They say that Burgundy and Beaujolais lie between the mustard and the onions. What this means is that the regions are situated between the cities of Dijon, world famous for its mustard, and Lyon, whose cooking is associated with onions. You will eat well whichever city you visit.
The river Saône accompanies you through the mustard to onions region, but once it reaches the gastronomic capital of Lyon, the Rhône, coming in from Lake Geneva, swallows it up and takes over the southward march. In wine terms, the northern and southern Rhône regions are two separate personalities. The south, the more extensive of the two, accounts for 90% of Rhône valley production.
The northern Rhône is far greener than the south, and several degrees cooler on average. Climate is continental, and the mistral winds howl through the canyons in winter and even spring. The valley here is narrow, leaving thin echelons of vines balanced on granite cliffs, with little room for expansion. The northern Rhône is home base for four formidable grapes that are in the process of challenging Bordeaux and Burgundy for world dominance: the red Syrah and the whites Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne.
Côte-Rôtie hangs onto the west edge of the valley as if for dear life. The name means “roasted slope,” which is true to life, given the concentration of the sun on the cliff. The appellation divides into two sections depending on soil. The Côte Brune (“brown slope”) in the north has dark, iron-rich schist and the Côte Blonde (“blond slope”) further south has pale granite and schist soil.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C%C3%B4te-R%C3%B4tie_AOC – cite_note-Dummies_pg_127-128-2 The schist keeps the heat in during the day and protects the vines when those cold mistrals blow. To combat erosion on these steep slopes, growers terrace their vineyards and enclose them with stone walls, but the system is not foolproof. It is not uncommon to see growers hauling buckets of soil and rocks up the hill to reunite them with the vineyards. Some of the vines are over a century old, and most vines an average of forty. Côte-Rôtie, at best, is tiny, if not minuscule.
Côte-Rôtie marries the two great grapes of the northern Rhône, though they are of different colors. Syrah forms the base, with up to 20% Viognier (although in most cases the Viognier will weigh in at less that 10%). The grapes must be co-vinified, crushed and fermented together rather than being blended as separately fermented wines. These wines can last decades. Aroma is unique: green olive, bacon, violet, raspberry with flavors of black pepper, white pepper, blueberry, blackberry, plum, and leather.
Directly to the south of Côte-Rôtie is the equally small appellation of Condrieu, and the even smaller one-vineyard appellation of Château Grillet, both producing Viognier only. This is this up and coming world grape’s home base. Soils here differ from Côte-Rôtie, sanded granite rather than schist. This Viognier expresses peach, white flowers, dried fruit, spices like anise, melon. This is a full-bodied and rich wine that, although dry, expresses a rich ripe sweetness. Vinopinion is split as to whether Condrieu should be consumed young or allowed to age some years. Expensive.
Below Château Grillet is Condrieu and Saint-Joseph, a bridge between the two appellations. The larger appellation of Saint-Joseph allows red wines of Syrah with up to 10% Marsanne and Roussanne, as well as white wine from Marsanne and/or Roussanne. Continuing south on the west side of the river, Cornas produces all-Syrah reds, and Saint-Péray still and sparkling wines of Marsanne and/or Roussanne. On the east side of the river, across from the southern stretch of Saint-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage produces reds of Syrah and up to 15% Marsanne and Roussanne; whites of only Marsanne and Roussanne.
Surrounded on three sides by Crozes-Hermitage, on a hill overlooking the river, Hermitage gives us reds of Syrah and up to 15% Viognier; whites of only Marsanne and Roussanne. The red Hermitage, usually 100% Syrah, is one of the great wines of the world.
Some history first. If you know anything about history—and you should, since it brought you here—you would be aware of the Albigensian heresy, which presaged Protestantism by several centuries. You can look that up. In any case, when the French knight Gaspard de Stérimberg returned in 1224 from trying to wipe out the Albigensians, he was wounded. The queen of France gave him permission to build a chapel on the hill and live there as a hermit, hence the name Hermitage. The chapel is now part of a wine estate. In 1642, French King Louis XIII made Hermitage an official court wine, gave some as a gift to England’s Charles II, and once the English fell for it, the tiny dot on the hill (345 acres of vines) earned its permanent place on the world wine map.
Hermitage starts out an undisciplined youth, with aromas of black fruit, herbs, olives, cassis, iron and earth and tannins that can only be called rude. The maturing wine comes together in a delightful softness as the black fruit changes to red. The nose gets deeper earth, more mature olive, tobacco, a cabinet of spices. On the palate, the fully-grown wine is exquisitely soft. The finish is so smooth and long that once it abandons your mouth it takes up permanent residence in a special “Hermitage niche” in your brain that you never before knew you had. Hermitage will make you wait a decade or longer, but of course you have the option to exchange money for a wine that is already grown up. A few months ago this writer found four bottles of 17-year-old Hermitage for $80 each, and was foolish enough to only buy the one. Thank goodness for that brain niche.
The Southern Rhône has the name of the river in common with the northern Rhône, but little else. Between the two is a significant stretch without viticulture, and then the valley spreads out, fanning out appellations on both side of the river, the east somewhat more than the west. Climate here is solidly Mediterranean, meaning summers are warm and dry, with irrigation permitted in some appellations. Among red wines of the southern Rhône, Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault and Carignan are leading grapes, the first three forming the model for various “GSM” wines produced all over the world. Whites include Ugni Blanc, Roussanne, Bourboulenc, Picpoul, Clairette, and sometimes Viognier.
Côtes du Rhône is produced in areas that do not qualify for more limited appellations. Côtes du Rhône Villages applies to wine produced in a number of favored villages. Côtes du Rhône reds usually lead with Grenache. The individual AOC appellations, called crus, many of which at one time could at best claim Côtes du Rhône status, are the next step up in quality.