Posted on March 16th, 2009
While it’s easy to talk about a single region, like Bordeaux, Burgundy or indeed, the Rhône there are far more subtleties that lie within. Some of the differences can be accounted for by factors like the climate, the geography, the soil type and the grapes.
At it’s most basic, the Rhône is split between north and south. In this first of a two part series, I’ll cover the northern Rhône.
The northern Rhône
The northern Rhône has a continental climate with mainly granite soil and the reds are made from mostly Syrah. The whites are made mainly from Viognier, Rousanne, Marsanne and a few other relatively unknown grape varieties.
The northern Rhône is a much smaller region than the south, making 5% of the Rhone’s total volume. The valleys are steep and narrow with good draining granite soil. Steep vineyards means there’s no way the violent vine-shaking tractors on stilts can make it up the hill so hand-harvesting is essential.
The classifications of wine in the northern Rhône
There are the “generic” wines of Côtes du Rhône – which mean they can be made from grapes anywhere within the region. Up one level is the Côtes du Rhône Villages which has to be from vineyards around specific villages. Then at the top there are the AOC wines – wines made from a specific village. The best known are probably Côte Rôtie, Hermitage, St. Joseph and Cornas.
Côte Rôtie is the furthest north and is made with Syrah and up to 20% white grape, Viognier.
Hermitage is another revered classification on a steep, south-facing hillside surrounded by a bend in the river which reflects more sun onto the rows of vines. It can produced one of fullest-bodied of the French wines. There’s also some white produced in Hermitage, mainly from Rousanne.
Across the river from Hermitage, on flatter land is Crozes Hermitage. There’s less sun exposure, and poorer drainage and less suitable soil yet it can still produce some excellent wines.
While it’s made from the same grape, Syrah, Crozes Hermitage can be much cheaper than Hermitage which, for me, highlights the best thing about the Rhône, north or south. There’s good quality for every taste and every wallet.
Next week, a look at the wines from the southern Rhône.