I must start this post with a thank-you to my faithful clients who entrusted me with their Rhone trip – a long way from my Bordeaux base. Spring is a wonderful time to visit France and see it at its best. Having been away from France for a few months, I appreciated it all the more. The food was great too. The French love of seasonal produce meant we saw asparagus on every menu but it was delicious. Good for the system too: on wine tours like these any detox effort is very welcome, more about the awesome food scene in the Rhone in another post.
It has been far too long (seven years) since I spent any length of time in the Rhone valley. Has anything changed? Well, yes it has. As in Bordeaux wine tourism is developing. The structure of the vineyards is different; there are many smaller properties each with a larger range of wines and appellations than we are used to in Bordeaux but there are also large negociants and wine makers, and the larger successful properties are growing at the expense of the smaller ones. So far so familiar.
The vineyards of the Rhone are spread over an even larger region than Bordeaux, Bordeaux may have more hectares of vines (111 000 compared to 86 000) but from the North in Vienne down the Rhone Valley to the South in Avignon they stretch over about 200kms, quite a trip but well worth it.
Wine tourism has changed the visitor experience, mostly for the better. Some properties may have lost some of their intimacy with a more commercial approach but it seems a small price to pay for being able to visit more vineyards, taste more wines and get to known them better. Without mentioning any names, some producers are still reticent to receive even faithful clients, some are just badly organised and others are unwilling to take on the staff. Wine enthusiasts often complain about Bordeaux’s closed-door policy (totally unjustified now in my view) but some in the Rhone could give it a run for its money.
If you want a one-stop shop to understand the Rhone, Tain l’Hermitage is becoming the place to go – for both Northern and Southern Rhone wines. Chapoutier have always been really welcoming; their wine shop and tasting room is a stone’s throw from their Hermitage vineyards so, although they are in town, it’s easy to start amongst the vines and move on to a tasting. With a great range of tasting options it’s possible to get a really clear understanding of the range they produce. Once you know this you can easily recognise their vineyards throughout the region, especially at this time of year, their biodynamic approach leads to a profusion of poppies across all their vineyards.
Jaboulet have also opened The Vineum; a tasting room, shop and restaurant in the town centre with tasty seasonal dishes (more asparagus) and flights of wines to match. And it’s not so far from the iconic La Chappelle. If you want to go to La Chappelle try and be in town for one of their ‘Bar Ephemère’ nights when they open a wine bar around the Chapel at the top of the Hermitage hill. You can sip their wines watching the sun set over that magnificent view of the Rhone Valley. Delas Freres will soon be in on the act too, moving across the river from Saint-Jean-de-Muzols when they finish renovating the old Jaboulet family property in the heart of the town to welcome their clients.
Then of course there’s ‘The Cité du Chocolat’ – not wine I know but it should definitely be on your itinerary.
These trends are also in the Southern Rhone where wineries are opening tastings rooms offering a complete range of their wines from across the appellations, in the towns rather than at the vineyards. I mentioned Chapoutier and Jaboulet in Tain but the Perrin Family, known for Beaucastel and Miraval, have tasting rooms and shops in Tain, Châteauneuf et Aix; all showcases for their large range of wine. This had a bit of a Californian feel, offering multiple tastings moving away from production facilities as a way to reach a broader audience perhaps?
Avignon should catch up soon. The Inter Rhone growers association, are threatening to open their new ‘Maison du Vin’ wine experience the ‘Carré du Palais’; in the beautiful old Banque de France building on the central square. Situated right next to the Palais des Papes, it will be worth the wait.
Innovation is not only in tourism. International trends in wine making are here too: the search for elegance was mentioned almost everywhere, more restrained use of oak and a more intimate understanding of terroir with a plot by plot approach to agriculture and wine making and a continued move towards organic and biodynamic practice seems to be a familiar refrain across the wine world right now.
The Rhone may be one of the oldest wine regions of France – but there is always something new. Pierre-Jean Villa is a favourite producer; last time I visited he was putting the finishing touches to his new cellar and now it is fully functional with a tiny terrace wedged in between his Condrieu vines and cellar in Chavanay in the Saint Joseph appellation. He is one of the founders of the campaign to recognise the Seyssuel terroir which when (rather than if) successful with be the most northern AOC of the Rhone. It has been producing wine for a long time as a Vin de France but with leaders like Pierre Jean is now producing great wines worthy of the higher official status.
We also spent time in Cornas for the first time thanks to wine maker and consultant Jean-Luc Colombo. This small, but perfectly formed appellation, was previously known for its rather rustic style but thanks to innovators like the Colombos the wines now have an elegance that belies this image. Cornas is at the divide between the Northern and Southern Rhone. The vegetation bears witness with a demarcation between the evergreen southern oak and the deciduous Northern oak and the wines seem to reflect this marriage of elegance and power, les Terres Brûlées was a particular favourite. And anyone that takes you on a tour of the vineyards in a Landrover Defender gets my vote.
Stéphane Ogier merits a special mention for innovation too with his brand new gravity fed cellar in Ampuis. He takes the parcellaire selection and fermentation a step further by offering wines from six of his Côte Rôtie sold as a ‘set’ in a case with a map to identify exactly where they hail from which is reproduced on each label if you closely enough. He is also a champion of Seyssuel, his ‘Ame Soeur’ clearly show the potential of this vineyard.
The innovation isn’t limited to the North. Isabel Ferrando has created a modern and functional cellar in Châteauneuf du Pape. The Domaine Saint Préfert has a long history and has now come back to life under the tutelage of this dynamic woman and her young winemaker Hélène Bluezen – a feminine expression in so many ways.
Once I’ve collected my thoughts I’ll be sharing some more details on some of the producers and the amazing food of the region over the next few weeks. If you are tempted to see for yourself and need a guide – I’ll be happy to help, hopefully I won’t have to wait another seven years before delving deep into the wines and the food of the Rhone again.