A Guide to Northern Rhône Wine

La Turque is a highly-rated Northern Rhone wine

The most reliable guide to Northern Rhône wine includes in-depth discussions on grape variety, appellation, producer reputation, and vintage quality. Photo Credit: Flickr CC user Dale Cruse

My love of wine from the Northern Rhône began with a bottle of Paul Jaboulet Aîné Hermitage la Chapelle. The level of complexity in the wine was astounding, and I felt as though I could actually taste the region’s crushed granite soil. It was a perfect expression of terroir, and to this day, that wine remains one of the best Syrahs I’ve ever had. After this experience, I wanted to learn more about the Northern Rhône wine region. I perused guides to Northern Rhône wine to better understand the region’s diverse appellations and I tasted as many different wine styles from this area as I could to gain insight into the classic characteristics of the region’s Syrah, Marsanne, Roussanne, and Viognier.

I’ll share some of my experiences and knowledge with you in this comprehensive guide to Northern Rhône wine. From the region’s best grape varieties to its diverse appellations, top producers, and highest-quality vintages, I’ve included the most important information that collectors need to know about buying wine from the Northern Rhône. A solid understanding of this region will help you build a superb collection of wines from the Rhône and find out firsthand what makes these wines so exceptional.

The Grape Varieties of the Northern Rhône

The Northern Rhône is famous for its complex, peppery Syrah. However, no guide to Northern Rhône wine would be complete without mentioning the region’s other noteworthy grape varieties (all of which are white, as Syrah is only red grape grown in the Northern Rhône): Viognier, Roussanne, and Marsanne. If you want to build a diverse collection of wines from the Northern Rhône, consider tasting wines made of different proportions of each of these grapes. Once you’ve tried a few wines in each style, you can narrow your collection down to only those you enjoy most. For example, I personally prefer Syrah and white blends that contain both Marsanne and Roussanne, so these varieties comprise most of my collection. However, I still occasionally invest in quality Viognier, like Guigal Condrieu La Doriane. Staying open-minded is the key to building a fantastic, diverse collection of Northern Rhône wines.

To get a sense of which varieties from the Northern Rhône you’ll likely find most appealing, consider the characteristics and flavor profiles of wine produced from the four major grapes grown in this region:

  • Syrah: Northern Rhône wines made from this variety differ significantly from Syrah made in warmer climates, like Australia and California. Syrah from the Northern Rhône is earthy and peppery, with well-balanced fruit, high acidity, and intense aromatics.
  • Viognier: In Northern Rhône, Viognier grapes make a rich, full-bodied white wine that is creamy, yet also has heady aromatics that you might not expect from such a concentrated, dense wine. This variety is lower in acidity overall compared to other varieties from the Northern Rhône.
  • Roussanne: Perfumed and powerful, Roussanne is usually used in white blends to add aromatic qualities, however, you can also find varietal labels. The best time to drink Roussanne is within the first three years of bottling or after at least 15 years of storage, as it tends to close down between those periods.
  • Marsanne: Like Roussanne, Marsanne is often used in white blends. As a single-varietal wine, it comes in both dry and sweet styles. To make the sweet version, winemakers lay the grapes out on straw mats to raisin in the sun. The resulting wine is called Vin de Paille; it’s very concentrated and can age for decades in a cellar. Dry Marsanne, on the other hand, has excellent minerality and takes on toasted nut flavors as it ages.

While each of these grape varieties differs significantly in taste and aging potential, they are all capable of expressing the Northern Rhône’s unique terroir. Wines from the Northern Rhône are heavily impacted by the region’s chilly mistral winds, and as a result, they tend to be higher in acidity overall than their peers in the Southern Rhône. However, the Northern Rhône is full of diverse microclimates and local differences in soil type—you can actually see a change in the color and composition of the soil from estate to estate. This means that every grape variety will take on a different flavor profile depending on where exactly it was grown. For this reason, it’s wise to try wines from a wide range of producers before you settle on your favorites.

Your Guide to Northern Rhône Wine Appellations

A few years ago, one of my friends visited Côte-Rôtie and was captivated by the appellation’s crumbling granite topsoil. He said the soil was so rocky and uneven that it almost looked as if the vine roots were growing straight out of the rocks, rather than in the dirt hidden underneath. Every appellation in the Northern Rhône has a unique geology and soil type; when you travel from Côte-Rôtie to Condrieu, for example, you’ll immediately see a difference in landscape. This is how a guide to Northern Rhône wine appellations comes in handy—as a way to categorize the differences in terroir and their impact on the flavor of the wines made there.

Map of the Northern Rhone Valley

Côte-Rôtie

This appellation is located at the northernmost tip of the Rhône and is famous for its Syrah. Despite its northerly location, the vineyards of Côte-Rôtie actually face toward the south. As a result, the famous winter mistral winds never really hit the hills of Côte-Rôtie in the same way that they do in appellations like Saint-Joseph. These conditions are perfect for growing Syrah, as the grapes can ripen fully in the warm summer months, protected from the chilling winds. The wine made here is some of the most collectible in the Northern Rhône, as the Syrah can age for decades in a cellar. It is common here to co-ferment the Syrah with Viognier–usually around one to five percent, though it’s legal to use up to 20 percent Viognier–in order to add aromatics and fix the color of the wine. You’ll find the boldest wines in the north and central vineyards, where clay soil is common. If you prefer more aromatic, mineral-heavy wines, look to producers in the south, where granite-rich soils are more common.

Condrieu

While Côte-Rôtie is known for its Syrah, Condrieu is equally famous for Viognier. The soil in this appellation is a mix of crushed granite and clay, and the grapes grown in Condrieu tend to be low in acidity and very ripe. Perhaps the most famous producer in this appellation is Guigal, which produces rich, oily white wines with excellent aging potential. However, not all Condrieu wines are worth storing long-term. Most of the Viognier wines from this region lack the necessary acidity to age long-term, so they’re best enjoyed within five years of release.

Château Grillet

The Château Grillet appellation shares some characteristics with Condrieu, including thriving Viognier vines and wines with relatively low acidity. However, Château Grillet wines are slightly smokier and less fruit-forward than wines from Condrieu. The only producer in this region, Neyret-Gachet, ages their Viognier in oak, and as a result, these wines sometimes share similarities with California Chardonnay. You may find these wines interesting if you enjoy bold white wines from the New World.

Saint-Joseph

It’s difficult to define Saint-Joseph wines. I’ve had bold, peppery Syrah from this appellation as well as rich, honeycomb-like Marsanne and Roussanne blends that are complex in flavor, yet mellow. The extreme differences in style are the result of Saint-Joseph’s varied soils. Vineyards to the north grow in clay and granite, much like Condrieu. Soil composition in the south is more clay and limestone-heavy, which creates spicier wines overall. I recommend sampling both red and white wines from the northern and southern vineyards of this appellation, as it’s a fascinating experience to explore the differences between each terroir.

Crozes-Hermitage

Located on a riverbank, the Crozes-Hermitage appellation produces wines that tend to be very tart and acidic. The appellation is home to a mix of Syrah, Marsanne, and Roussanne, and, like Saint-Joseph, the flavor profile of wines from this appellation varies dramatically depending on the vineyard’s location. Wines made from vines planted on western-facing slopes are dry and herbaceous, while wines made from vines growing along eastern and southern-facing hills are more fruit-forward. Generally, the most collectible wines are made from vineyards on these eastern and southern-facing hills, where they’re able to develop an excellent balance between fruit and acidity.

Hermitage

The Hermitage appellation also produces a mix of red and white varieties, but it’s best known for its bold, age-worthy Syrah. The intense aromatics and complex, layered fruit flavors of Hermitage Syrah are frequently praised by critics, and the best vintages need a decade to become approachable and will age well for 40 years or more. Hermitage also produces high-quality, collectible white wine blends that can take up to 20 years to reach peak maturity. The most age-worthy wines are made in clay, limestone, and granite-rich soils. However, if you’re looking for an easy-drinking wine that is approachable in its youth, invest in wines made in the appellation’s sandy terroirs, as these often have less tannin.

Cornas

One of my friends is an avid fan of bold California reds, so when I brought over a bottle of Marcel Juge wine from the Cornas region, he was skeptical at first. He doesn’t typically like Old-World wines. However, when he tried the Cornas wine, he was smitten. The boldness and soft black fruit flavors reminded him of his favorite California cult wines. Wines made in the Cornas appellation use grapes which are deeply concentrated and ripe, resulting in approachable wines that are easy to love. For the best experience, stick with wines made in granite soils, as these tend to be more complex in flavor than those made in sandier terroirs.

Saint-Péray

The southernmost appellation of the Northern Rhône is known for its wonderful white wines, including a few sparkling blends. Many Saint-Péray wines are full of refreshing citrus and floral aromatics which make them one of my favorite summer drinks. However, Saint-Péray is more than just light, floral whites; the appellation also produces rich white wines with notes of baked apple, caramel, and sweet lemon curd. Most of these wines are meant to be drunk young, yet some of them, especially those made in limestone soil with excellent acidity, can age for a few years in your cellar.

I regularly buy wine from almost every appellation in the Northern Rhône because each area has its own distinct style and personality. I’ll serve sparkling Marsanne from Saint-Péray on a warm summer day or aged, peppery Côte-Rôtie for a special holiday dinner. This is what makes the wines of the Northern Rhône so special; you truly get a sense of terroir when you drink these wines and every appellation is utterly unique.

The Best Producers from the Northern Rhône

If you’re seeking the best wine from the Northern Rhône, consider the reputation of the producer. For example, I frequently buy Guigal La Turque both for drinking and investment because this producer crafts some of the best Syrah in the Northern Rhône. As a result, these bottles have a high secondary market value. I also enjoy producers like Patrick et Christophe Bonnefond, which make high-quality, well-balanced wine for less than $100 per bottle.

If you’re looking for a guide to Northern Rhône wine producers to get you started, consider investing in wines from the following estates:

The list above is by no means comprehensive, but it can help you discover some of the best wines from the Northern Rhône. I recommend exploring more than one label from each of these estates to get a taste for the classic characteristics of wine from the Northern Rhône.

Age-Worthy Northern Rhône Vintages

How do you know whether a Northern Rhône wine is worth storing long-term? The quality of the vintage is a reliable guide to storage times. The growing conditions of each vintage will tell you which varieties fared best; this should give you a general idea of how long to wait before taking your wine out of storage.

The very best and most age-worthy vintages of the past 30 years are:

  • 2016
  • 2015
  • 2010
  • 2009
  • 1999
  • 1990

These vintages were successful both for Syrah and the white varieties of the Northern Rhône. If you own a bottle from one of these vintages, consider keeping it in professional storage until it reaches maturity. For the four most recent vintages on the list, that means keeping the wine in storage for another ten years at a minimum. Most wines from the 1990 and 1999 vintages are drinking well now, however, check recent tasting notes for your wines before you decide to open them; they could need another five or more years before they reach their peak.

Vintage quality in the Northern Rhône is generally high, so even if you don’t own a bottle from one of the legendary vintages above, your wine could still be worth storing long-term. Syrah made by top producers can usually age anywhere from 15 to 30 years. Marsanne typically takes at least ten years to mature. Roussanne needs at least seven years in a cellar to develop mature flavors. And finally, top Viognier is usually meant to be drunk young, but in the highest-quality vintages, it can age for as long as ten years.

How to Build a Collection of Wine from the Northern Rhône

If you’re ready to start a collection of wine from the Northern Rhône, the best method is to attend tasting events, buy a diverse selection of wine from a number of producers, and ask wine experts for their personal recommendations. When I first started collecting wine from the Rhône, I was diligent about keeping a detailed list of the bottles in my collection and recording tasting notes for each of them. By managing my wine collection through the VinCellar app and keeping all of my age-worthy bottles in professional storage, I could tell when each of my bottles was approaching peak maturity and could have them delivered to my home when I was ready to enjoy them. This ensured that none of my bottles would get lost in a dark corner of a cellar until they were past peak. Using a wine app also helped me keep track of which wines from the Northern Rhône I had already tried and which were still on my wish list. Using these tools, I could refine my preferences and familiarize myself with all of the diverse, delicious wines that this region has to offer.

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