A spectacular ’99 vintage has refocused attention on the wines of the northern Rhône, where small production is key, even among large producers.

Demand for the red Syrah-based wines of the northern Rhône has doubled or tripled in the past 20 years—from almost nothing to not very much. Their rarity, as well as their quality, has turned the top wines from Côte Rôtie, Hermitage, Cornas, Saint-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage into hot properties among collectors.

With the superb 1999 vintage, this demand is intensifying. And now the increasing quality and interest—and high prices—of the white wines of the region, especially from Condrieu and Hermitage, has put further pressure on the region’s ability to meet the worldwide clamor for its wines.

“We don’t make cult wines as such, but we certainly do make niche wines, since there is such a tiny production of each,” says Jacques Pradelle, the president of the Crozes-Hermitage growers association.

Although Philippe Guigal, son of top producer Marcel Guigal, says he believes that “in this part of the Rhône, it is the terroir that marks a wine, almost more than the vintage,” he also admits that the 1999 reds are exceptional. In addition to tasting more 90-point-plus wines in a week in the northern Rhône than I would ever taste in Bordeaux, Burgundy or Piedmont, I tasted more tannic, hugely concentrated young reds than I have found even among Napa Cabernet Sauvignons. Yet the pleasure was always there, even among the tannins.

Syrah can quite naturally produce the powerful, concentrated wines that the modern wine-drinking world wants. Condrieu’s Viognier, with its complex spice flavors and weightiness, is an ideal pretender to Chardonnay’s throne. The Marsanne and Roussanne of Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage and Saint-Joseph can produce wines that express huge richness and power.

The small production of all these wines, a complete contrast to the vast plantings of the southern Rhône, means that they can retain their place as niche wines. “Do we make garage wines?” asks Guigal, and without a pause, answers, “Yes, we’ve been making them forever—I suspect our first garages were used to house Roman chariots.”

Château-Grillet overlooks the Rhône from
its terraced amphitheater of vines
The northern Rhône is where the Syrah grape reaches what many would argue is its apogee, its highest expression. “We are at the northern limits of growing Syrah,” says Jean-Michel Gerin. “It is just the same in Burgundy, where Pinot Noir is at its northern limit for making great red wines, or in Bordeaux with Cabernet Sauvignon. It means we can make the purest-tasting Syrah, but it also means our wines will never be too ripe to go with food.”

Gerin entertains a steady stream of Australian winemakers wanting, he says, to worship at the home shrine of Syrah. “They leave bottles, and I often have global Syrah tastings. I believe that the New World relies too much on ripeness and not enough on freshness.”

Where the Action Is
Four appellations are making the biggest waves: Côte Rôtie for reds, Saint-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage for reds and whites and Condrieu for whites. Hermitage remains the benchmark for reds as well as whites.

The northern Rhône vineyards follow the Rhône river in a narrow strip, 70 miles long and sometimes less than half a mile wide, from Vienne, near Lyon, south to Valence, a three-hour drive north of Marseille. The steep vineyards of Côte Rôtie, Condrieu, Château-Grillet, Saint-Joseph, Cornas and Saint-Péray hang vertiginously on the cliffs beside the river Rhône, on the western bank. Just two appellations—Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage—are on the eastern bank.

These are some of the toughest vineyards to work in the whole of France. Small patches of vines, planted in the granite rocks, two rows at a time, are held in place by terraces that drop away from dirt tracks that wind their way up and down the mountain sides. The idea of using anything as remotely mechanical as a tractor is laughable.

Many vineyards were abandoned after phylloxera struck a century ago, and were replaced by apricot, peach and cherry orchards. Twenty years ago, the springtime traveler on the train from Paris to Provence would have passed thousands of acres of blossoming trees.

With the collapse in the price of tree fruit in the early 1980s, vines were re-established. Elsewhere, land with a 2,000-year history of vines, which had lain fallow since phylloxera, was replanted. These vineyards are now reaching maturity. The combination of mature vines with improvements in vineyard management and winemaking has meant that the overall quality of Northern Rhône wines is at an all-time high.

The Appellations of the Northern Rhône

Château-Grillet The taste of the wine is intense—apricots, honey and ripe fruits, but this white wine is dry. This is one of a handful of France’s single-producer appellations (others include Romanée-Conti and Coulée de Serrant) and rarity (average production is 1,000 cases), rather than quality, has elevated the price.

Condrieu The dry white Viognier has an intense spicy fruit, apricots and honey bouquet; the sweet version has the concentration of a late- harvest wine. Recommended producers: Clusel-Roch, Yves Cuilleron, Jean-Michel Gerin, Guigal, André Perret, Georges Vernay, Les Vins de Vienne, François Villard.

Cornas The wine is fuller than the more familiar Côte Rôtie, very closed up and tannic when young, but in good years the Syrah’s fruit breaks through with intense earthy, spicy, violet flavors. Top wines are not ready for drinking for 10 years. Recommended producers: Thierry Allemand, August Clape, Jean-Luc Colombo, Delas Frères, Eric et Joel Durand, Jean Lyonnet, Robert Michel, Domaine du Tunnel.

Côte Rôtie The wine is rich, very smooth when mature, with the quintessential spicy, pure fruit of the Syrah. Once Viognier was blended to soften the Syrah, now most wines are 100 percent Syrah. Recommended producers: Chapoutier, Clusel-Roch, Jean-Michel Gerin, Guigal, Jamet, Jean-Michel Stephan, Georges Vernay, François Villard.

Crozes-Hermitage Good wines have a spicy aroma, with blackcurrant fruit when young. They develop quite quickly (within three to four years) and age up to six and eight years for better wines. Recommended producers: Bernard Chave, Domaine Combier, Delas Frères, Alain Graillot, Jaboulet Aîné, Domaine Etienne Pochon, Domaine des Remizières.

Hermitage The reds, with their superb keeping powers, offer intense blackcurrant fruit when young and a chocolaty richness when mature. Wines from good years seem capable of surviving almost forever and should not be touched before 10 years. Whites are rich, fat wines, with exotic fruit characteristics and a similar ability to age. Recommended producers: Chapoutier, Jean-Louis Chave, Delas Frères, Jaboulet Aîné, Marc Sorrel, Cave de Tain l’Hermitage.

Saint-Joseph The style of Saint-Joseph derives its character from the sand and gravel that are mixed in with the granite. While there is much young, fruity Saint-Joseph around, there has been a move to make firmer, more concentrated wines that can age. Whites, once dull, are now being made with great richness. Recommended producers: Jean-Luc Colombo, Domaine Courbis, Pierre Coursodon, Delas Frères, Eric et Joel Durand, Pierre Gaillard, Domaine Gonon, Bernard Gripa, Guigal, Jaboulet Aîné, Les Vins de Vienne.

Saint-Péray The still white wine is dry with a high natural acidity, a pale gold color and a relatively short life span (four to five years). It is lighter and fresher than other northern Rhône whites. Recommended producers: Jean-Luc Colombo, Jaboulet Aîné, Cave de Tain l’Hermitage, Domaine du Tunnel.

The area is dominated by six producers: five négociants—Chapoutier, Delas Frères, Guigal, Jaboulet Aîné and Vidal-Fleury (owned by Guigal but run independently)—plus the cooperative of Tain l’Hermitage. Luckily for the area, these six firms are locomotives for the wines, getting the highest quality out into the world. The Tain cooperative, with 50 percent of the production of the northern Rhône (including a quarter of the appellation of Hermitage), is considered one of the top five co-ops in France.

Seen from the western bank of the Rhône, the hill of Hermitage looms over the village of Tain

Unusually for what we have come to know about niche or cult wines, in the northern Rhône the smallest producers do not have a monopoly on taste, rarity or price. Apart from making quantities of everyday wines, all six of the big producers have the same predilection for niche wines as the smallest of producers.

Chapoutier, for example, makes a range of single-parcel wines from Hermitage (L’Orée, Le Méal, Le Pavillon), Côte Rôtie (La Mordorée) and Saint-Joseph (Les Granits) that are among the rarest, the most expensive and most sought after from the region. Guigal’s Côte Rôties from La Landonne, La Mouline and La Turque are the most famous in the appellation.

White-Hot Rhônes
Despite worldwide acclaim, the hottest wines in the northern Rhône are not reds, but whites. The fame of Condrieu is recent, but growing. With the tiny amounts from each producer, prices for these wines are now edging above those for the reds of the region.

By picking superripe fruit, producers have managed to combine the perfumed spices of the exotic Viognier grape, with its apricot and peach flavors, with great concentration and even some good acidity, especially in the 2000 vintage. Georges Vernay, Jean-Michel Gerin, Yves Cuilleron, Robert Niero and François Villard are currently exciting domaines, while Guigal makes the stunning La Doriane.

A Mixed Case Of Northern Rhône Wines

White Wines

94 Paul Jaboulet Aîné 1999 Chevalier de Sterimberg (Hermitage); $75. Powerful, rich and concentrated, with heady perfumes of wildflowers and nuts. The palate combines a hint of wood, a full-bodied, oily texture and a stunning burst of acidity, leaving a fresh, crisp aftertaste.

93 Georges Vernay 2000 Les Terrasses de l’Empire (Condrieu); $57. Viognier to extremes. This evocatively named wine is ripe and creamy, deliciously flavored with peaches, apricots and nectarines and an undercurrent of spice and vanilla.

91 Pierre Coursodon 2000 Le Paradis Saint-Pierre (Saint-Joseph); $23. A ripe, concentrated wine from superripe grapes. The aromas of peaches, stones and caramel are very inviting. Initially, it seems almost sweet, but as its flavors of nuts and exotic fruits develop on the palate, it becomes hugely rich.

Red Wines

98 M. Chapoutier 1999 Le Méal (Hermitage); $150. Chapoutier’s selections of the best parcels of vines in Hermitage are set to become legendary. Sold under the ancient spelling of the appellation name (Ermitage), they represent the epitome of the appellation’s power and concentration. This cuvée suggests rather than reveals power at this stage. Age it until your newborn baby is old enough to drink.

97 Jean-Louis Chave 1999 Hermitage; $125. Jean-Louis, the son of Gérard Chave, is now in charge of the family business, as well as being president of the Hermitage wine producers. He is continuing the family tradition of making Hermitage that combines massive structure and overpowering perfumes. His 1999 has the best of the traditional world’s tannic immensity and the modern world’s beautiful, ripe fruit.

97 E. Guigal 1998 La Landonne (Côte Rôtie); $75. This is almost certainly the most famous Côte Rôtie from the best vineyard in the appellation. It is a wine of power. Dry fruits and tannic aromas give an immediate sense of structure and strength. On the palate, it is wild—savage almost—with huge tannins and untamed exotic perfumes. The wood—it spends 42 months in new oak—seems almost incidental to the power of the fruit.

95 Joel & Eric Durand 1999 Empreintes (Cornas); $37. A huge, ink-black wine with all the brooding majesty that gives Cornas its reputation—it’s a blockbuster with enormous amounts of rich, sweet tannin. At the end it is the quality of the superripe fruit from old vines that dominates. Certainly a wine to keep for generations.

94 Delas Frères 1999 Les Bessards (Hermitage); $98. Old vines in the Les Bessards vineyard on the Hermitage hill have yielded a majestic wine that boasts considerable power. With its strong, firm tannins and intense, brooding dark fruits, this is a wine that has obviously been made to last. With little new wood (only 10 percent was aged in new oak), the structure and the complexity come entirely from the enormously ripe fruit and traditional fermentation.

93 Clusel-Roch 1999 Côte Rôtie; $NA. According to Brigitte Roch, this was an exceptional year for the domaine. With its huge concentration, heavy black tannins, fine acidity and hugely ripe fruit, it is hard to disagree. This wine, made using an old-fashioned hand-operated basket press, is full of power, yet has an astonishing elegance.

93 E. Guigal 1999 Lieu-Dit Saint-Joseph (Saint-Joseph); $28. The label is designed like a banknote, by the man who used to design French francs (now, of course, out of a job). The wine inside the bottle is powerful and concentrated, flavored heavily with new wood, vanilla and spicy fruits.

92 Alain Graillot 1999 La Guiraude (Crozes-Hermitage); $25. Alain Graillot, chemical industry executive turned farmer, is showing how good Crozes-Hermitage really can be. The 1999 vintage of La Guiraude is a powerful but bright wine, full of red fruits, firm tannins and balancing acidity. Raisins and rich fruit join the mixture that goes to make an immediately enticing wine, but one that also should age beautifully over the next 10 years.

92 Paul Jaboulet Aîné 1999 Domaine Raymond Roure (Crozes-Hermitage); $33. A densely colored wine from this small estate, bought by Jaboulet Aîné in 1995, with aromas of ripe concentrated fruits, dense tannins and flavors of new wood, spices and hedgerow fruits. It is a wine of great complexity, showing enormous aging potential.

Even more exciting, because they are more unexpected, are the white wines being made from Marsanne and Roussanne. In the past, wines from both grapes have seemed just fat and heavy, without much character. No longer. Now they have exotic fruit nuances similar to those that make Viognier so interesting. They also have a fine, crisp acidity—unheard of a few years ago. And they take to a touch of wood flavor, gaining complexity and spice.

Whites from Saint-Joseph in particular are fascinating and still well-priced. Look for bottlings from Guigal, Bernard Gripa, Domaine Gonon and Delas Frères. Those from Crozes-Hermitage (Jaboulet Aîné and Cave de Tain l’Hermitage in particular) are getting there, but not yet on a level with the reds. The whites from Hermitage are stunning and stunningly expensive: Chapoutier’s L’Orée, for example, retails for around $130 a bottle. Jean-Louis Chave is another fine producer.

The New Rhône Generation: Quality, and Escaping Globalization
As with much of French viticulture, a change in generation in the northern Rhône has brought a change in culture both to the négociants (all family-owned) and the individual vignerons. The fathers, who had the same positive attitude to volume among their vines as they did among their fruit trees, have given way to sons and daughters who see quality first.

Gilbert Clusel and Brigitte Roch’s Condrieu and Côte Rôtie vineyards for the 15,000-bottle Domaine Clusel-Roch are good examples of the use of better clones, reduced volume in the vineyard and cutting-edge winemaking. An increasing number of producers are harvesting riper grapes; fruit is carefully sorted before fermentation, and wood is increasingly used as a tool for imparting flavor as much as a container.

It is all familiar stuff and could easily become the making of good wine without roots. But, says Jacques Grange, who runs négociant Delas Frères (now part of the Roederer Champagne group), “In the northern Rhône you have real terroirs.” Grange, who hails from Burgundy, sees a Burgundian grading of grand crus and premier crus in the different parcels of Rhône vineyards. “Wines here have individual characters from the slopes of the hills. They shouldn’t become stereotyped or globalized.”

Yet the northern Rhône seems to be escaping the worst effects of globalization—at least so far. “We need to think of the origin of each wine in the northern Rhône,” asserts Jean-Louis Chave, one of the most famous Hermitage producers. “If the origin is good, then the wine is good.”

The grape varieties and the terroirs mark the wines, but the escape from globalization is also because of the people. From small vignerons to big négociants, they all seem to have a special attitude toward this corner of the French vineyard. “Even the Bordelais are coming here to find out what is so special about our wines,” says Gerin.

Wood can be one of the great obliterators of terroir and origin of a wine. Add too much wood taste, and the wine could come from anywhere. Yet, again, the northern Rhône seems to avoid the worst effects of wood. Guigal, whose top Côte Rôties get 42 months in new barriques, goes further than anyone in the search for wood flavors. But even here, the huge fruit of the Syrah wines powers through the wood. Only when the wines are opened too young does the wood appear dominant.

Guigal’s wines remain wines for aging, like pretty much all the wines of the northern Rhône, white as well as red. Some wines from the Crozes-Hermitage appellation (such as Domaine Combier and Jaboulet Aîné’s Domaine de Thalabert) can be drunk within a couple of years, and some whites (such as Delas Frère’s Clos Boucher) from Condrieu are attractive when young. But all the greatest wines—from Hermitage, Cornas and Côte Rôtie in particular—will age easily for 10, 15 or even 20 years.

So with good taste, long life and cult status without the stratospheric price punch of California, is there any bad news about the 1999s? Well, yes. Hail reduced production levels in wines that are often sold out midway through the market year even in bountiful vintages. But the good news is that many have just been released and are still available. And having tasted barrel samples of 2000 and 2001, consumers can look forward to more good news in the coming months.

Published on June 1, 2002

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