The Northern Rhône - An obsession that starts after the first glass…

by Matt Digby

It’s strange to think how quickly obsessions begin in the world of wine.

One sip can thrust you into an intense search for a variety, region or producer you’ve just discovered. Recently, Chris and I had this very experience.

The Northern Rhône is a long time obsession of mine and after a very special bottle of the Dard et Ribo 'Saint Joseph Rouge 2019', Chris is developing a healthy obsession of his own. 

So, what’s the deal with the Northern Rhône?

The entire Rhône region is exceptionally large, stretching from the south of Lyon to the city of Avignon, hugging the imposing Rhône River. The terroir of the north has quite a cool climate and is heavily influenced by the strong Mistral wind with the soils dominated by granite, schist and hard rock.

The simplicity of the Northern Rhône can be deceiving.

At face value, it’s a 90-100 kilometre stretch of a steeply sloped river bank. It’s home to eight famous AOCs which concentrate on four grape varieties (Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne), producing only five percent of the Rhône’s total production output. 


Dard et Ribo

While it might not look like much this region is a never-ending discovery of fascinating, intriguing and phenomenal bottles of reds and, very underrated, whites. The winemaking styles of the region have been copied the world over and the producers are legendary. Let’s dig in a bit more.

Natural Wine from Rhone

Discover the regions.

The northern third of the region is the coolest and the famous Cote-Rotie, or roasted slope, is a sun-drenched west bank village where slopes reach sixty degree steepness in parts.

The soils in the Cote-Rotie are hard rock & schist and producers make their reds traditionally - with Syrah co-fermented with Viognier (10%)... you could perhaps say they invented the red/white blend! Expect finesse with firm tannins that play alongside delicate floral aromas and dark fruit flavours. 

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Condrieu to the south is the home of the most opulent Viognier in the world growing on schist and mica.

The appellation also contains the one and only Chateau-Grillet, the only single-estate appellation in France.

Centrally, on the east bank, the legendary Hermitage is tucked into the easterly hook of the riverbank protecting it from those cool Mistral winds.

Granite dominates the soil here in Hermitage, where Syrah is at its dark fruited, structured and powerful best. A small portion of broad-shouldered and plump Marsanne/Roussane is also produced. 

To the north and south of Hermitage lies the Crozes-Hermitage appellation, which has seen some expansion in the recent past. Here, sloped vineyards and flat plains create some more approachable but amazing reds and whites at decent value. Knowing your producer here is very important and once again Dard et Ribo’s Crozes-Hermitage bottles are some of the best I’ve tasted, especially the white! 

Image copyright of the (excellent) WINE FOLLY.

The Saint-Joseph appellation on the west bank was also expanded and much like Crozes-Hermitage creates some brilliant expressions on the original terroirs, but a little producer knowledge is needed.

The southern third is one full of surprises.

Cornas which is situated on the west bank lies east of the Massif Central and the east-south-east slopes protect it from the wind. It’s the warmest appellation of the region and the Syrah is full of power and wild rough edges. The Mickaël Bourg Cornas 2018 is smoky and voluptuous.

Neighbouring Saint Peray focuses on whites more so than reds, which is not common in the region. The wines are round and the fullness of Marsanne shines through. You could say that the appellation’s wines are very similar in style to their southerly neighbours in Brezeme. The Brezeme Blanc by Eric Texier is a fantastic example that balances minerality and richness wonderfully.

The drinkability of wines from the Rhône can sometimes come with some stigma or give some of us a bit of general trepidation. Can I drink them straight away? The answer here is always the same for every region - yes! Of course, some wines will benefit from time in the bottle, like those from Côte-Rotie and reds from Hermitage. Cornas bottles also could benefit from a few years lying down. Generally, the whites from the region are considered ready to roll and the rule of thumb is to drink young but, of course, it wouldn’t be the wine world without an exception to every rule.

Try these Northern Rhône wines

Dard et Ribo - Saint Joseph Rouge 2019

Absolutely beautiful food-ready, rich and buttery white wine made from Marsanne & Roussanne. Slightly nutty with barrel aged vanilla and toasted notes coming through. Well-rounded, coating your palette in the best way possible with its seductive charm.

This is refined, soft and beautiful.

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Mickaël Bourg - Cornas 2018

This 100% Syrah is meant to have strong a strong nose of smoke and gunpowder mingling alongside pepper and spiced berries, whilst it's tightened tannic structure suggests how this wine will evolve in 10 years time...

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Eric Texier - Brezeme Blanc 2018

A good example of a macerated Pinot Gris. This one has a colour coming out between pink and orange. Expect notes of  herbs, earth, raspberry and white pepper expressing themselves in this easy going, yet also complex summer sipper. Delicious!

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