Just weeks after the November harvest, I took a whirlwind journey through the Rhône Valley wine region. Spanning more than 150 miles from north to south, the region is demarcated by the Rhône river, which springs from the Swiss Alps and winds its way through southeastern France toward the Mediterranean Sea. The valley it forms separates the Massif Central from the Alps, and it creates a corridor from Northern Europe to the Mediterranean. It’s a vast wine region with a distinct northern and southern identity, 28 appellations and a diversity of landscapes, grapes and wines.
The steep hills of the northern Rhône, seen from Domaine Paul Jaboulet Aîné’s iconic Chapel of St. Christopher atop the hill of Hermitage, are home to the world’s most noble Syrah and storied appellations like Hermitage, Côte Rôtie and Cornas. The low-lying slopes and plains of the southern Rhône are distinctly Mediterranean, with an array of grape varieties like Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah emboldened by heat and sunshine.
Just hours after a red-eye flight from New York to Paris, I arrived at my first appointment, Château L’Ermitage in Costières de Nîmes, bleary-eyed but thirsty.
Once considered part of the Languedoc, Costières de Nîmes has been the southernmost appellation of the Rhône since 2004. The red wines here are blends of Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah, cultivated a stone’s throw from the Mediterranean. The region’s best wines are seductive and rich with black fruit. They’re exuberant, earthy and fresh.
The people here are a melting pot of French, Italian and Spanish influences, says Jérôme Castillon, the owner/winemaker of Château L’Ermitage.
“It’s more bouillabaisse here than cassoulet,” he says as he prepares brunch in the wood-fired oven of an old stablehouse. While simply prepared, the meal is a heartwarming feast of local fare that features a heaping omelette of wild mushrooms, roasted eggplants dressed with tapenade, sweet cherry tomatoes, fresh breads and endless varieties of cheeses and sausages.
Diane de Puymorin, owner/founder of Château d’Or et de Gueules in Costières de Nîmes, is one of many dynamic female winemakers and producers in the Rhône. She left a successful business career in Paris in 1989 after she purchased a winery known mostly for bulk production. Her transformation of the estate into a small, organic winery that specializes in high-quality production is illustrative of a growing trend in the region.
When I arrived, de Puymorin is in the midst of olive harvest, her arms elbow deep in tubs of the fruits of her labor. She interrupted her tasks to walk me through the vineyards. She described her 100-year-old Mourvèdre and Carignan vines as “grandmothers” that sputter to produce extremely low yields. The famous mistral winds were so bone-chilling and fierce that I struggle to keep pace with de Puymorin, whose gait is steadfast and brisk.
A marked contrast to the powerhouse reds of the south, the noble wines of the northern Rhône are defined by their elegance, longevity and exclusivity. Incongruous to their renown, northern Rhône wines make up less than 5 percent of all Rhône Valley wines by quantity. Even the most celebrated producers of Côte Rôtie like Jean-Paul Jamet, pictured here in his cellar, built their reputations from vineyard holdings as small as 17 hectares. Syrah is king in the northern Rhône, augmented by miniscule quantities of the white grapes Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne.
At its best, northern Rhône Syrah is powerful but finessed, and offers a haunting perfume of violets, raspberries, olives and smoke. The perilously steep, rocky slopes of the region’s best vineyards preclude modern conveniences like machine harvesters or even the use of tractors or horses to plow and maintain vines. Painstakingly tended by hand, production depends entirely on human determination and devotion.