In the Rhone Valley, the wine landscape is split into two distinct parts: the north and south. Wildly different from the warm Mediterranean south, Northern Rhone is home to the famous Shiraz/Syrah grape, where it ripens its peppery dark fruit flavours in steep hills carved out by Romans. But, it’s not all red wine here…
Northern Rhone: An Overview
The Northern Rhone is characterized by its steep hillside vineyards. These terraces were originally carved out by Roman soldiers, and bring to mind a similar landscape in the Douro. Unlike the Southern Rhone, which has big generic appellations like Cotes du Rhone, pulling grapes from all over the region, the north has a much smaller scale and boutique production feel to it.
In fact, in the entire Rhone Valley, the north makes up about 5% of total production. With no big regional appellation, all of their wines are crafted into one of 8 small “cru” or village appellations, making their wines a bit pricier than those of the south. But, there are still great deals to be had here. Here is a list of all 8 appellations, from north to south:
- Côte Rôtie (Syrah/Viognier)
- Condrieu (Viognier)
- Château Grillet (Viognier)
- Saint Joseph (Syrah/Marsanne/Roussanne)
- Crozes Hermitage (Syrah/Marsanne/Roussanne)
- Hermitage (Syrah/Marsanne/Roussanne)
- Cornas (Syrah)
- Saint Péray (Marsanne/Roussanne)
If you can tell, there is a mix of red and white grapes: with Syrah being King here, the only red allowed to be planted, with Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussane on duty for whites. The interesting thing here is that this region is known for making red wines with considerable amounts of whites to it.
Of these 8 appellations, some are much more important and common than others. Côte Rôtie, Condrieu, and Saint Péray will be discussed in more detail, as they all have different wine styles and will cover your bases in understanding the wines of the Northern Rhone.
Côte Rôtie AOP Wines
The northern most appellation in the north, Côte Rôtie has some of the most expensive wines coming in the valley. But, there is a wide range of price levels while keeping quality at the top end, so there are plenty of wines within financial reach.
Meaning “roasted slope” in French, Côte Rôtie show off best the landscape of the Northern Rhone. These steeply angled hillsides, rising over 1000ft above sea level are some of the most dramatic sights in the valley.
The best vineyards will all face south and south east, capitalizing on every minute of sun exposure they can get. Even though this is Southern France, the weather can be unpredictable. Cold and strong winds from the north blow down from the Alps, and at times have a habit of damaging or even ripping out vines. The sharp incline help to minimize this, but not too much: these strong winds also help keep the vineyards dry and disease free.
Based on Syrah with up to 20% Viognier allowed, these wines are worlds apart from your Australian Shiraz: medium bodied, with high acidity, and savoury meaty flavours like bacon fat, cured sausages, pepper, green olives, and raspberry are what drives these wines. The white Viognier grape helps to stabilize the colour of the wine, adds aromatics, and lightens the body to make these wines even more food friendly. 20% might be allowed, but single digit percentage is the norm.
While some winemakers are experimenting with new oak barrels, traditional Côte Rôtie will not have any of these flavours, instead maturing in large old barrels that do not give any flavours. With savoury wines like these, pair with anything like cassoulet, spicy grilled sausages, duck breast, or even a gourmet meat heavy pizza.
Condrieu AOP Wines
As one of the few white wine appellation of the Northern Rhone, Condrieu is known for 100% Viognier offerings. Just downstream from Côte Rôtie, Condrieu is along a winding area of the Rhone river. At a lower altitude, and less inclined vineyard sites, Condrieu gets the brunt of the strong northern winds. Damage to vines here isn’t uncommon, and adds to the price of each bottle.
These old vines plantings of Viognier, the small acreage of Condrieu, and the absurdly low yields all make these wines a bit on the pricier side, but still much cheaper than the white wines of Burgundy to the north.
In the past, production was centered on off dry wines and other high sugar styles, fitting in with tastes at the time. Nowadays, more people are looking for dry wine styles, especially when being served with meals.
These Viognier wines are known for their intense fruit flavours like peach, apricot, white flowers, and melons. When poured, deep golden colours bring to mind an oaked Chardonnay, which in terms of weight and texture they are very similar to. But in Condrieu, oak is avoided as it can easily overpower the fruit forward flavours.
Because of this, Condrieu is best served young to not let these intense fruit flavours dull. Best served with lobster, chicken, salmon, or crab cakes with mango salsa. Take care to not pair with overly acidic dishes or sauces, as the low acid in Viognier can get wrestled into submission with tangy ingredients.
Saint Péray AOP Wines
And lastly, the final stop on the winding northern section of the Rhone, the Saint Péray appellation. Made in very small quantities, Saint Péray grows only white grapes. Making very little still white wine, their focus is on producing traditional method sparkling wine.
Using Marsanne and Roussanne, this area is a bit different from other appellations of the north. Being the furthest south, the climate and weather here is warmer, helping to ripen grape sugars. But, the unique soil in the area and high mineral content give a much different flavour to the wines.
Similar to quality Chenin Blanc based wines like Vouvray, Saint Péray still whites will offer flavours of bees wax, white flowers, golden apples, honey, apricot, and even nuts. Unlike their whites to the north like Condrieu, Saint Péray does benefit from bottle age, mellowing out and picking up more spicy and nutty flavours as they age.
With high acidity, rich and full body, and bright flavours, Saint Péray is best paired with foods like veal, fish with cream sauces, roast game birds, or grilled river fish.