Guide to the Northern Rhone

At Flatiron, in the shops and in our newsletter, we talk a lot about the Northern Rhone. We love it, and based on our sales, we’re pretty sure you do too. It’s also a personal interest of mine: this is a region that provides quite a lot of the wine that I drink and cellar. I’m definitely not special in this regard. I don’t think of myself as a trend-follower, but the Northern Rhone is definitely a trend. As a region it ranks up there with Burgundy and Piedmont as one of the wine regions that gets us wine folk most excited these days. If you haven’t paid attention to the region yet, it’s time to start.

And if you’re already drinking the wines, I’m sure you’ll find something new and interesting in this series of posts. The main grape of the Northern Rhone is, of course, Syrah. It’s the only red wine grape permitted to grow there, and it produces 95% of the wine. It dominates the Northern Rhone like Riesling dominates the Mosel, or – to a lesser extent – Nebbiolo dominates Piedmont. I answer all your questions about Syrah in this earlier post. Here, the focus is on the grape’s mother region. We’ll just do an overview today. In the next few weeks I’ll start delving into individual AOC’s and villages.


The Northern Rhone: What’s all the fuss?

The Northern Rhone, like Burgundy, speaks to exactly what a lot of wine lovers are looking for these days. Why do people love it? Why do I love it? Why do you? There are three different things that are driving all the fuss these days.
  • Finesse and Elegance
Gone are the days when wine consumers in America sought to maximize oak and jam in their wine. We now want finesse and elegance. The Northern Rhone is able to deliver. This is mostly due to climate. The Northern Rhone is the most southerly French wine region that still has a northern personality. It’s cool enough that Syrah is only just able to fully ripen there. Go just a little south of here, and it is easy to produce fruit bombs, and so often the challenge is simply reigning in the ripeness. But in the Northern Rhone – like in Burgundy or the Loire -- the coolness of the climate naturally produces wines that emphasize acidity, terroir and minerality over fruit. That is really important.
  • Terroir and Exploration
Look at today’s other “hot” regions, Piedmont and Burgundy. Both of them feature single variety wines that respond with sensitivity to slight changes in terroir. The differences between Gevrey Chambertin and Chambolle Musigny, or between Barolo and Barbaresco, are profound. Even within a single village, it is remarkable how wines produced just a couple hundred yards apart can display different nuances. Face the vineyard slightly more to the south, change slightly the mix of limestone and clay in the soil, increase by a few degrees the aspect of the vineyard…and boom, the wines change! The Northern Rhone has exactly the same thing going on. The red wines are for the most part single variety wines, made entirely from Syrah, with occasionally just a dash of something else. And there is no confusing Cornas from Cotie Rotie. They are completely different. Even within a village the differences can be significant, and there is no greater pleasure among wine geeks than, say, learning to distinguish a Cote Blonde from a Cote Brune. Wine drinkers love this, because it means they can explore and learn. They can really geek out on the wines. They can – with time and patience, as it takes a while to figure this stuff out – find the highly individualized experiences that make this world such a special place.
  • Stories and Traditions
Another thing you’ll notice that the Northern Rhone has in common with other popular regions is that it’s been around for a long time. Wine-making here goes back to the Romans, and maybe earlier. In part, this is important because it takes time to really develop a high-quality wine region. The monks of Burgundy famously experimented for a thousand years to figure out exactly where they should grow Chardonnay and where they should grow Pinot Noir. The farmers of the. Northern Rhone have been producing Syrah for millennia, and some of them were monks too. These are people who, over many generations, have had the time they need to figure out how to produce great wine from their land. But it’s also that wine consumers these days love tradition and authenticity. Drinking wine just like it was made two generations back is like time travel. It’s comforting to the drinker to know that that they really are getting the benefit of the wisdom accumulated over those millennia. It signals that the wine is not crafted for international markets, but is truly just its authentic self, a product of local history and tradition. For a time, these authentic experiences were actually hard to find in the Northern Rhone. So many producers, for example, broke with tradition and started using new barriques to impart oak flavors to the wine. But those that stuck to traditions – guys like Noel Verset in Cornas – ended up being treated like heroes by the marketplace, and the prices for their wines sky-rocketed. The traditionalists won the day. And that became part of the story!

So What Kind of Wine do they Make there?

If you saw our Q&A on Syrah, you’ll know that the Northern Rhone is the motherland of that noble grape. The Northern Rhone is to Syrah like Piedmont is to Nebbiolo or Burgundy to Pinot Noir. Like in those other regions, the wines come in different shapes and sizes, depending on the terroir of the vineyards and the style of the producer. But in very general terms, the Syrahs of the Northern Rhone are less fruit forward than examples from, say, Australia, California or the Languedoc. This is because, as noted above, the Northern Rhone is a cooler climate region and it is harder to produce ripe fruit. Perhaps because there is less fruit, the Northern Rhones often show more mineral and terroir nuance, and more acidity, than you find in Syrah from elsewhere. Syrah here does, like elsewhere, show lots of structure, although it is sometimes intentionally produced here in a non-extractive style that is meant to be lighter and more drinkable at a young age (a vin de soif). The Northern Rhone also has white wine. The principal grapes – the only “legal” ones -- are Viognier, Marsanne and Rousanne. Sometimes they are bottled as single varietal wines, sometimes they are blended together (though Viognier is rarely blended with the other white grapes), and sometimes they are blended with Syrah. The white grapes are definitely not as important as the red grapes in the Northern Rhone, making up only about 5% of the wine. So this is not like Burgundy where red and white are pretty much equal.  That said, the whites are important and interesting enough that we’ll dedicate a blog post in this series to the white wines of the Northern Rhone.

Time for a Little History

As mentioned above, the Northern Rhone has as long a wine history as just about anywhere in Western Europe outside of Southern Italy. Lots has happened! Sure, much of it is boring, so here I’ve just got the highlights that every wine-lover should know.
  • It also starts with the Romans
As you know from Asterix, the Romans conquered Gaul. Where they could, they planted vineyards. Appearing around 50 A.D., writings appear suggesting that wine was brought from the Northern Rhone to Rome for drinking and tasting. Even Pliny the Elder mentions the wines!
  • The Dark Ages Happened
Yep, the Dark Ages really sucked.  It’s not just that life was brutish, nasty and short. It was also really hard to sell wine. Local wine production became limited once the Roman Empire collapsed and through the 9th century the locals just made what they could drink themselves (and hide from nearby marauders).
  • The Monks Take Over
The Dark Ages came to a close when the Church, and its network of monks and abbeys, brought order to the Northern Rhone. I know, your eyes are glazing over! Who cares about ecclesiastical land grabs in 10th Century France? Wine lovers do! Basically, throughout the history of Europe, nobody has done a better job of maintaining vineyard land than...you guessed it...monks. Think about it. If you’re a monk, you’re part of a fervent movement that expects to be the tending the same land hundred or even two hundred years in the future. You think long term. You also have the benefit of protection. Back then, aristocrats thought nothing of seizing their neighbor’s land. But if that land were held by the Church, that was another story. The Vikings did it, because they were pagans (which is one of the reasons many great wine regions are a safe 100 miles from the coast), but most Lords and Barons felt that it was better for their souls to simply let the monks do their thing. And in these parts, that was making wine.
  • Northern Rhone has its First Golden Age
From about 1600 to the late 19th century, things were pretty good for wine producers in the Northern Rhone. This is the period when their wines developed an international reputation. They shipped casks through Europe’s complex network of rivers and canals to reach markets in Northern Europe. More importantly, perhaps, they sent these casks West, to Bordeaux. Bordeaux was a great port and an important wine center, so from here wine could be exported to England, Russia and America. Some of it, of course, stayed in Bordeaux and was used to strengthen the local wine! Note that, like in Burgundy, virtually all the wine produced in this period was sold in casks and handled by merchants (negociants). With the exception of a few names in Hermitage, Cote Rotie and Chateau Grillet, it was only after World War II that you start to see bottlings from individual grower-producers.
  • The Northern Rhone has a Really Bad 100 Years
This part of the story could be told of just about every major wine region in Europe. The 1870s to 1970s were really hard. It started with phylloxera, a disease that wiped out all wine production until it was discovered that you could graft European wine varieties to American rootstocks that are resistant to the disease. After that, producers found it really hard to get the industry back on its feet. World Wars and the Great Depression are not good for wine sales. Most locals found it easier to sell off their vineyard land so that someone could build a new gas station or housing development. The amount of vineyard land in the region shrunk dramatically, and some wine villages and AOC’s were almost wiped out entirely. Nobody seemed to care about the Northern Rhone any more.
  • The Return of the Jedi
OK, not real live Jedi, but heroic Americans like Kermit Lynch, and, yes, Robert Parker entered the scene and saved the day. There’s actually some truth to that! But that was in the 1980s, and John Livingstone-Learmonth, with his non-American perspective (see the end of this blog post for more on the great JLL), says that the revival began in the 1970s, and that it was actually thanks to his home country of Britain. His version of the story may lack Star Wars-level drama, but it does have the ring of truth. Basically, Bordeaux and Burgundy vintages in the 1970s were for the most part pretty bad. The British wine trade were forced to turn to the Northern Rhone, which had a few good vintages the 1970s, and consumers followed. JLL backs up this story with impressive figures. British imports from the Northern Rhone quadrupled in the decade; American imports actually declined by around 10%. But after that, the story that is somewhat familiar to most American lovers definitely played out. Kermit Lynch really did find producers like Chave, Trollat and Verset. Robert Parker really did say nice things about Chave in his widely followed works. The Northern Rhone was back on the map.
  • The Northern Rhone’s Second Golden Age
This is when things get really exciting. A Golden Age began, and we’re still in it today. But Golden Ages are never simple. Like JLL says, it seems to have started with awakening interest in the British market. And then in the 1980s the Americans got in on the act. That was good…until it was bad. Robert Parker got a little carried away awarding high scores to oaky ripe wines, so many Northern Rhoners started making wines in a style that pleased him and his followers. American consumers eventually realized that was no good, and suddenly everyone wanted to drink wines made by the hold-outs who had never abandoned Northern Rhone traditions. That’s when wines made by traditionalists like Verset and Gentaz-Dervieux suddenly became really hot. All of this was given an assist by Burgundy, which after the 2005 vintage started charging a lot more for their wines. A lot of collectors needed somewhere else to get their elegant wines, and the Northern Rhone beckoned, just on the other side of Lyon. At the same time, many producers have learned the lessons of Verset – and his wines’ market success – and the area started steering back towards more traditional wine-making, though this time with new  touches like biodynamic farming and improved grape sorting. And this is where we stand today. There are a lot of producers making great wine. A tiny handful of them make elite wines that are very expensive, but plenty others continue to make very high-quality wines that are reasonably priced for what they offer. Global warming threatens to stir things up, but for now it has mostly brought good vintages (2015 through 2018 may well be remembered as a legendary sequence). Things in the Northern Rhone are as Golden as ever!

Let’s Talk Terroir

  • The Northern Rhone is a Piece of String
I like to come up with simple models to understand the geography of wine regions. For Burgundy, there is nothing easier to understand than the east-facing slope that runs north to south, with the Grand Cru slopes mid-slope, and the premier crus just above and below. What is the best model for understanding the Northern Rhone? A lengthy piece of string. That string is the Rhone River, running north to south with a few random meanderings thrown in. Hills stick to the string like honey. On those hills are slopes with vines. The biggest clumps are at the north and south ends. The south end has the warmest hills. Here you find Cornas, Hermitage (along with its satellite Croze-Hermitage), and St. Peray. The northern clump is cooler, and here you find Cote Rotie and the great Viogner appellations of Condrieu and Chateau Grillet. But there is honey all along the string. Between the clumps you have a thin line of wine producing hills. Together, they make up the AOC of St. Joseph. That honey tends to clump on the west, on the right bank of the river (left on the map, sure, but on your right if you are the river flowing south to the Mediterranean). All the AOCs lie there, except for Hermitage and its little brother Crozes, on the east. It’s just another way that Hermitage is special.
  • Take the Temperature
I describe the Northern Rhone as cool climate, but it’s all relative. It’s average growing season temperature is around 16-18.5 degrees Celsius (a number that has been increasing as a result of global warming), which is around the same as Bordeaux, but not as cool as Burgundy or Champagne. There are even some New World regions that are a little cooler, like the Willamette Valley in Oregon. But if you take the country of France as a whole and needed to divide it in two between cool and warm, that line would run through the border of Southern and Northern Rhone. The Northern Rhone really does emphasize structure and acidity. Just about everything to its south emphases fruit. By the way, the Northern Rhone, though small, is just long enough that there is difference between the northern clump (basically Cote Rotie) and the southern clump (Hermitage and, even further south, Cornas), of about one degree Celsius at any moment. That may sound like a small difference, but it is easily detectable in the taste of the wines. Cote Roties behave like Burgundies: structured, yes, but with high tones and an airy personality. Cornas, on the other hand, seem to shade just slightly towards the country reds from the South of France: bold, rustic, riper. Hermitage is so majestic that it seems to rise above mere considerations of temperature.
  • It’s all about Granite
The Northern Rhone is just big enough to have a fair bit of variation in the soils, but it’s small enough – the region as a whole is not even the size of Chateauneuf-du-Pape! – that it’s easy to make one important generalization: Granite is king. We don’t really know why granite is so important for Syrah. Scientists focus on its drainage qualities, but it’s not clear to me if that’s because drainage is the most important explanation, or if drainage is simply the easiest explanation for scientists to observe. I would also think that drainage is good for any kind of grape, so the explanation is missing the special link to Syrah (although it must be said that granite soils also work admirably with Albarino in Galicia, Gamay in Beaujolais and in several other place/grape combinations). The Northern Rhone isn’t just granite. There is clay. There is schist. There is variation in the soils. We will delve into this as we start exploring the Northern Rhone’s villages, in the next post.
  • Winds Matter
While the Southern Rhone has its Mistral, the Northern Rhone has the “Bise”, a wind that blows in from the north. This regulates the temperature, of course, but it also acts like a hair dryer for the vines. After a rainfall during the harvest period, nothing can rescue the day like a good Bise. And throughout the season, the drying effect of the wind prevents disease from setting in. It reminds us of how so many little things have to come together in just the right way to produce incredible terroir. You just can’t expect to make great wine wherever you can ripen grapes!

Wine-Making

The concept of “traditional wine-making” appears not just in this blog post several times but also in the popular story about the Northern Rhone. I won’t go into a boring diatribe about what exactly “tradition” means in the context of wine, but will rather just give a very short set of bullets that describe what most of us mean when we talk about traditional wine-making in the Northern Rhone context.
  • Whole cluster fermentation. Modern producers will remove grapes from the stems before fermenting. A fervent traditionalist will ferment with the stems. Of course, the less fervent you are, the more likely you are to employ partial destemming or to reserve your whole cluster only for certain cuvees (as Robert Michel used to do).
  • Natural yeast fermentation. Some modern producers will introduce purchased yeasts to begin the fermentation. A fervent traditionalist would allow the fermentation to begin with ambient yeasts; like with anything else, there are also middle approaches available, like introducing yeasts captured in the vineyards.
  • Lighter extraction. All red wines require some extraction, so this one is just a spectrum, and of course it depends on the style of the desired wine. But here things are roughly the opposite of, say, Burgundy or Piedmont, where tradition dictated greater extraction and modern wine-making dials it back. In the Northern Rhone, it was the modernists who tended to increase the amount of extraction (through pump-overs, punching down, longer macerations and the like).
  • Avoiding modern techniques like reverse osmosis, micro-oxygenation and the like.
  • Aging the wine in larger neutral vessels rather than in new small barrels (barriques).
There are a few other bullets that are relevant to wine production in the Northern Rhone, although these are not necessarily factors that anyone associates with traditional or non-traditional wine-making:
  • There used to be some fining and filtration of the wines, but that practice is now quite rare.
  • Farming has becoming increasingly organic in recent years, after a nasty swing towards chemicals that started in the post-war era. A few producers are also practicing or experimenting with biodynamic farming.
  • Green harvests are commonly employed today in order to control yields and promote riper tannins.
  • Thorough sorting is now far more common than in the fairly recent past. There are far fewer “off” grapes going into vats these days than in the 1980s or even 1990s.
These factors, together with global warming, ensure that – whether or not you’re a fervent traditionalist -- the wines you make today are probably quite a bit different than what was made in the 1960s and 1970s. For now, it’s probably all good. But global warming is not over and temperatures continue to increase. How much longer will this Golden Age last?

Further Reading

It would be remiss of me to write a post like this and not give lots of credit to John Livingstone-Learmonth and his epic work The Wines of the Northern Rhone. Of course, I relied heavily on that book in writing this post and others, and if you are seriously interested in the Northern Rhone you should definitely buy a copy for yourself. It’s not cheap, but it’s worth it. What is cheap – in fact free – is our newsletter, which contains at least one article per month on the wines of the Northern Rhone and sometimes more (not to mention plenty of stories on other interesting regions as well). And, although we have over 70 Northern Rhones in stock at the time of this writing, we also get plenty of hard-to-find Rhones that never make it on to our web site because they sell out from the newsletter. Sign up for that, and do check back here frequently for more posts on the Northern Rhone. In the meantime, click here, to shop the Northern Rhone. 

READ MORE:

Wine Q&A: Syrah, top to bottom

A Simple Guide to German Riesling: Flatiron Wines’ German Riesling 101

Wine 101: How to Taste like a Pro

Where to Search for your Reasonable Cellar in 2019


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Jeff Patten