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Northern Rhône Valley

Northern Rhône Valley

Following is the fourth of five entries from my trip. I visited sixty wineries in six weeks! Over the holidays, so many of you let me know that you enjoyed following me. Thank you for all the support.  A final entry on Burgundy will follow in February.
I’m Martis Camp Sommelier Joshua Plack. This blog documenting my experiences on a six-week trip through French wine country is meant to give you the tools to enjoy and collect wines from the areas I visited. 
Hello from the Northern Rhone Valley, the undisputed home of Syrah. While the Southern Rhône producers blend Syrah with Grenache and others for their famous blends; up here the only allowed addition is a small amount of Viognier. I love it here. I just went for a long run around the south bench of Hermitage hill. Beautiful! I could see miles in every direction including the great Rhône River winding south towards the limit of the appellation. This is my favorite French wine town. While the Burgundy wines take the cake, this place is the coolest. Even driving through Lyon along the river the other night I could feel it. This place is comfortable, not hiding anything, a normal folks’ town. It’s the topography too. The mountains radiate a soul that I enjoy even at night.
Tain-l’Hermitage is a blue-collar town with minimal tourism. It’s 45 minutes south of Lyon, has a population of 6,000, but is not rural. Both the A7 motorway and the Rhône River are heavily traveled. There are deep shipping docks and a nuclear power plant. The town has two very defined natural borders: the river and Hermitage Hill itself. Walking distance to each from my hotel is two minutes. It’s that narrowness of the valley that appeals to me. After a week in spread out Bordeaux where a car is necessary for any errand, Tain just feels right.
I arrived Saturday night, had pizza and beer at the corner pizza place for 13 euros, and got some sleep.  Sunday morning I stopped into a good local wine shop. This is often the most productive data mining I do when arriving in a wine town. The staff is always excited about the value plays, and lesser known producers. The big score this day was the underrated quality of the hillsides of Mauves. The tiny town is across the river and five minutes south of Tain. I had driven right past it in 2011 on my way to the more famous town of Cornas.
The slopes above Mauves are in the southern portion of the St. Joseph appellation. My preconceived notion that this was a lesser appellation, due to its size and therefore inconsistency, was shattered all week. On the right side of the above shot is where Michel Chapoutier gets grapes from for his St. Joseph Les Granits Rouge that you can get for $45 per bottle. Look like a lesser vineyard to you? These middle price point Syrahs from St. Joseph’s best producers are clean, fresh, and energetic with just the right amounts of fruit and acid. Looking for more than Pinot but less than Cabernet? This is it.
To those of you who I’ve steered away from St. Joseph in the past — telling you that the 35-mile long appellation was too inconsistent to buy — I wasn’t completely wrong but quite mistaken for sure. There are some below-average vineyards and producers, but learn a few names and you’re in for some wonderful wine. For collecting, these St. Josephs will age 5-20 years into elegant gems. At $45 per bottle, if you have the cellar space, why not?
Here’s the Northern Rhône 101 you need to know. From North to South, the five most important red wine appellations are:
Côte-Rotie – Known for raw power and best aging potential
St. Joseph – Known for fresh wines and a big appellation
Hermitage – Known for power, purity, and consistent ripening even in cooler years
Crozes-Hermitage – This is the flatlands (think Davis) behind Hermitage Hill; wines are fruity and rich
Cornas – Known for wild, untamed Syrah

Photo: Côte-Rotie

The Northern Rhône is much cooler than the Southern Rhône. Its wines are closer in style to Burgundy than the powerful Grenache-based blends of the Southern Rhône. Geologically it’s mostly about granite until you get to the northern part of Côte-Rotie where the clay and schist kick in the power. Syrah has many different faces. If you’re scanning a restaurant wine list or shopping for a bottle for dinner, St. Joseph and Hermitage under $100 will be the most friendly. They will be the cleanest, smoothest, freshest. Hermitage over $150 is probably meant for cellaring and will be rich, tanic, thick Syrah that many Pinot and Cabernet consumers don’t like. Cornas and Côte Rotie of any prestige need at least five years to settle into enjoyable wine. If you want to go there, give them as many hours as possible in a decanter.
Michel Chapoutier is Europe’s biggest buyer of wine grapes. He makes nine million bottles of wine a year. He owns wineries in Portugal, Australia, Alsace, and the home winery in Tain is 13,000 square meters. These facts often lead to homogenous wines of average quality, but not here. Almost everything he makes is outstanding. He and his team are passionate, committed and highly skilled. My red carpet tour brought me up the top of Hermitage Hill for a geology lesson and finished in the employee break room with a four-course lunch. My top recommendation is listed above, and you can buy anything from this producer with confidence.

Photo: Chapoutier Barrel Room

Pierre Gaillard
This visit was the highlight of my week. I had requested a driving tour of Côte-Rotie. My host Jeanne Gaillard gave me her whole day and showed me how people who grew up around the steep hillside handle the cliffhanger roads. Rolling over the steep roads I found myself praying that Jeanne would stay in first gear. The winery visit was great, and the buy is any vintage of his St. Joseph, Côte Rotie or Crozes Hermitage.

Photo: Côte-Rotie

Domaine Georges Vernay makes the best Viognier in the world. It’s rich without being heavy, floral without tasting dusty. It brings a fruit/acid balance to die for and packs ethereal energy. What is this ethereal energy I’m talking about? When I taste a wine like this, I can feel it just below my eyes, near my sinuses. It’s absolutely wonderful. The visit was wonderful. Shown around by Paul Amsellem, husband of wine maker Christine Vernay, I was treated to another drive on the famous hillside. To be clear, there is a lot of Viognier coming from the famous hillside of Condrieu. You’re not going to drink it often, so when you see Vernay Condrieu “Coteau de Vernon” on a list, order with confidence.

Photo: Paul Amsellem (Vernay)

I had wonderful visits with the three top Côte-Rotie producers. I enjoyed one-on-one barrel tasting with Stephane Ogier; a four-hour epic, all-in-French session with legendary Jean-Paul Jamet; and the full Guigal tour followed by lunch with Phillipe Guigal. I rode shotgun in Phillipe Guigal’s car to and from lunch!
Côte-Rotie is for collecting and will run you $100-$1000 per bottle. On a restaurant list, look for something with at least five years on it for $200+, and avoid 2008. Have it decanted for at least an hour and enjoy.

Photo: Stephane Ogier


Photo: Jean-Paul Jamet

Take three days in Tain sometime.  Unique hiking, world class reds, whites, and winey visits, Valrona Chocolate factory, small town feel, and good restaurants.  Eat at Carafes En Folie on the Tounon side.  The walk over the bridge after dinner looking up at the Chapel on Hermitage Hill is magic.
Thanks for reading. Joshua.
This entry is Part 4 in the series.
<< Part 1: Hello From French Wine Country
<< Part 2: Left Bank Bordeaux — Dry Wine
<< Part 3: The Regal Unique Appellation of Sauternes