Coming from the Alps, the Rhône meets the Saône in Lyon and goes down to Marseille on the Mediterranean Sea. There is more than a physical encounter between those two rivers. If you take a look at a map of France, you will see that the central system of mountains, called Le Massif Central, divides France's vineyards in two: the western vineyards, including Bordeaux and the Loire valley, and the eastern vineyards, including Burgundy, Beaujolais, and the Rhône.
From the north of Dijon, the capital of the Dukes of Burgundy, until the Mediterranean Sea, all these eastern vineyards are protected from the Atlantic Ocean's influence by our central system of mountains. This “three-hundred-mile long vineyard” goes along the Rhône and Saône corridor.
To illustrate the notion of continuity, a speaking image would be the following: When the vintage is cold, southern Rhône wines tend to resemble Burgundies. When the vintage is hot, Burgundies dress up in southern Rhône clothes.
Twenty miles south of Lyon, on the right bank of the Rhône river, starts the vineyard. The Côtes-du-Rhône, or Rhône coast, is clearly separated in two different entities. The northern vineyard, or Rhône Septentrional, is the kingdom of the Syrah grape, probably of Persian origin. Its AOCs include, among others, the prestigious vineyards of Côte-Rôtie, Cornas, and Hermitage.
The southern vineyard or Rhône Méridional is the kingdom of the Grenache grape of Spanish origin. Its most famous AOCs include the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, and Vacqueyras.
That separation of the entire vineyard in two goes much beyond the use of such and such grape variety. It includes:
- The nature of the soil. Granite and schists are in the north. Limestone, sand, and clay in the south.
- The climate. Semi-continental in the north and clearly Mediterranean in the south.
- The landscape. Abrupt slopes in the north with the sensation that the river has opened a corridor between two blocks of mountains with the Massif Central on the right bank and the Alps on the left side. The corridor widens considerably after the city of Valence with the Massif Central turning west and the Alps turning east.
- The agriculture. Cherry trees, apricot trees, and apple trees from Vienne to Valence, and then almond trees, olive trees, tomatoes, and melons south of Montelimar.
- The housing. The stones used for construction in the north give a sensation of austerity. The villages are generally grey and brown with a rather dull appearance. In the south, the region called Provence, the stone turns sandy, pink, and orange, and the shutters become violet, blue, green, and bougainvilliers cover the walls of many houses.
AOCs of the Rhône Valley
As in Bourgogne with the AOC Bourgogne or in Bordeaux with the AOC Bordeaux, anywhere in the 180,000 acres of the vineyard, a grower can produce a Côtes-du-Rhône AOC. Outside of this determined area, the wine produced will be a “vin de pays,” or a country wine. As it is so small and land is so expensive, many producers, including the greatest producers of the Côte-Rôtie or Hermitage vineyards, produce Vin de Pays. Jamet or Bernard Faurie are two examples.
The Southern Vineyards
In determined places of the southern vineyard, in some particularly well-exposed areas around villages such as Rasteau, Cairanne, or Séguret, the I.N.A.O. considers the wines that can be achieved there are of a superior quality. Those wines enter the AOC category Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages.
The label reads:
Appellation Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages contrôlée
There are Côtes-du-Rhône Villages on the right bank of the river. They are usually tougher and more alcoholic than those of the left bank.
The northern limit of the southern vineyard bears two AOCs. The Côtes-du-Vivarais on the right bank of the Rhône, and, on the other side of the river, an AOC that has just been renamed, Grignan-Les-Adémar. This “impossible-to-remember name” has been found to replace the former Côteaux-du-Tricastin AOC, as the name Tricastin is linked to a nuclear power plant. Those two areas have not been capable of delivering very high quality wines so far, or to put it another way, I have not come across the opportunity to say something different.
At the southern limit, you will find two AOCs, which are the Côtes-du-Ventoux and the Côtes-du-Lubéron. Mont Ventoux is the name of a mountain tenderly called the giant of Provence while the Lubéron is the name of a river. After those two areas of production, the vineyards belong to the Côtes-de-Provence. The Côtes-du-Lubéron are rustic, wild, and tannic wines. Some rosés of the area can be very good. The reds with a lot of age, at least ten years, can become very useful wines in terms of food pairing.
The Côtes-du-Ventoux is a good source for white wines as the area is rather cold by Provence standards. The reds have been improving steadily for the past ten years, but they will not reach the good Côtes-du-Rhône Villages standard anytime soon.
Tavel and Lirac
Tavel and Lirac are two AOCs on the right bank of the river opposite of the city of Avignon.
Lirac AOC goes for the three colors of red, white, and rosé with the classical grape varieties of southern Rhône, mainly Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre, plus a maximum of 10% of Cinsault and/or Carignan. Wines are also rustic, but they age pretty well as the alcohol starts to fade a little, making them more subtle. You have to know that this is one of the warmest parts of France, and the vines usually face south, getting a maximum exposure of heat during long months. By the middle of spring, temperatures above 75 are common, and 90 is an average summer temperature. The whites are made of Bourboulenc, Clairette, and white Grenache varieties.
Tavel’s AOC is only for the production of rosés. Once rather brutal wines, the search for quality is starting to pay off there too. Usually very dark colored for a rosé, this is, by all means, a food wine almost capable of replacing a red Côtes-du-Rhône.
Vacqueyras, Gigondas, and Vinsobres
We are back in the left bank of the river where stand the greatest wines of southern Rhône. Three former Côtes-du-Rhône Villages have become Crus or Growths: Gigondas in 1971, Vacqueyras in 1990, and Vinsobres in 2002.
These wines have to be sought after for all the following reasons:
*They are usually given away.
*Almost all the vintages are between good and great.
*They can stay between 10 and 25 years in a cellar.
*They are in total adequation with what people eat: zucchinis, eggplants, olive oil, peppers, tomatoes, barbecue, chili con carne, and Italian food. They can do all that and much more effortlessly.
Gigondas is a dual “terroir” AOC with the sand and the red clay in its lower and western part and with a much more mineral and dense expression as the vines approach the heights of the Dentelles de Montmirail, a limestone mountain of Jurassic origin of both aesthetic and geological interest. Yes, the mountain is beautiful, as well as the landscape and the villages around, such as Seguret or the village of Gigondas itself.
The wines are mainly made out of the Grenache grape, limited by the rules of the AOC to a maximum of 80% of the blend. Mourvèdre and Syrah have to represent together at least 15% of the blend. Authorized yields are low to very low, around 14 liters per acre.
At most of the growers, Mourvèdre represents easily 20% of the final blend. This grape variety has so much tannic power and completes so well the Grenache, bringing in prunes and a distinctive black olive aroma, making Gigondas wines fit extraordinarily well with the food of inland Provence.
Vacqueyras is a hot spot as it is hit hardly by the sun all summer. Therefore, the wines classically have a high level of alcohol at around 14.5%. The wines develop aromas of dark chocolate and cherries in alcohol in this terroir, which add to the classical red fruits found elsewhere.
With age, a distinctive note of black truffle completes the leather and olive aromas of the Mourvèdre that represents typically around 25% of the blend. Here also, as we are in its empire, the Grenache grape must contribute to at least 50% of the blend and, like in Gigondas, there also is the possibility to use the Syrah grape to add even more complexity.
Both AOCs are entitled to produce rosé even if the production is mainly for local use. Only Vacqueyras can produce white wines with the classical grapes of the south: Clairette, Bourboulenc, and Roussanne, as well as, surprisingly, Viognier and Marsanne. These last two grapes are forbidden in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the famous neighbor.
Vinsobres is situated in what is called la Drôme Provençale, as we are still in the region called Provence. But, the “département” becomes the Drôme, the number 26, which, by the way, is again the name of a river. The AOC is very similar in terms of grape blending possibilities. The authorized yields are a little higher. Even if the distance between the two vineyards is big, maybe 15 miles, Vinsobres and Gigondas have a lot in common. The slopes bearing the vineyard are high in relation to the sea level, 300 to 500 yards. The wines develop a lot of freshness, and the physical structure of the young wines is rather tannic.
Vinsobres is like a young brother of Gigondas; the main difference being in the age of the vines. In 1956, the slopes in the area of Vinsobres were covered with olive trees that did not resist the coldest winter of the 20th century in France. The fruit growers then decided to plant vines and, logically, the oldest vines today are around fifty years of age, when in Gigondas, the vineyard is almost as old as that of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
With 8,000 acres of vines, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is by far the largest AOC of the Rhône valley. With different soils, with or without sand, with or without the famous pebbles, and with or without red clay or quartz; how could there be only one type of Châteauneuf-du-Pape?
Vines are orientated in all directions, including toward the northern exposure as the average amount of hours of sun yearly easily reaches the 2,800 tag.
To further increase the complexity of wines that can be achieved here, the AOC authorizes the use of 13 grape varieties, of which 10 are commonly used.
The coherence comes from the strength of the weather's personality, the sun already mentioned, and the Mistral wind, a cold wind coming from the north. The Mistral is powerful, cold, and dry. It is the worst enemy when the season is awfully dry as it develops the drought, and is the best friend when the season is particularly wet as it wipes out the excessive rain.
For the anecdote, the Mistral is also the name of a famous poet of Provence who wrote his poems in “provençal,” a real language as it can be spoken or written and, as evidenced, is of cultural ancestry.
The coherence also comes from the Grenache noir grape variety, or black Grenache, that must represent almost 70% of the vines of the AOC The average age of the vines is probably the oldest in France as the phyloxera hit this region first and, consequently, the region was also the first to renew its vineyard.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines can age gracefully almost forever, contributing to the fame of the vineyard. For those who have been lucky enough to taste wines from the fifties of the last century these days, the point should be easily proven. Some producers still propose wines of thirty or forty years of age.
Grenache is a major grape variety and it means it has the capacity to translate the nuances of the soil into wine, as pinot noir in Burgundy or cabernet-sauvignon in the Médoc.
With the size of this vineyard, it could be said there are several "terroirs" in Châteauneuf with differences comparable to those found between Côte-de-Nuits and Côte-de-Beaune or Saint-Emilion and Pomerol.
The Northern Vineyards
Cornas and Saint-Péray
A few miles north of Vinsobres, the vineyard disappears into a “no-vines-land” from Montélimar to Valence.
On the right bank of the river, just after the city of Valence, the vineyard shows up again and from there on is known as “le Rhône Septentrional,” or northern Rhône. We have penetrated into the kingdom of Syrah, present in the south only as a side dish, but unique from here to the last row of the vines of Côte-Rôtie 60 miles north. We are also entering the kingdom of the granite stone, a geological landmark of the northern vineyards. Its presence goes as high as the Beaujolais region, well above the city of Lyon, imposing its personality on the wines, the color of the slopes, and that of the houses.
Here comes the AOC Cornas, a powerful example of what the word “terroir” can mean. Terroir because of the huge personality of its wines. Terroir because the Syrah grape plays its real role, never showing off upfront, but at the service of the soil. Yes, Cornas is easy to discover blind because of its expression of its earth in its mix of blood, clay, cocoa, raspberries, and truffle; its “matière,” as we call it. This wine is made of flesh, density, weight, power, and depth and gives an incredible sensation of truth (even if I understand the subjectivity of such a statement).
Cornas was granted with an AOC in 1938. The conditions are only red wines, only the Syrah grape, and a maximum yield of 16 liters per acre.
Cornas is a minuscule vineyard at about 225 acres. This is probably the price to pay to have such a distinctive personality.
The reputation of the AOC Saint-Péray is just starting to spread even if those vines were granted with an appellation as far back as 1936. With the vineyard being so small at about 130 acres, it is clear that not many bottles have crossed the English Channel or the Atlantic Ocean and that the wine has been mostly for local consumption.
The AOC is only for white wines that can be dry or bubbling. The authorized grapes are the same that as we find in Saint-Joseph and also in the other side of the river in Crozes-Hermitage and Hermitage, the Marsanne and the Roussanne. Aromatically, the whites of Saint-Péray are very flowery with a slight touch of honey in the nose and in the mouth.
Crozes-Hermitage and Hermitage
As Chassagne with the Montrachet or Gevrey with the Chambertin, who could blame the growers desire to add the name of this prestigious hill, almost a mountain, to give weight to their AOC of Crozes-Hermitage. The wines sell pretty well in France, and the appellation has been planting steadily toward the south for the past fifty years. However, the greatest soils of the AOC are in the north around the Hermitage hill.
Little by little, making the same mistake that the growers of Saint-Joseph did a long time ago, Crozes-Hermitage has become an over-extended appellation. The result, very few stars to illuminate the vineyard.
Hermitage is one of the greatest wines of France, and like in Cornas, the soil imposes its personality on the Syrah grape, which is the major attribute of a real soil. As chardonnay is the slave of Chablis and pinot noir is the slave of Chambolle-Musigny, Syrah varietal black currant, licorice, and violet aromas just vanish in the slopes of the Hermitage. Who wants Syrah? The terroir is Cornas. The terroir is Hermitage. The terroir is Chablis.
As man is a fundamental component of the “terroir,” the presence of such brilliant growers, such as Faurie, Sorrel, or Chave, on this soil magnifies the ability of this difficult vineyard to produce great bottles. Once upon a time, Jaboulet participated in the glory of Hermitage through legendary vintages such as 1961 or 1978.
What boasts out of the glass is class, elegance, subtlety, and the most magnificent raspberry you can dream, surrounded by the most delicate while intense minerality.
White Hermitage, a rarity, can deliver a comparable felicity through the use of mainly Marsanne. Roussanne is also permitted, but seldom used. White grapes can participate in the elaboration of red wines with a maximum set at 15% of the blend, but this allowance is almost unused.
The winds of success blow on Saint-Joseph wings. Twenty-six communes, or small towns, are entitled to bear vines with the AOC Saint-Joseph. The name was given in the 17th century by the Jesuits of Tournon, which is considered, along with the village of Mauves, as the cradle of the appellation. Back in 1956, only six villages around Tournon were granted with the AOC. When success came, the plantation developed until 1969 when 20 other villages were granted with this AOC.
Then, vines started to be planted where they could be worked out more easily, namely with machinery, in the flat parts either at the Rhône level or on the plateau, above the slopes. The wines lost a lot of personality; their soul was almost gone.
In the early '80s, the growers decided to react and cut 10,000 acres from 19,000 acres to reduce the size of the AOC. Thanks to such a lucid sacrifice, Saint-Joseph was saved and dividends have been returning to the growers ever since!
Schists and granite form the mother stone that bears the vines. Through those stones, the Syrah grape grabs and develops smoky aromas. Beyond, violets and raspberries are also typical. The wines can be drank rather young, from the ages of five to ten (2004, 2007, or 2008). When the vintage is very good, which means both ripe and structured, seven to 12 years are more adequate (2001, 2005, 2006, or 2009).
Some whites are produced in the AOC Saint-Joseph out of Marsanne and Roussanne grape varieties. They represent probably less than 5 percent of the production. Here, like in Hermitage, white grapes can contribute to the elaboration of red wines, but this is theory as in reality it simply does not happen.
As the National Institute for the Appellations (INAO) is also composed with négociants and growers, sure they do have a word to say. Since most of the French vineyards are very ancient, vines have been planted here or there almost for private use. White grapes are too marginal to mean real production, and the right that has been granted to the producers to blend them has been for economical efficiency with the pretext of smoothing down the tannins in the red wines.
As the search for quality white wines has been developing in the last 30 years, I wonder how these producers are going to be able to satisfy the demand without coming back to the old over-plantation mistake. White wines are going to become expensive here soon, as the producers have a tendency to plant each time more Roussanne than Marsanne. The ambition is to make more complex wines, but, as Roussanne is so much more fragile, risk and rarity are going to mean higher prices.
Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie
There are four villages that are entitled to produce, both Saint-Joseph and Condrieu. As we have seen several times in this part of the Rhône, the grape variety used for Condrieu, the Viognier, can also be blended with Syrah, to produce the wines of Côte-Rôtie. Once again, a song already heard, Viognier is usually marginal to nonexistent in the red wines, but, nevertheless, Côte-Rôtie is the only AOC of northern Rhône where some producers do use white grapes in some of their wines, such as Guigal or Gerin. There is even a producer that reaches the limit of tolerance of 20% of white grapes in one of its cuvées of red, the Domaine de Corps de loup.
Condrieu is probably one of the most aromatic white wines there is, with a nose of peaches, apricots, exotic fruits, and, of course, violet flower. Violet is also one of the attributes of the Montrachet Grand Cru and, more generally, of the Montrachet hill. But, the two violets are different. In the Montrachet hill, the violet is like the actual flower picked out in the garden. Whereas in Condrieu, it is more balsamic, like mixed with bergamot and a touch of licorice.
When you have the opportunity to see the vineyard, you immediately can relate to the power of these granitic mounts and the violence of their declivity. This has to translate into the wines as they cannot be “aromatic” wines only. They have to be major mineral wines. If they are not, this is bad news for me because it means that the barreling work is killing the expression of the soil or the vines are so young that they are not in contact with their AOC, their soil, in other words that they do not deserve it.
Côte-Rôtie means roasted coast as its slopes face the southeast and the south. The weather is continental enough to get cold winters and very hot summers. The vineyard, with approximately 500 acres of surface, is separated in “two coasts” with each one of them bearing a name:
To the south, La Côte Brune with granite, clay, and iron.
To the north, La Côte Blonde with granite and sand and limestone on the surface.
Côte-Rôtie is a serious wine. Côte-Brune even more serious than Côte-Blonde. This is only a benevolent warning and advice: decant by all means if the wine is younger than five, decant by all means if the wine is younger than 10. At this level of wine, 10 years of age are almost nothing, same for Cornas or Hermitage.
Because of the structure of the wine, the intensity of its tannins, the physical shape of its spirit (more blades than cushions), it needs competition in terms of food; you cannot get away with the “wine and cheese” cliché. The Côte-Rôtie arriving with a duck filet is perfection, with a deer filet is a dream, and with a hare civet at the age of 15 is what nirvana really means. Blueberry sauce should work pretty well.
You are lucky enough to get wines that have not suffered waiting for a customer in the shelves of some shop. You are acquiring wines that have arrived averagely six months before you are going to buy them or drink them. Those wines have recuperated their strength; those wines are young and have handled and digested their journey. Those wines are the real thing.