When I moved to Lyon over 3 years ago, I had had little experience with the wines of the Northern Rhône Valley. There are a few reasons for this, the most prominent are that this small region with eight AOC’s has low production, making it harder to obtain; and its better wines are rather expensive. Since arriving here, my experience of the wines of the region, which begins about 20 miles south of the city where I live, has been limited to the ubiquitous St. Josephs and Croze-Hermitages to be found on just about every wine list in town. And these two wines represent the largest AOC’s in the Northern Rhône Valley and are very reasonably priced as a rule.
Having recently read Kermit Lynch’s classic book Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyer’s Tour of France (LINK), (something else I should have done sooner) which features a chapter on the Northern Rhône Valley, and with confinement restrictions being lessened in France, my wife and I booked a 6-hour tour of part of the region. Dorianne and I were joined by friends from the American Club of Lyon, Mark Gallops and Ann Bingley Gallops, both fans of the wines of St. Joseph.
I booked the tour through Lyon Winetours (LINK) and we were not disappointed by the tour in any way, other than wishing it were longer. Our tour guide was Vincent Pontet, the founder of the company, who was raised in Condrieu and lives there today. He began working in the vineyards at 14, obtained his bachelor’s degree in Wine making in Burgundy, and spend several years learning wine making in New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and in California, before returning home to start his tour business. He is now preparing a wine bar for opening in late summer – called Les Enfants du Rhône, he is partnering with another Condrieu native. We look forward to visiting after the opening.
As I noted, the Northern Rhône Valley (LINK) (LINK) is a small region, under 3,000 hectares (or less than 7,400 acres) and is divided into 8 appellations or AOC’s (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée). For comparison, the Southern Rhône Valley (LINK) has over 68,000 hectares (168,000 acres) and 23 AOC’s.
We left from Place Bellcour in Lyon at 10:00 am and headed south. About 30 minutes later, we were driving through Côte–Rôtie (the Roasted Hill), the northernmost AOC of the Northern Rhône Valley. You immediately notice the steep, terraced slopes on the west side of the Rhône River. Vines were first planted here 2400 years ago by the early Romans who settled here. Most of the appellations of the region, the best ones anyway, feature these steep slopes, where everything must be done by hand. Vignerons cannot use tractors or other heavy machinery, and working these slopes by hand is hot, hard work.
Côte–Rôtie consists of two major slopes, Côte Blonde and Côte Brune. The major differences are in the soil composition, with Côte Blonde having sandy soil in granite and a light schist. Côte Brune is just schist and granite. The wines of Côte–Rôtie are Syrah blended with a small percentage of Viognier, a white grape. The blending is set when the vineyards are planted. At harvest time, whatever Syrah and Viognier are harvested by each producer are fermented together before going into barrels or foudres for aging. We tasted several Côte-Rôties and each had a distinctive nature, but with a commonality of tannins, smoothness, and dark red fruit on the nose and the palate.
Condrieu is located just south of Côte–Rôtie on the west side of the Rhône. The only grape grown here on the granite slopes is Viognier. The viogniers here are richer and more full-bodied than viogniers I have had from elsewhere. Rich and lush, with a range of notes from nutty to floral to fruity, these are wines that are appropriate for sipping as well as for pairing with any foods you might pair with a Chardonnay.
We tasted a couple of St. Josephs and one Cornas at the tasting room at Cave Yves Cuilleron (LINK) in Condrieu. St. Joseph is one of two rather large AOC’s in the region, along with Croze-Hermitage, and the wines are generally more available and priced lower than the rest of the region’s production. St. Joseph is spread over 30 miles and there is a fair amount of variety in the quality and styles of the wine – although the only red is Syrah and the whites are Rousanne and Marsanne. The wines we tasted at the cave, a red and a white, were both very nicely crafted, but with less complexity than the Côte–Rôties or the Condrieus, which is not surprising.We made some purchases and moved on.
The next stop was lunch on the terrace at Bar et Gourmet (LINK), a wonderful spot in Condrieu with excellent food and, as you might expect, a representative wine list.
After lunch, it was more tasting and a winery tour at Cave Guy Bernard (LINK), where Vincent has been working to help with the most recent bottling. We toured the winery and the barrel cellar, then tasted a series of Côte-Rôtie wines from 2017 and 2018, and a Condrieu from a separate parcel. All excellent! We made some more purchases, then headed back to Lyon through rush-hour traffic (called a bouchon, or a cork in a bottleneck, in France).
In the future, we plan more exploration of this amazing region. Even though it is small, there is more to cover than you can do in a day. And we want to return to Vincent’s wine bar, Les Enfants du Rhône, where he plans to have bottles from his library available to pour. Whether you are a Syrah lover (and this is ground-zero for great Syrah), or savor the unique white wines and blends of the Northern Rhône, there is much here to enjoy. Ask your wine merchant about these wines and give them a try.
As always, your comments are appreciated!
Copyright 2021 – Jim Lockard