This is a white wine made exclusively from Viognier. The best are made from low-yielding old vines situated on steep, well-exposed terraced vineyards. NOTE: Within Condrieu is a single property appellation called Chateau-Grillet; the appellation creates a white wine similar in style to the larger, bordering appellation of Condrieu.
The majority of wines produced in Saint-Joseph will be Syrah, however some Marsanne-Roussanne blends are also made. Here, again, the best wines come from vines situated along steep, terraced slopes and will have the intensity and structure often associated with Hermitage (see below). It’s also noted that large volumes of lighter-bodied wines come from the more fertile, flatter sites along the valley floor as well as the plateaus above the slopes. The winemaking for these grapes often include carbonic maceration, and the resulting wines are some of the lightest in the Northern Rhône, showcasing the black pepper-florality known to Syrah. (If florality is not a word then…it should be…)
I feel like Hermitage is the all-star when it comes to the Northern Rhône region—the one most people swoon over. (I, on a personal note, am in love with Côte Rôtie). Red Hermitage is, opposite to those wines produced on the flat sites of Saint-Joseph, some of the fullest-bodied in the Northern Rhône and are known to age very well. FUN FACT: Up to 15% of Marsanne and Roussanne can be fermented with Syrah here in Hermitage. The region also produces a Marsanne-Roussanne white blend.
One of the things that makes Hermitage red wine so complex are the differing sites. The steep, south-facing slopes where the vines are planted are divided into named sites, or lieux-dits. Each site has its own specific steepness and aspect, thus growing slightly different grapes and producing wines with slightly different styles and body. So it is that the best wines coming out of Hermitage are blends of the lieux-dits.
Although some well-structured wines can come out of Crozes-Hermitage, it certainly does not enjoy the same reputation as Hermitage itself. This is mainly to do with the terrain. The portion of Crozes-Hermitage that is located to the north of Hermitage has vineyards planted on those all-important south-facing slopes; the portion to the south of Hermitage is situated on flat plains. So quality, style, and, of course, price vary accordingly, with the more structured coming from the north and the lighter styles coming from the south. Again, like Hermitage, in Crozes-Hermitage winemakers can use up to 15% Marsanne or Roussanne in their Syrah.
As you can see from the map, this is the most southerly wine region in the Northern Rhône and, as you may suspect, it is the warmest of all the appellations. Vineyards lie on well-exposed (to the sun) steep slopes (yes, facing south). Syrah is the name of the game—all wines must be made from 100% Syrah.
How’d I do? Have anything to add about the Northern Rhône region? What’s your favorite appellation? Favorite wine? Any recommendations? Merci!
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