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The Northern Rhône: A primer

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If Burgundy was where I first fell in love with French wines, then the Rhône Valley, specifically the Northern Rhône was where that love was cemented. Having been brought up on Shiraz, and Hunter Shiraz very early on, these Syrah wines were the wines that showed me what the grape was capable of.

Forget, especially if you’re Australian, what you think you know about Shiraz. Because Kansas is going bye-bye.

First, a bit of a history lesson from Australia.

Despite the more modern influx of local wines being labelled as ‘Syrah’, most Australian wines produced from Syrah are still labelled as ‘Shiraz’ – which begs the question, how did the grape come to be known as Shiraz in Australia in the first place?

A little bit of research doesn’t go astray here and the root of the issue seems to stem in misinterpretation. It was believed for a long time that the original Syrah vines that now inhabit the Northern Rhône came originally from the farmland surrounding the village of Shiraz in Persia (now modern day Iran) a couple of thousand years ago, being brought into the Rhône Valley by the Romans. Australian vignerons chose Shiraz to pay homage to the vine’s roots, so to speak.

Modern DNA tests have since proved that theory complete BS, but the name Shiraz has persisted – probably more for market reasons than anything else.

So, long story short, the terms Syrah and Shiraz are somewhat interchangeable when talking about the grape variety. For reasons of making things easier, I’ll refer to the grape as Syrah from here, as that it is how it’s known in the Rhône. (Incidentally, it really pisses me off when I see a line-up of Northern Rhône Syrah wines with a caption like ‘epic Shiraz tasting’ or the like. Grrr. End rant.)

Red wine is king in the Northern Rhône and all of the red wines come from Syrah. Not necessarily 100% Syrah, mind you – some have various proportions of the three white grapes added, either co-fermented or blended, – Roussanne, Marsanne, and Viognier. I’ll cover what appellations have which grapes further in.

Kind of like Burgundy, the appellation system in the Northern Rhône is relatively straight forward – probably more so than Burgundy.

At the base level is Côtes du Rhône – theoretically this can be made in the Northern Rhône, however such wines are exceedingly rare. Given that the only red grape permitted in this part of France is Syrah, making a Côtes du Rhône wine from a 100% Syrah from the Northern Rhône makes little sense – from neither a wine nor economic point of view.

Above the Côtes du Rhône classification sits the individual appellations – 6 geographic areas comprising of, in order from north to south, Côte Rôtie, Condrieu, Saint-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, and Cornas. That is the only feature of the appellation system in the Northern Rhône – there is no determination of Premier Cru or Grand Cru, or anything similar, nothing to indicate quality (other than perhaps price point).

Also like Burgundy, the secret to the Northern Rhône is knowing your geography. Each appellation produces wines distinctively different from each other.

Let’s start with the two easiest appellations to get your head around.

Condrieu, towards the northern end of the Valley, is the only appellation producing a white wine from 100% Viognier. No other region produces white wines with Viognier and, unlike the rest of the Northern Rhône, no red wine is produced at all. Therefore, if you read Condrieu on a label, it will be a white wine produced form Viognier. Simple stuff.

In a similar way, a single varietal wine is produced in Cornas, the southern most appellation in the North. However this time it’s a red wine, made from 100% Syrah. These wines are among the most full bodied examples of the region, they are deeply coloured and quite intense.

Directly above Cornas and running the length of the western bank of the Rhône is the longest appellation in the region – Saint-Joseph. A few white wines are made here from Marsanne and Roussanne, but the majority of the wines here are reds made from Syrah. Unlike Cornas, however, up to 10% Marsanne &/or Roussanne can be co-fermented with Syrah.

Terraced vineyards near the village of Tournon, in the south of the appellation, produce what is generally regarded as the best wines. The flatter, valley floor sites produce large volumes of light-bodied wines, often with a spicy pepper aroma, typical of the Syrah grape.

On the eastern bank of the Rhône comes, arguably, the two most important appellations of the Northern Rhône, just for very different reasons – Crozes-Hermitage and Hermitage.

Crozes-Hermitage is the most important appellations in terms of volume. The vineyards surround the hill of Hermitage, to the north on slopes and to the south on flatter plains. The red wines are Syrah with the addition of up to 15% Marsanne &/or Roussanne and quality is significantly impacted by vineyard location with price a key indicator. A small amount of whites are produced from Marsanne and Roussanne.

Hermitage is arguably the most important appellation in terms of quality, although many will (quite rightly) mount an argument for Côte Rôtie as the holy grail of Northern Rhône wines. Located on a steep south-facing slope behind the town of Tain-l’Hermitage, the appellation is broken up into a number of named vineyards, or lieux-dits, although these sites are not technically part of the appellation system.

Most high quality Hermitage wines are a blend of a number of these sites, however more recently a number of producers are releasing wines made from specific lieux-dits – call them ‘single vineyard’ equivalents. Up to 15% Roussanne &/or Marsanne can be added in the reds, however this is no longer usually practiced, the grapes used for white wines instead, and account for about 20% of Hermitage’s total production. Red Hermitage is generally regarded as the fullest bodied Northern Rhône red and ages particularly well.

Finally, at the top of the Northern Rhône comes Côte-Rôtie – the translation of which is ‘roasted slope’, giving some indication to the layout of the vineyards. Only reds are produced, and they may contain up to 20% Viognier. In practice, however, only a small proportion of Viognier is generally added. Deeply coloured, full bodied, and textural – these are some of the best reds from the entire Northern Rhône. Highly aromatic with florals and spice and can be aged for decades. My favourite Northern Rhône wine comes from Côte-Rôtie.

I find the Northern Rhône one of the best places to start to get your head around French wines – the number of grape varieties and geographic areas to know about are few, and the labelling is simple. Add into the fact that the main variety should be familiar to most palates and it becomes a great place to start understanding the complex beast that is French wine.

Next stop: not sure I want to do this, but we’re off to Bordeaux.

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