It’s one of the most impressive sites in the wine growing world, the vineyards of France’s northern Rhône Valley, clinging to escarpments along the banks of the Rhône River. The environment is rugged, thrilling, and forceful. And some would say that the wines made of this origin deliver a stamina that reflects their situation.
Wine grape cultivation has a long history here, but after phylloxera and the world wars, many vineyards were forgotten. Stone fruit orchards, apricots in particular, took the place of vineyards for many years throughout most of the northern Rhône agricultural region.
Caring for vineyards in the northern Rhône atmosphere, especially the right bank of the river, is difficult work. Vines are planted on steep slopes that demand intensive hand labor — to get a tractor here would be impossible!
“For many years, farmers sold their grapes to big négociants and co-ops,” says Luduvine Souhaut, team member at Verve Wine. She’s a northern Rhône native and worked at her family domaine, Romaneaux-Destezet, before moving to New York. “However, thanks to dedicated and passionate vine growers and winemakers, the vineyards have been revitalized and they have shown the enormous potential of the region.”
Souhaut points to Gonon and Trollat in Saint-Joseph, Chave in Hermitage, and Thierry Allemand in Cornas (to name a few — and we include her father, Hervé Souhaut in this list.) “These prestigious winemakers have inspired a new generation,” says Souhat. “Growers have taken back their family plot and kept their fruits, instead of selling them to négociants, to produce their own wines in recent years.”
The northern Rhône appellations are dependent on red wine production, produced solely from the Syrah variety (occasionally co-fermented with regional white-variety grapes). White wines are produced in smaller quantities, made with Marsanne, Roussanne, and Viognier. One can also find vin de pays treats here, such as Hervé Souhaut’s ‘Souterrone’ Gamay or 'Le Petit Merle Ardechois' which is made from Merlot. Also produced here are Côtes du Rhône wines, which are mainly crafted with Syrah when coming from the northern Rhône (this appellation extends south, where blends are more common.)
Wines crafted with northern Rhône Syrah are “powerful and deep, yet very elegant,” according to Souhaut. “The complexity and their reductive character makes them perfect for cellar-aging.” And yet there are plenty of releases that are meant to be enjoyed young and fresh. There’s something for everyone, despite a reputation for cellar stars.
“The production of northern whites is a bit more secretive,” says Souhaut. “It is also a bit out of fashion these days as they are full bodied, rich wines.” However, following fashion means missing out on delicious, food-friendly gems, perfect for fall and winter pairings. Plus they can evolve nicely with age.
The highlights of the region are centered around the Crus, and though they share some common characteristics, here are highlights from our own notebooks about our favorite northern Rhône points.
Côte-Rôtie: Responsible for producing what is the most famous wine in the northern Rhône Valley, Côte-Rôtie is complex and evolves in the cellar, with astronomic aging potential.
Saint-Joseph: Saint-Joseph, particularly the southern part, is not as widely regarded as other neighbors, but both the reds and white are worth seeking out, according to Souhaut.
Cornas: Souhaut says that though Cornas gets less attention than its counterparts, this spot produces one of the greatest expressions of Syrah, which is the exclusive grape of Cornas.
Hermitage: Here we have what’s called the “mecca” of Rhône wines, cherished since antiquity and praised for their age potential.
Crozes-Hermitage: Considered to be an approachable luxury, this is the hard-working neighbor with distinctive appeal. Both reds and whites are charming young but can be stored away.