Atlas Entry: Northern Rhône

The Rhône’s source is in the Alps, through Lake Geneva. It comes downhill from the Savoie. It carries Alpine glacial sediments all of the way to the Mediterranean. The water’s name, like the Rhine, derives from the same proto-Indo-European root, *rei-: running, flowing, churning.

When we talk about the ‘northern’ Rhône, we’re talking about a little section of this long journey. Down a stretch starting at Vienne, just south of Lyon, the topography starts to look special. The river is carving a wide basin through the east side of a metamorphic plateau, the big granite and schist Massif Central that bulges across France. To its west is the Ardèche, a complicated landscape of rolling hills, forests, and lava domes.

Clinging to stakes, buffeted by the cold mistral wind from the north, backed by apricot trees, its vines huddle on the plunging slopes of its right bank. (That’s west; we’re running south; I can never keep riverbanks straight, and have a terrible sense of direction anyway.) The vines themselves have Alpine origins: syrah and the white grapes so often co-planted with it were born in Isère, and their cousins stretch from the Savoie (where roussanne is grown) to Alpine Italy.

Just a little south of where this map ends, the vibes shift. The hairpin river valley widens to a delta, the geology changes from volcanoes to ancient sea beds, the topography flattens to plains dotted with olive trees and brush that goes brown in the summer, the weather gets warm and Mediterranean. The vines have a lot more to do with what traveled along the sea coast, from Genoa to Provence to Catalunya: grenache (garnatxa) of all colors, mourvèdre (monastrell), vermentino (folle blanche), picpoul and cinsault. And there are a lot of them: the southern Rhône’s prestige anchor of Châteauneuf-du-Pape has more land under vine (3,200ha) than the entire northern Rhône. Once you factor in the rest of the south, often bottled generically as ‘Côtes’ (slopes) of the Rhône, we’re talking something like 50,000 hectares. That’s versus the northern Rhône’s 3,000-odd.

So the northern Rhône is marginal: its historically treasured sites are steep, hard to work, and not getting any bigger. The wines of Hermitage may have been esteemed (so much so that they were habitually carted up north in the 19th century as blending material to strengthen fancy Bordeaux, kind of a backhanded compliment really) but the entire hillside of Hermitage is smaller than the vineyards around the village of Vosne-Romanée. And until relatively recently, things in the whole region were getting worse, not better. In the late ’60s, Côte-Rôtie was down to 70 hectares and dwindling. Viognier was almost extinct, holding on to a dozen hectares in Condrieu.

Fame, when it came, was strange. Viognier went from a nothing variety to disco superstar, planted in a million places where it didn’t belong. Syrah went from a micro-regional specialty to international brand name. Merchant houses (E. Guigal, in Ampuis; Paul Joublet Ainé and M. Chapoutier, in Tain-l’Hermitage) paved the way, often making a flagship northern Rhône wine from estate fruit in a prestige place (Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage) and brand extension lines sourced from purchased fruit further afield. It’s no surprise it can be hard to remember the difference between the two Rhônes in a world where you can still get both Châteuneuf and Hermitage from the same label.

(Guigal earns particular mention for eventually debuting three different lavishly extracted, high-gloss new oak single parcel wines in Côte-Rôtie [La Moulin, 1966; La Landone, 1978; La Turque, 1985] that gave collectors something to spend on at just the moment that lavish extraction and high-gloss new oak was at its high water mark. These are the sorts of classic wine facts that I had to learn once by rote, and now you’re paying the price.)

The northern Rhône isn’t just about syrah, but the two are deeply intertwined. And syrah’s undeniable savory aromatics, the way its lavender and olive brine and bacon fat feel immediately recognizable and unlike anything else the first time you rn into it, make the region’s symbiotic relationship with the grape a big part of the reason why it imprints so formatively on a lot of young wine professionals. Saint-Joseph rouge was the first wine I nailed blind in front of an audience. There’s a whole generation of sommeliers who preceded me in the aughts who truffled out value and unsung heroes in this region and turned them into canon. Bottles of Dard & Ribo Saint-Joseph or Jamet Côte-Rôtie coming out of ice buckets in a taquería at 2 a.m. were a certain flavor of industry tell, once.

And now? Time keeps passing. Access keeps getting trickier, linked to scale (tiny) and price (increasing exponentially). So many of the old-school growers in that canon have retired, or passed away: Marius Gentaz, Robert Michel, Noël Verset, Marcel Juge; Alain Graillot, this year. Others are allocated into near-invisibility: Thierry Allemand, Pierre Gonon. Just a handful of years ago, a list of under-the-radar finds would have included a few of those names.

It’s no surprise that the value and dynamism is populating mostly on the fringes. Jean-Michel Stéphan, virtually alone in Côte-Rôtie in his farming, was joined by his son in 2017 and planted 5 hectares just out of bounds of the appellation, the rare example of a cult natural wine figure whose wines might be just a little easier to find now as his plantings grow. Even if the only thing that might keep them accessible is their status as not quite Côte-Rôtie. Cornas, always a bit remote from the region’s money/power centers in Ampuis and Tain, has become a last refuge for the quietly pre-modern.

Down the tiny hairpin turns of the Doux tributary, which joins the Rhône across from Hermitage, Hervé Souhaut continues to grow gamay, merlot, syrah, and a mixed plot of the region’s white varieties, as he has since 1993, all vinified with a light touch and carbonic lift. (“The gamay tastes like syrah, and the syrah tastes like gamay” is how I’ve been explaining these wines tableside for years.)

South of St.-Péray but before the region’s geology truly gives out, Eric Texier has been rejuvenating villages properly part of the region but virtually abandoned after phylloxera, like St.-Julien-en-St. Alban and Brézème. Cornas’ Franck Balthazar now has a vineyard even further south in Vinsobre, and the easiest way to find a wine on a store shelf from Cornas’ Matthieu Barret is from his négociant project just next door, in Visan.

And just a word on the region’s deeply unfashionable white wines, most of the white grapes being used to co-ferment with the syrah, fix color and give aromatic lift. Oily, rich, and driven by the opposite of acidity though they might be, they can also be something very special in the right hands and in the right place. I’m thinking of Texier’s vieille vigne marsannes and roussannes, often with a little bit of skin contact; Dard & Ribo’s Saint-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitages blancs, probably the most distinctive and special wines they make; and Souhaut’s version of same. They don’t have the electric acidity of chenin or manseng or riesling. The illumination is coming from somewhere different; candlelight, maybe.

When someone does a bad job, ok: they’re chowder, they’re bisque, they’re gloop and rust. But when they’re great I don’t think there’s anything else quite like them.

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