Welcome to the Northern Rhone. If you’ve not yet read through the Rhone Overview, please do so as there are quite a few key terms—not to mention grape varieties—you’ll want to learn before moving forward.
Here we’re diving into the Northern Rhone. Located further inland and away from the influence of the Mediterranean, it has an overall continental climate. Winters are cold, summers are warm, and rain falls predominantly in the autumn and winter months.
It’s noted that the Mistral wind, which flows throughout the Rhone Valley, both north and south, is a bit more fierce in these parts due to the fact that the valley is quite narrow and sandwiched between steep slopes, acting like a funnel for the cold wind current. The good news is that this decreases fungal disease pressure as well as reduces vine vigor and, thus, yields, resulting in the highly concentrated red wines for which the Northern Rhone is most famous. The bad news is that the Northern Rhone‘s claim-to-fame grape, Syrah, is quite susceptible to wind, so you’ll find most of these vines tied to poles for extra protection.
INTERESTING GEOGRAPHICAL NOTE: the distance between the most northern and most southern vineyards of the Northern Rhone is about 40 miles, which means there is a bit better ripening in the warmer, southern regions.
Of course, just like almost anywhere else, the best vineyards are those located on the steep, here often terraced, slopes overlooking the Rhone River. The altitude and aspect increase sunlight exposure, influence (like light reflection and heat retention) from the river water and better drainage. But this also means that most vineyards are worked by hand—a contributing factor to the overall pricey prices of the wines produced. “Their produce is aimed in the main at the fine wine connoisseur rather than at the mass market.” (The Oxford Companion to Wine [4th Edition])
Syrah is not only the claim-to-fame grape, it is the sole red wine grape allowed in Northern Rhone red wines. Viognier is the “defining” white grape variety of Condrieu and Chateau Grillet and in some regions (like Cote-Rotie) a small percentage of the white grape can be co-fermented with Syrah. The other white wines of the Northern Rhone are made from Marsanne and Roussanne, either as blends or as varietal wines.
We are now going to jump into specific appellations of the Northern Rhone. But first a note about Cote-du-Rhone: As mentioned in the Rhone Valley Overview, the term predominantly refers to wines of the Southern Rhone. However, it is important to note that Cote-du-Rhone wines are produced in the Northern Rhone, just at significantly less volume—the term refers to 47 Northern Rhone communes verses 124 Southern Rhone communes, according to The World Atlas of Wine (8th Edition).
Cote-Rotie is the northest of the Northern Rhone with the majority of vineyard located on the steep, often terraced, slopes facing east and southeast toward the Rhone River. “As the name implies,” says the Atlas, “this southeast-facing slope (so steep that gradients can reach 60% in places, and pulleys, even monorails, have been used to transport anything as heavy as a box of grapes) is indeed, ‘roasted’ (rotie) in summer.”
So it is that the strip of vineyards receive a high amount of sunlight and are simultaneously sheltered from the Mistral wind blowing in from the north. Combine high sunshine hours, heat, well-drained stony soils (further drained due to gravity-induced erosion)—and it all adds up to fully ripe grapes farmed and harvested by hand.
As noted, many of these vineyards are terraced, which requires additional work to both establish and maintain. Further, grapevines are typically trained on either single or double Guyot systems and, as mentioned both above and in the Rhone Valley Overview, are typically tied to one or two poles, called echalas. Vine density is, well, dense—up to 10,000 vines per hectare—in order to create more competition between the vines, further reduce yields, and produce concentrated wines.
INTERESTING VINEYARD FACTOID: Growers typically propagate their Syrah vines via massale selection. (D1 keyterm)
Since we’re in the Northern Rhone zone, we know that all wines are red and made from Sryah. Cote-Rotie is the AOC where up to 20% Viognier is allowed to be co-fermented with Syrah which both “perfumes and stabilizes” the red grape, the Atlas notes.
Winemaking is said to emphasizes aromatics, thus most grapes are destemmed upon reception and cold soaked during a pre-fermentation maceration. Fermentation is typically warm in order to encourage extraction and is conducted using either natural or native yeast, though my text notes that natural yeast is fairly common. ML will take place in cask and maturation is either in small barrels (for the top-tier wines) or larger oak vessels for those wines intended to be enjoyed in youth.
TASTING NOTE: Wines of the Cote-Rotie are said to typically be pronounced in aroma, and softer and less full-bodied than the wines of other top appellations, like Hermitage or Cornas (below), where the integration of Viognier is not practiced or, in fact, permitted.
“The extraordinarily heady, recognizably perfumed Viognier grape, with its aromas of apricots and May blossom, is the specialty of the even smaller appellation of Condrieu, into which the Cote-Rotie vineyards merge to the south,” states the Atlas.
And, in fact, the wines of Condrieu must be 100% Viognier.
At this point in the Northern Rhone, the Rhone River turns southwest, thus the vineyards themselves are often south-facing, resulting in longer direct sunlight hours and heat, thus enhancing ripening. Again, these are steep, low-fertile, rocky slopes that are often terraced to help relieve (some of) the challenges of steep-grade farming and erosion. Like in the Cote-Rotie, the steep slopes also help protect vines from the strong, cold Mistral wind blowing in from the north.
According to my text, most Condrieu is fermented in either stainless steel or old, large wooden casks—although it also mentions that some newer producers sometimes choose to use smaller barrels to enhance flavor and texture. It’s winemaker’s choice whether or not to allow ML to go through, but my text notes that in most cases they do. Post-ferment, Condrieu usually spends about 10 to 12 months on the lees, usually with regular battonage.
“Condrieu combines alcoholic power with a haunting but surprisingly fragile aroma. It is one of the very few luxury-priced whites that should generally be drunk young,” describes the Atlas.
FUN FACT: The small Condrieu AOC surrounds the single estate Chateau Grillet AOC (yes, the estate has its own AOC), which supposedly “created the reputation of Viognier,” according to my text. The Atlas elaborates, “The most unusual Viognier is Chateau-Grillet: 8.6 acres in a privileged amphitheatre of vines that, since 1936, has had its won appellation within Condreiu‘s territory […] Unlike Condrieu, it demands bottle age, and decanting.”
Saint Joseph AOC
“This is a 30-mile long appellation that runs from Condrieu to Cornas, nearly the entire length of the Northern Rhone wine region,” states my text. But it goes on to say that the “historical heart” of the AOC is around the lieu-dit (named place) Saint-Joseph, at the southern end, immediate across the river from Tain L’Hermitage. But even here the wines are noted for being lighter and faster-maturing than their across the river neighbor—not, as the Oxford notes, because the soils are any different, but simply because the vineyards of St-Joseph are east-facing, thus lose sunshine up to two hours earlier during the growing season. “For this reason,” the Oxford says, “locals view St-Joseph as their answer to Beaujolais, a fruity wine for drinking in the first three years or so.”
Ninety-percent of wines produced are red—obviously made from Syrah. The other 10% are the dry white wines produced from Marsanne and, to a lesser extent, Roussanne. My text does note that St-Joseph AOC does allow for a small percentage of the white varieties to be co-fermented with the red wine, but it’s quite rare.
In terms of winemaking, stainless steel and large wooden cases are the typical fermentation vessels. Aging typically takes place in large wood tanks or large wood barrels and, occasionally barriques.
A brief, not-so-interesting note: St-Joseph AOC was extended in 1994 to include some vineyard sites not on hillsides. These guys typically produce lower quality wines, so there is an ongoing debate about whether the appellation should reduce back down and limit AOC wines to those produced from grapes grown on hillside slopes only.
Whereas “The Cote-Rotie hunches its back against the north to ripen its Syrah,” states the Atlas, “Thirty miles further south, the imposing hill of Hermitage does the same — on the other side fo the river.”
Indeed, as the quote suggests, vineyards are found on the left bank of the Rhone River as it flows south; vines are planted from west to due south, protected form the cold north Mistral winds. So it is that the terroir is hot, dry, complete with thin, stony soils that once made up an extension of the Massif Central, until the river “burrowed a course around its western rather than eastern flank,” notes the Atlas.
As noted above, the most famous climats for Syrah are at the western end along the hills that, according to my text, record the highest temperatures in the appellation. Of course, as seems to be the theme in these parts, erosion is a major issue, thus vineyards need to be terraced and vineyard work done by hand and in fact, according to the Atlas, mechanization has actually been outlawed.
A small appellation at just about 137 hectares, Hermitage AOC is almost entirely planted. Syrah rules, but a significant 1/3 of total production is dedicated to white wine. Yields here are strictly limited to 40 hL/ha, but my text notes that even this is rarely achieved, as many vineyards are home to old vines that naturally produce low yields and concentrated fruit.
My text notes that both the red and wines produced range from good to outstanding in quality, but that it is the red wines that are a “model of the world’s most structured and long-lived Syrahs.”
In terms of red winemaking, vintners typically use a percentage of stem inclusion (in ripe vintages) and conduct warm fermentation in order to extract the most flavor and tannin straight away. The wine will undergo a “lengthy” aging in oak vessels, often with a portion of new oak, for between 12 and 18 months.
“The adjective ‘manly’ has struck to Hermitage ever since it was first applied to it by the English scholar and oenophile Professor George Saintsbury in the 1920s,” states the Atlas. It goes on, “Young Hermitage of a good vintage is as closed to tannic as any young great red, but nothing can restrain its abounding perfume and the fistfuls of fruit that seem to have been crammed into the glass. As it ages, the immediacy of its impact does not diminish, but its youthful assault gives way to the sheer splendour of its mature presence.”
Moving on to the white wines, these are typically a blend with, as stated, the majority coming from Marsanne with some Roussanne in the mix or pure, varietal Marsanne. Fermentation can take place in anything: old wood vats, new or old oak barrels, stainless steel. Maturation typically takes place in old oak with some percentage of new as well, though others prefer the use of stainless steel—it all depends on the style the winemaker wishes to produce. Lees aging between 10 and 12 months is the norm. The best of these wines are said to age in bottle, developing rich, creamy, nutty flavors with complexity.
“White Hermitage can continue to evolve gloriously for decades,” offers the Atlas. “It starts life dense, stony, slightly honeyed, but relatively dumb: a brooding presence … that slowly gives way to glorious nuttiness.”
In very ripe years, there is, as the Atlas states, “a trickle of the legendary, extraordinarily long-lived sweet rare Vin de Paille“—sweet wine made from grapes shriveled on straw (paille) mats.
“Crozes, the village around the back of the hill, gives its name to Hermitage‘s shadow,” states the Atlas. Crozes-Hermitage is noted or being the largest of the northern appellations, extending almost equidistant north, south, and east of the Hermitage hill. As a whole, the region is noted for having deeper, more fertile soils than the greater Hermitage AOC, thus resulting wines have lower concentration.
But there is a slight differentiation between the vineyards of the north and vineyards of the south of Crozes-Hermitage:
The northern section of Crozes-Hermitage is marked by its continental climate that experiences extremely cold winters and a strong, less-protected influence from the Mistral. The good news is the north also has some steep slopes. That, along with the cooler weather, comes a longer growing season, high diurnal range, and resulting wines that display a moderate sugar accumulation (and thus potential alcohol) and retained acidity.
The southern section of the Crozes-Hermitage, on the other hand, is more temperate, but experiences heavier rainfall late in autumn and throughout winter. Further, the land is flatter and so, here, machine harvesting is possible.
In summary, the Atlas offers, “In general, the rocky, loess soils north of the village produce lively red-fruited wines whereas rounder, softer black-fruited reds are grown to its south.” It continues, “Crozes in the past could be pallid, but today we can choose from two basic styles — one full of youthful, supple fruit for early drinking, and the other, more serious savory bottlings that can be kept for up to 10 years.”
In terms of winemaking, red wines geared toward that former description may undergo carbonic or semi-carbonic maceration in order to enhance that fruitiness for the early drinkers. My text notes, however, this style of winemaking is becoming increasingly rare. Conversely, those wines intended for age will undergo traditional fermentation on the skins in either concrete or stainless steel and, most commonly, all grapes are destemmed. Winemakers may choose to age their wines in either stainless, concrete, or large oak vessels.
White wines make up just 9% of Crozes-Hermitage production and, like in Hermitage, are made from Marsanne and Roussanne. NOTE there is more Marsanne planted. The top wines are typically aged in old wood and sometimes with a small percentage of new oak.
This is the most southernly of the Northern Rhone appellations dedicated to red wine production “with the potential to provide serious if rather earlier-maturing challengers to Hermitage,” comments the Oxford. The AOC forms a natural south and east-facing amphitheatre complete with a Mediterranean climate, protection from the cold Mistral blowing in from the north, and steep slopes with good aspects, resulting in FUN FACT: the first Syrah to be picked in the Northern Rhone.
The wines here are red wines only produced from 100% Syrah. The reputation of Cornas is for its tannic intensity. Though my text notes that some producers use small barrels to soften that intensity, the trend is really toward the “robust and long-lived wines.”
This is the actual most southern of the Northern Rhone region and is devoted to white wine production (both still and sparkling). The appellation has a slightly cooler climate than those surrounding it, with limestone and granite soils with good water-holding capacity and drainage. Marsanne makes up the majority of plantings, followed by Roussanne.
In terms of wine production, wines can be fermented in stainless steel or old oak barrels and aged in the same vessels or in larger oak barrels. For higher quality production, wines are typically aged on the lees for 10 to 12 months, with some opting to engage in regular battonage to add additional body.
Collines Rhodaniennes IGP—“hills of the Rhone”
This category is used for red, white, and rosé wines made from grapes grown outside of the AOCs of the Northern Rhone. Higher yields are allowed (actually…double! At 80 hL/ha) and producers can grow and use grape varieties outside of the AOC rules.
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