A Guide to the Northern Rhône Wine Region
Stretching from the town of Vienne to Valence, the Northern Rhône Valley is a small wine region running along the Rhône River. The whole region is about 75 kilometers (46 miles) long, and it takes about an hour to drive the whole region. Granite soils and steep, narrow hillsides characterize this region, forcing vineyards to make do with limited space. As a result, viticulture is carried out on terraces with low walls that keep the earth in place (called “chalais”).
The vineyards benefit from a more temperate climate than in the southern part of the Rhône, with rains that keep the vines from suffering from drought. Because of its cooler climate and steep slopes, the vineyards are planted with exposure to southeast and southwest to ensure the grapes get enough sun to fully ripen.
This region only grows one red grape: Syrah. The Syrah here is unusual compared to other Syrahs, with a beautiful elegance and notes of pepper, spice, and meat. While Syrah is the only red grape allowed, there are several grape varieties used to make white wine: Marsanne, Roussanne, and Viognier. Côte Rôtie, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Condrieu, Saint-Joseph, Château-Grillet, Saint-Péray (also available in sparkling Saint-Péray), and Cornas are among the appellations grown in the Northern Rhône Valley.
The AOC of Côte Rôtie consists of over 270 hectares (667 acres) of vineyards, just south of Lyon near Vienne, and covers three municipalities: Ampuis, Saint-Cyr-sur-Rhône, and Tupin-Semons. The vineyards are the northernmost of the Rhône Valley, and are recognized for their exceptional quality. This region almost disappeared in the 19th century because of the difficulty of working the vines. They are located on narrow terraces, built on extremely steep hillsides.
Did you know? The wines of Côte-Rôtie are exotically smooth and jewels to behold. It’s not just the flavor, but also the texture. Because of their high demand and small size, these will set you back a fair amount, but they’re well worth it.
The Terraced Slopes of Côte Rôtie
But it is these difficult growing conditions that have made the production of great wines possible. The so-called Lyon climate perfectly combines the heat and sun of the Mediterranean climate, with freshness and humidity brought from continental influences further north.
In Côte Rôtie, there are two distinct terroirs: the Côte Brune in the north with its iron-rich soils and the Côte Blonde in the south, composed of gneiss and clay sands called “arzels”. Aged slowly in barrels, Côte Rôtie wines are red wines of admirable quality, intensely complex, tannic, and powerful, appreciated for their authenticity and richness on the palate. The Syrah wines of Côte Rôtie are often blended with a bit of Viognier giving the wines a perfume-y quality. Up to 20% of the red wine can be made from Viognier, but producers often only blend about 5%.
Did you know? The wine-making region is divided into two sections. The Northern Rhone, located north of the Rhone River, is noted for producing substantial red wines, which are occasionally combined with whites. The Southern Rhone, on the other side of the river, is more varied, with wineries producing reds, whites, roses, and a variety of blends. The Northern Rhone region has a continental climate with cold winters and pleasant summers. Because it is cooler than the Southern Rhone, the two regions have developed their own distinct grape growing traditions over time.
With less than 4 hectares (9.8 acres) of vineyards, Chateau-Grillet is one of the smallest appellations in France. There is only one winery in this region, and they only make about 10,000 bottles a year; making this a rare wine to find. It is actually located inside the AOC Condrieu, and features a similar terroir consisting of steep granite terraces, but the soil is slightly lighter here. Château-Grillet is also distinguished by its altitude (165-250 meters), specifically on the valley flank of a bend of the Rhône facing south. It is therefore particularly sunny and sheltered from the mistral winds coming from the North.
Château-Grillet only uses one grape variety: Viognier. Château-Grillet is partially aged in oak wooden barrels which adds more richness to their wines. Rare and quite expensive, the whites of Château-Grillet, with their golden yellow color, are concentrated and aromatically intense, with scents of apricot and peaches.
The AOC Condrieu consists of about 110 hectares (272 acres) of vines, distributed geographically around the city of Condrieu. This AOC produces only white wines made from Viognier. This region, which includes that of the AOC Château-Grillet, cultivates its identity by being the only one to make wines from 100% Viognier.
This grape variety is perfectly suited to the steep granite hillsides, which the winegrowers have had to tame through the construction of terraces. Often harvested late in the year, it makes the most of the Mediterranean heat and sunshine that forge the famous reds of the neighboring AOCs of Côte-Rôtie and Saint Joseph.
Vinified in a dry style, Condrieu is an original wine that presents a fabulous aromatic diversity and a beautiful color that is gilded with aging. Supple and fresh, with beautiful length in the mouth, it offers exquisite scents of flowers and fruits (apricots, peaches).
The AOC Saint-Joseph contains over 1,200 hectares (2,965 acres) of vineyards with a production of 38,000 hectoliters per year. Formerly called “Vin de Mauves”, it was very popular with the kings of France in the 14th century and was renamed “the Saint-Joseph” in the 18th century by the Jesuits of Tournon.
The clay-granite soils are more prevalent in the north, while the south contains more marl and granite. The varietals used here are Syrah, Marsanne, and Roussanne. The red St. Joseph is elegant and fine, with a strong presence. It has blackcurrant and raspberry scents at first, then licorice and leather after a few years of aging. To gain complexity, it is often recommended to age the wine about ten years. The white Saint Joseph has acacia, honey, and apricot notes that pair well with fish and seafood.
The AOC of Cornas produces only red wines from Syrah. They produce about 3,800 hectoliters per year using over 130 hectares (321 acres) of vineyards. The climate is particularly warm and with exceptional sunshine making it ideal for growing Syrah.
The steep slopes are well-exposed (Cornas meaning “scorched earth” in Celtic) and regularly swept by winds, necessary for the realization of this wine’s character. Located on soils dominated by filtering granite (Gore), the vineyard draws all the character of its terroir by the vinification of a single grape variety, Syrah.
Cornas wines are powerful and robust, with a dark, almost black color and excellent aging potential. They are tannic and dominated by red fruit aromas in their early years. They soften with age, revealing subtle notes of truffle, amber, licorice, and cooked fruit. Charlemagne, Saint-Louis, and Louis XV were all fans of this wine.
There are many winemakers in Cornas who are known for producing high-quality wines, but one of the most famous winemakers in the region is Jean-Luc Colombo.
Jean-Luc Colombo is a well-known winemaker in the Rhône Valley who is known for his innovative approaches to winemaking and his dedication to producing high-quality wines. He has been producing wine in the Cornas region for many years and is known for his Syrah-based wines, which are highly sought after by wine collectors and enthusiasts. In addition to his work in Cornas, Jean-Luc Colombo also produces wine in other regions of the Rhône Valley, including the Côte-Rôtie and Saint-Joseph regions.
The AOC Crozes-Hermitage (or Crozes-Ermitage) consists of 1,500 hectares (3,706 acres) of vineyards that extend over to 11 communes of the Drôme around Crozes-Hermitage and Tain-l’Hermitage. Crozes-Hermitage is the largest region of Northern Rhône in terms of size and production. Within the region there is a second, prestigious AOC called Hermitage.
The vineyard’s hot and dry Mediterranean climate is enhanced by exposure to the sun due south. The mistral winds can be harmful to the vines, which are generally less protected in this region. Both the red and white wines are from very diverse terroirs (granite substrates, sandy deposits or stony terraces, depending on whether you are on the slopes to the north of the area or on the alluvial plains further south) are therefore also very varied.
Those of the north are closer to the wines from the AOC Hermitage, with plenty of structure. Those in the south are less powerful, fruity, and generally consumed younger. Most of the wine produced here is red from Syrah, but the white wines made from Marsanne and/or Roussanne can be very high quality as well. These dry whites are fresh and fruity with citrus aromas and can gain a heavier body and longer aging potential if they are made the more traditional way using malolactic fermentation.
The AOC Hermitage (or Ermitage) is a prestigious appellation that contains only 135 hectares (333 acres) of vineyards and covers 3 communes in the department of Drôme: Tain-l’Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, and Larnage. The region offers a great wealth of terroirs, consisting of granite arenas, sandy soils, and stony grounds. This appellation makes about 4,650 hectoliters of exceptional red wines per year, which have achieved worldwide recognition. In addition to the red they also produce a small amount of dry white wines of similar prestige.
The region is named after the Hermitage Hill, which is located in the heart of the region and is home to a chapel that was built in the 12th century by a hermit. The chapel, which was dedicated to Saint Christopher, was a popular destination for pilgrims, and it is believed that the hermit who lived there planted the first grapevines in the region.
Hermitage Hill in the Northern Rhone Valley
There is not much information available about the specific hermit who lived in the chapel on the Hermitage Hill, and it is likely that he has been lost to history. However, it is clear that the chapel and the surrounding area played a role in establishing the region as a prominent wine-producing area, as the chapel and the surrounding area became a popular destination for travelers and wine lovers.
The mistral winds, very present in this area, guarantee beautiful sunny days but can also be responsible for the freezing cold that can strike in winter. More sheltered from the north wind, the hillsides facing south of the Hermitage vineyard produce great red wines for aging (the best vintages can be aged several decades). They are powerful and tannic, but retain an exquisite finesse in the mouth. They exude a great aromatic richness (ripe fruits, spices, undergrowth) that will express more complexity as it ages. The Marsanne and Roussanne, which are used to make the white Hermitages, make original and balanced wines, full of richness with a beautiful golden color.
The AOC Saint-Péray is the southernmost vineyard of the Northern Rhône. It contains over 70 hectares (172 acres) of vineyards, spread over 2 communes, located near Valence. It produces 2,200 hectoliters of dry white and sparkling wine.
The local microclimate, cooler and airier due to the distribution of vines in well-winded reliefs, as well as the richness in minerals of the granite soils, covered with silt, loess and limestone scree, explain the privileged cultivation of white grape varieties. Coming mainly from Marsanne, or from a blend with Roussanne, the dry white wines of Saint-Péray have balanced acidity and alcohol levels. They are appreciated for their fine aromas of white flowers, honey, almonds, and toast, depending on the year and the producers.
Want to learn more about the Northern Rhône wine region? Try out these books!
- Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours. Jancis Robinson 2012
- Wine. Years. People. Events. Massandra Wine Collection 2010
The World Atlas of Wine: 8th Edition. Johnson, H & Robinson, J. 2019