Wine 101: French Wine Regions: Northern Rhône

This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by Louis M. Martini Winery, where an 85-year-old legacy of making Cabernet Sauvignon is still going strong. Everything Cabernet Sauvignon is celebrated at Martini: the history, the winemaking, the wine. Visit the Martini tasting room and sip Cab inside, outside, in a cabana, or an underground cellar, or try a full culinary exploration from the in-house chef. The people at Louis M. Martini winery are serious about Cab. Taste it, and you’ll know why Cab is king.

On this episode of “Wine 101,” host Keith Beavers begins a two-part series diving deeper into the Rhône, focusing first on the northern Rhône. Tune in for more.

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Keith Beavers: What’s going on wine lovers? From the VinePair podcasting network, this is the “Wine 101” podcast. My name is Keith Beavers. I am the tastings director of VinePair. Hi. Today we’re doing another deep dive into another region that we may have talked about in the past. It’s called the Rhône. You know it, you love it. We’re going to take it piece by piece. We’re going to start with a deep dive into the northern Rhône to do this.

Just like in the last two episodes, I’m going to dial in on the Rhône. In season two, I do an entire breakdown, as I did with Bordeaux, of the Rhône. Go ahead and take a listen to that before or after this episode because in this episode, we’re going to concentrate a little bit more on the northern Rhône. Then next week, we’re going to concentrate on the southern Rhône to give you guys a little bit of details on what’s going on in these places. In season two, I talked about how “ancient-ness” is so big here in the Rhône — how important the Rhône River has been since humans have been around.

A lot of that crazy stuff I’ll talk about in the next episode because of what happened in the southern Rhône — there was a papacy, and it was in Avignon, and it was pretty crazy and pretty impactful to the region. Today, we’re going to talk about the northern part of the Rhône. The thing about the northern part of the Rhône is it also has a lot of ancient-ness going on. In the fourth century BC, this was a time of Greek colonization. This is when they go over to the boot of Italy.

This is where they hit up southern France. At the mouth of the Rhône River, they built a town called — well, it’s now today called Marseille, but back then it was called the colony of Massalia. This begins big — this is where the documentation of the importance of the Rhône River begins, there at the mouth. They go up from there, and eventually, the northern Rhône becomes part of this world. By the first century A.D., the Romans were in control of this area and a little bit further up towards northern Rhône — almost towards the northern Rhône area, between the south and the north is this town called Donzère.

Right here is where the largest villa in antiquity has been excavated. A villa, today, means a very fancy, luxurious place, but back in antiquity, it meant a place for production. The stats say this thing was pretty huge for its time. It contained two storage bays, 204 dolia, or amphorae, wine vessels, and just for grain as well. But the thing is, this thing was in operation from 50 to 80 A.D. and produced 25 hectoliters of wine per year. In addition to grain, there are over 300 hectares of vines. A hectare is little over two and a half acres around there.

In addition to that, it had workshops to actually build dolia that the grain and the wine would go into. There was a major production facility right there in the Rhône Valley that’s been there since Roman times. Since the Greeks, the Romans, this place has been just — there are humans everywhere. Then the Romans fall, and then the whole area has hard times because that’s what happened in a lot of areas when the Romans fell.

Guess what came after the Romans to help things along? Yes, the monks. From here, the monks’ story turns into something important for the southern Rhône. We’ll get into that next episode because where there are monks, there are bishops. Where there are bishops, there are popes. And things get crazy, expansion happens. But you know where it doesn’t happen? In the northern Rhône. Yes, there was expansion in the northern Rhône, but not like we’re going to see in the southern Rhône. The northern Rhône is made up of these — there’s a short list of appellations that are considered prestigious. Not more so than southern Rhône. That’s not what it’s about, but it just seems that it’s a place that is isolated — small production, somewhat small production — with wines that are a direct result of the micro and mesoclimates they grow in, in a way that Burgundy and Bordeaux have, but different in its own.

I know that sounds confusing. I’m going to get into it. For example, let’s take Hermitage. Let’s start there. Hermitage — you’ve heard of it. If you haven’t, listen to the Rhône episode, but Hermitage is very small. It’s actually a large hill, but it’s a very small appellation. I was reading that Hermitage, as an AOC, as an appellation, is as large as one Bordeaux estate, to give you a sense of how small it is.

The legend goes that, after the Crusades, a knight by the name of Henri Gaspard de Sterimberg wanted to atone for all the sins that he sinned during the Crusades. He went up to the top of this hill on the Rhône River, built a little hut, planted vines, and lived a life of solitude. The word for hermit in French is ermite, E-R-M-I-T-E, and these wines were famous in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In the 19th century, the English were the main consumers of French wine. They had a lot of difficulties pronouncing this word. When they brought and sent barrels for trade, they put an ‘h’ in front of the ‘e’ to make it easier for them to say: Hermitage, not ermitage. I don’t know, they’re both pretty easy. Of course, I either over-pronounce or under-pronounce that. It’s this big, massive granite hill with a big mix of different soils facing the river.

If you’re on the Rhône River, and you’re looking up at this massive hill, right in front of it is this little town called Tain, T-A-I-N. Behind it is the Hermitage Hill, but the Hermitage — it looks like it’s actually falling toward the river. It’s still there. It’s not going anywhere, but it’s pretty massive. It’s almost like it’s avalanching toward this little town, but it’s stuck in its granite foreverness.

That’s the thing about this hill. Because of the granite, it’s chiseled, and it’s very steep, and the vineyards are hard to harvest. In addition to that, the mix of soils is so crazy that wines from here are often blended with terroir to give expressions. I’m going to do a soil episode at some point in the future, but for now, just know sandy gravel, limestone, and clay. These soils, in different proportions, make up the vineyard soil of this hill.

The cool thing is, like Burgundy, you have all these climates — these small plots of land that people harvest. There are different plots of soil that are blended to make a very complex Hermitage, but there are winemakers that can make a Syrah from their own soil. That, in itself, is a triumph in Hermitage. Like I say in the Rhône episode, this is on the right bank of the Rhône River.

I started with that one because I want to give you the scale of that rare expansion thing. When we go to the left part of the river, we’re going to go all the way north to Côte-Rôtie, which I talk about in the Rhône episode. Just to dial in on that for a second, because it’s very interesting what happens here. The Rhône, both south and north, like a lot of wine regions in Europe in the 1970s, was almost a little forgotten.

It wasn’t until the 1980s when Robert Parker came around to certain regions and glorified these places — and oh, my gosh, things started happening. One of those places is Côte-Rôtie. Côte-Rôtie is the spot where some people believe the first vines were cultivated in Gaul. The Romans were definitely here because there’s a very famous Roman town just nearby called Vienne.

Inland and north from a small, little port town on the Rhône River called Ampuis — I think it’s called Ampuis, A-M-P-U-I-S — are the slopes of Côte-Rôtie. The thing about this area is the way the river turns here. These slopes have maximum sun exposure because they’re cultivated in the extreme southeast. These vineyards are actually some of the steepest vineyards in France. They have to use pulley systems, at times, to harvest. It’s thought that these vineyards were cultivated, not by the Romans, but by a tribe the Romans took over at some point called the Allobroges. I don’t know if I’m pronouncing that correctly, but it’s awesome that, even to this day, these slopes are here. Because of the exposure to the sun, this is why the appellation is called Côte-Rôtie, which means roasted slope.

Like I said, for a while there, it wasn’t really considered anything. It became an AOC at some point, but — the work of the Guigal family, G-U-I-G-A-L. You will see this name everywhere on the American market. You will see it in supermarkets. You will see it in wine shops. The price range from this company is very wide, but they are a family-owned merchant and grower, and they’re based in that little town, Ampuis. Established in 1946, this is a family that was able to grab 75 acres of prime vineyard space in the Côte-Rôtie. Through many years and a lot of hard work and experimentation, the Guigal family had these three specific parcels — the best parcels of these 75 acres.

They made three wines from each parcel. The parcels’ names were La Mouline, La Landonne, and La Turque. I, again, do not know if I’m pronouncing these correctly. Obviously, it’s hard to pronounce them because the nickname for these three wines is the La-Las in America because who’s going to pronounce all three of these names? The thing is, these wines were unfined, unfiltered, dense with oak, and Robert Parker in the 1980s was like, “This is delicious,” and really put Côte-Rôtie on the map.

This is part of that ’80s boom when there was more going on — more winemakers and more regions were reworking how they made wine, cleaning up their cellars, cleaning up their vineyards, doing different things to attract international attention. All this attention, of course, would put pressure on for expansion. But like I said, the northern Rhône doesn’t really expand that much, but there was some expansion here. In the 1970s, there were about 70 hectares of vines in the Côte-Rôtie, and by the 1990s, there were 150 hectares. That’s some expansion, but again, going back to our Bordeaux example, 150 hectares is less than the largest Médoc estate. It’s still very small.

One thing I need to mention here is there are two sections of Côte-Rôtie that have names. There is Côte Blonde, which is in the southern part, and Côte Brune, which is the northern part. At one time, it was thought that Côte Blonde was lighter and more, I guess, elegant or live than Côte-Brune. Really, what I hear today with people in Côte-Rôtie is a blend of both is a real expression of this area. When you’re out there, looking at Côte-Rôtie, it’s going to be very expensive wine. When you’re talking to the wine merchant, maybe ask them, “What is this one? A mix of these slopes? How does this work?” so you get a sense of what you’re tasting.

Sticking with the whole steep slope, small production thing is the region just south of Côte-Rôtie called Condrieu. Whereas I mentioned in the Rhône episode, Côte-Rôtie blends both red and white, sometimes Syrah and Viognier. Condrieu is exclusively white wine from one grape, Viognier, and again, in small amounts. Condrieu is made up of seven communes across three departments south of Rôtie. The thing about this area is, again, it also has these very granitic, steep, slopey vineyards.

Here, they talk of a very specific soil composition of decomposed mica, or as they say, arzel. Of course, I’ll talk about mica in our soil episode a little bit more, but the reason I’m telling you this is that this is usually around the village of Chavanay. It’s thought that this is the area that expresses the purest form of Viognier. This region — this small little appellation — is actually the reason we plant Viognier in the United States and around the world. It’s to try to achieve the Viognier quality and style that Condrieu has. It’s almost like trying to grow Sauvignon Blanc and make it into a wine, and get as close to Sancerre as you can. These wines are expensive because of the small production. I think, in 2013 — I’m sure there’s more now, but probably not a lot. In 2013, there were only 415 acres in the entire appellation. With the terrain and the hills here, it almost makes expansion even more impossible. It’s cool.

It’s like terroir says, “Stop here.” What’s unique about Condrieu is it’s a small appellation. But within its appellation, it has an enclave, or enclave appellation, which is actually one of the smallest appellations in France. It’s named after a château. Right on the bank of the river, there’s this beautiful château, and surrounding it is an almost — it’s an amphitheater of granite, chiseled vineyards in granite. It’s an absolutely stunning site. Because it’s so important and has its own AOC, Thomas Jefferson is recorded as enjoying the wines from here.

It’s always been under single ownership. The production is, as you can imagine, minute. Barely 2,000 cases of wine are made a year here. The thing about this is, this wine is small production and it’s absolutely phenomenal. I’ve never had them. All I hear about is how amazing this stuff is. The thing about Viognier is, Viognier isn’t a very age-worthy variety, even though these places are so famous. Actually, that’s why Condrieu is so wild, because these wines are small production — absolutely amazing. It’s one of the purest expressions of Viognier on the planet, but drink it in the first five years. Of course, I was reading that there’s a younger generation working at the château now that are trying to create more age-worthy Viognier.

I wonder if that’s happening in Condrieu as well. Interesting. As we continue down the west bank of the Rhône River, we go through the very long Saint-Joseph region. I’m not going to talk about that because I talked a lot about that — enough about that in the Rhône episode. I want to talk about the more focused appellations that you’re going to see on the American market. Just south of Saint-Joseph, as you’re listening to in the Rhône episode, is Cornas.

Even though we’re down toward the southern part of northern Rhône, we’re still a ways away from northern Rhône. We’re still in that granite vibe, if you feel me. There’s also some sand and some chalk, and it’s rocky. Again, we’ll be having a soil episode at some point. This is a place where, as Condrieu does only Viognier, Cornas does only Syrah.

There are no white wines produced in Cornas. It’s also quite small. Its claim to fame is that King Charlemagne really dug the wines from here. There’s only, to this day, about 90 hectares of vines. These are very unique Syrah from the ones you would get from Hermitage. They’re denser. They’re fuller. They have more meat to them. Hermitage does as well, but there’s a density to these wines that you don’t get in Hermitage or Crozes-Hermitage. Just like Crozes-Hermitage is the lighter version of Hermitage in a much larger area — a little bit less consistency and quality, even though there’s really great quality there.

That is why I’m not mentioning Saint-Joseph, because Saint-Joseph, just north of Cornas, is sort of that. It’s a very long strip of land with Syrah and some Marsanne-Roussanne, but it’s a little bit less consistent. The thing about Saint-Joseph is — whether it’s consistent or not, it’s really great because it’s affordable and a really great entry into the northern Rhône, but Cornas tends to be a little bit more expensive. But it’s more concentrated, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to get that crazy terroir almost every time. Of course, it’s going to change a little bit with certain sectors like Quartier-Reynard. This is an area that is mostly granitic. It’s going to have a certain expression to it. Then there’s other expressions that have more clay and stuff like that. Also, the thing about Cornas, to understand it is — in the northern Rhône, it produces the most wine in the northern Rhônes.

When you’re out there in shops, you’re going to see a lot of Cornas. Sometimes it brings down the price just a little bit because of the amount that’s made. Know that this is a beautiful, deep expression of Syrah. Those are the most we’re going to see on the American market. Just south of Cornas is a place called Saint-Péray, and those are Marsanne-Roussanne blend white wines. Only 75 hectares are there. We just won’t see a lot of that in the American market, but keep an eye out. It’s there. They’re wonderful. They’re deep. They’re round. They’re luscious for white wines. They have great expressions of aromatics. Next round, we’re going to the south. We’re gonna get real nice with some history and break that place apart. See you next week.

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And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big old shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darby Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.

E. & J. Gallo Winery is excited to sponsor this episode of VinePair’s “Wine 101.” Gallo always welcomes new friends to wine with an amazingly wide spectrum of favorites, ranging from everyday to luxury and sparkling wine. (Gallo also makes award-winning spirits, but this is a wine podcast.) Whether you are new to wine or an aficionado, Gallo welcomes you to wine. Visit today to find your next favorite, where shipping is available.