When we hear ‘Rhône’ we often think of Côtes du Rhône, a fairly simple, fruity Grenache-led red wine, usually from the Southern Rhône. Yet the Northern Rhône, whilst much smaller than its southern sister, produces some of the finest wines from the region. With its steep slopes (and for the best vineyards, southerly aspects) it’s home to the thick-skinned Syrah grape, also known as Shiraz in some of the New World.
The Northern Rhône produces mainly premium wines, due to the expense resulting from growing vines on its steep slopes, the hand harvesting required, and the constant battle with the powerful cold mistral winds that come from the north of France. This does mean however that the region is packed with fantastic small appellations, with Saint-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage being the only larger areas.
Let’s start at the Northernmost, and arguably finest, point of the region at Côte Rôtie. With a name that translates to “roasted slope,” the Syrah grape ripens happily in good vintages, and the best Côte Rôtie wines are fetching prices reminiscent of first growth Bordeaux. Here, full-bodied, deeply coloured, spicy wines with black fruit flavours are produced with huge potential for ageing. Often some Viognier, a white grape, is blended in to add floral aromatics and elegance. This may only be up to 20% of the blend, but usually, it’s at around 3-5%. If you’ve never had the pleasure to try some, treat yourself. Our Domaine des Pierrelles Côte Rôtie 2011, by renowned producer Paul Jaboulet, is a delicious example of this expressive wine. Expect black fruit, liquorice and savoury notes of olive and smoke. Try it with smokey bacon, or a lamb summer stew, to experience it at its best.
As we travel down, we reach Saint-Joseph. Some great examples of Northern Rhône wine can come from here, showing character similar to that of the prestigious Hermitage wines, but most are in a softer, relatively light-bodied style with the usual peppery characteristics of Syrah. Going south again, we reach Crozes-Hermitage, and nestled beside it is Hermitage. Hermitage is another prestigious appellation up there with Côte Rôtie, however it is generally thought to lack some of the elegance of the latter. Nonetheless, with its exceptionally full body and ability to age complexly, it’s one to try, especially from the 2003 vintage which was particularly stunning.
In terms of volume, Crozes-Hermitage is vitally important for the region. Yet it not only can produce in volume (comparatively larger than the rest of the Northern Rhône) but produces some of the best value wines from the region. Take our La Rollande Crozes-Hermitage 2014; it displays some complexity and smooth finesse, with the classic Syrah flavours of black cherry and cassis, offset by black pepper and liquorice spice. Pair with Saint-Marcellin cheese this summer for an evening of pure bliss.
Drinking your way through the Rhône Valley is a journey worth making, so best get tasting the North! Next up: a trip to the South, the land of Grenache.
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