While Bordeaux and Burgundy are considered to be the greatest red wine regions in the world, historically it had been Hermitage in the Northern Rhône. Going back to the 18th & 19th centuries, the wines of Hermitage were considered on the same level as wineries such as Chateau Lafite in Bordeaux and Romanée-Conti in Burgundy.
The Northern Rhône, in Southern France, is the home of the Syrah grape, the only red grape variety permitted in the region. This is a cool climate, hilly region together with the different soil types and proximity to the Rhône River influence the style of the wines. In general the wines are recognisable for their deep colour, refined elegance, balance, prominent acidity, ripe black berry fruits, black olives, minerality and spicy flavours.
There are eight appellations, the Spanish equivalent is a Denominación de Origen. Starting from the town of Vienne in the north down the Rhône River to Valence in the South they are: Côte Rôtie or ‘roasted slope’ due to its steep southern facing slopes and long hours of exposure to the sun. If the wines of Hermitage are considered to be the Kings of the Northern Rhône, those of Côte Rôtie are the Queens.
While the vast majority of the wine produced here are reds there are two appellations producing world class whites made from the grape variety Viognier: Condrieu and Chateau Grillet, the smallest wine appellation in France with less than 4ha. of vineyards. The quantities of wine produced in these appellations are very small and the demand is high, consequently the prices are also. Without doubt Condrieu would be on my list in ‘the wine cellar of my dream.’
Travelling south we come to St Joseph, a long thin strip of land on the western bank of the Rhône. When it comes to buying wines a good tip is to choose a St Joseph, considered by many wine experts to be similar to Côte Rotie but better value.
Then you come to the magnificent sloping hills of Hermitage where the finest wines of the Northern Rhône are produced. The wines are known for their inky black colour, complexity and depth. Like top quality Bordeaux’s these wines require years of ageing prior to drinking they are capable of lasting for decades. These are special occasion wines, with a hefty price tag.
Crozes-Hermitage is by far the largest of the appellations with around 1600ha of vineyards, more than ten times the size of Hermitage. Many of the growers in this region are also soft fruit growers, apricots and peaches, so they are more aware of the importance of the physical quality of the fruit, essential for making premium quality wines. These are the best wines to begin with when to discover the wines of Northern Rhône.
Further south is Cornas, where the wines are known for the full bodied and powerful flavours. Finally St-Péray, the most southerly appellation in the Northern Rhône is St-Péray, known for its white wines made from Marsanne and Roussanne.
Growers names to look out for are M Chapoutier, Guigal, Jamet, Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Cave de Tain and J-L Chave.
Add the wines of the Northern Rhône to you list of wines to discover.