Over the past few years, the wines of the Rhône have graduated from the closely guarded secret of wine anoraks to a staple of shop shelves and restaurant by-the-glass lists. I’ve always had a soft spot for the region, so it was with great excitement that I caught the red eye to Lyon to join the JN team for four days in one of France’s iconic wine regions.
Staring up at the rows of vines, precariously on the sheer hillside of the Rhône Valley, it’s clear how challenging making wine in this part of the world can be. Fortunately, the vignerons of the Northern Rhône don’t have a fear of heights and use this unique terroir to craft exceptional wines. Perhaps the most famous of these wines are from Côte-Rôtie: the South-facing slopes of the uppermost section of the Rhône produce deep, brooding reds made entirely from Syrah. At Domaine Jamet, we were treated to an eye-opening vertical tasting of this sought-after wine. As we tasted, Loïc Jamet described the great care and attention that goes into maintaining the Domaine’s 12.5-hectares. Jamet’s young wines are concentrated and full; they age gracefully, developing softer tannins and layers of dried fruit, leather, and tobacco. Even Loïc’s father, Jean-Paul, couldn’t help but crack a wry smile as we stuck our noses into the glasses of the 2005, 2000 and 1997.
Further down the valley, we visit Domaine Andre Perret. As we pull into the carpark, Andre’s wife and daughter wave down on us from the vineyards above his winery. Vertigo is not a trait that runs in this family. Andre was good enough to take us up to one of his vineyards, where the vines sit on impossibly narrow terraces, hemmed in by a wall on one side and a sheer drop on the other. Andre produces a range of wines, but it is the Condrieu grown in these clos that stay with me.
We finished the day stopping by Domaine Coursodon, a producer of modern, vibrant wines in Saint-Joseph. The appellation may not have the prestige of Côte-Rôtie, but the wines speak for themselves. The whites deliver a focussed punch of bright citrus and ripe stone fruits, while the reds offer a bevvy of dark berries and the promise of ageing for years to come.
As you travel South, the Rhône spills out toward the Mediterranean and the steep valley walls of the North relax into expansive, undulating hillside. This provides the setting for Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The expanse of the South lends itself to larger vineyard sites than in the North. For instance, Chateau Beaucastel’s 100-hectares is arranged in a contiguous ring surrounding the winery. They’re visually striking too, thanks to the fist-size pebbles – galets – that cover the soil and ensure the perfect conditions for ripening Grenache, the principle grape of CNDP.
Rivalling the expansive vineyards are the wineries. The operations of Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe is both labyrinthine and cavernous, and built with obsessive attention to detail. Daniel and Edouard Brunier (fifth and sixth generations winemakers) were keen to show off the elaborate system of conveyer belts, chutes, and rails that fill the winery. These allow the Domaine’s grapes to be sorted, fermented and pressed without the use of pumps that might otherwise damage the delicate flavours of the wine. Given a hectare of CNDP will set you back €500,000, it’s understandable why so much thought has been put into getting the best out of each grape.
While CNDP has a reputation for steep price tags, I was consistently impressed by the value for money on offer. For instance, Domaine Sabon’s “Sabounet”, made from the estate’s young vines, is a delightful blend that offers oodles of plummy red fruits and spices at a bargain price. Quality should come as no surprise, given that it made with the same care and attention as the wine from the Domaine’s top sites. Likewise, Domaine Vieille-Julienne’s Côtes du Rhône is a delicious combo of dark berries, herbs and black pepper that has all the charm, if not the ageing potential, of their CNDP.
The prestige of CNDP would make it easy to overlook the region’s other appellations. That would be a mistake. In Gigondas, as in CNDP, winemaking runs in the family. Celine Chauvet, of Domaine du Grapillon D’or, comes from a line of winemakers stretching back to 1703. The Domaine itself was established in 1806 and was the first to plant Syrah in this part of the Rhône. Today, the wines that Celine make are packed with intense, jammy, black fruit; structured to stand-up to rich meals; and have the potential to age just as gracefully as CNDP.
Meanwhile, Chateau Pesquié, a 100-hectare estate located in the shadow of Mount Ventoux, offers a glimpse into the future of the Rhône Valley. The estate is run by two brothers, Alexandre and Frédéric, who are keen to put Ventoux on the map. Alexandre highlighted the diversity of terroir on offer, which has allowed them to make a series of single-vineyard wines, each with its own unique character. Meanwhile, Frédéric espoused the virtues of Ventoux, which sits on the elevated slopes beneath its mountainous namesake, offering valuable coolness in a region that is feeling effects of global warming. As excessive temperatures and drought continue to buffet the Southern Rhône, more wine drinkers will turn to Ventoux to get their Grenache-Syrah fix.
Thank you to all of the producers who hosted us and allowed us to taste their wines during our brief visit. For anyone considering a trip, go, you will not regret it. But if you’re unable to make it out here, perhaps a glass of the Saint-Joseph Syrah or GSM CNDP will serve as a not-too-shabby consolation prize.