The Rhone River, which rises high in the Swiss Alps, passes through Lake Geneva in a broadly westerly direction until it reaches Lyon in France. Here, where it is joined from the north and the Burgundy region by its largest tributary, The Saone, it turns sharply towards the south. These two rivers once formed the great highway along which passed Greek and Phoenician traders from the central and eastern Mediterranean, the latter bringing back tin from far distant Cornwall. Later the Romans too came this way. Which of these brought the wine-producing grapevine is open to speculation, but it is generally accepted that by the time of the Romans there were vineyards planted along the banks of both rivers, wine producing regions which form the origins of modern Burgundy, the Maconnais and Beaujolais on the Saone, and of the northern and southern Rhone below Vienne, a few miles downstream of Lyon.
That the viticultural districts of the Rhone should be grouped into two disparate regions is important in developing an understanding of the wines, for there are distinct differences in climate, geography and, most obviously, in the grape varieties which predominate. It is in the northern or septentrionale Rhone that the grape variety widely thought to be the amongst the oldest, reigns dominant. That the black Syrah came from the eastern Mediterranean and the cradle of wine production is sadly inconsistent with modern ampelographic evidence, which finds that its origins lie here in south-eastern France. However, it does seem possible that it may have existed at the time of Pliny the Elder, who wrote of the prized wines produced from the dark-skinned grapes grown in Vienne, the site of the modern Cote Rotie, in 77 BC.
Wines made from Syrah are often powerfully flavoured and full-bodied in their youth. Here on the steep terraced valley of the Rhone it gives wines with aromatic characteristics that are most usually associated with violets and dark berries, bramble, chocolate, coffee and black pepper. With time in the bottle these primary aromas are moderated and then supplemented with complex earthy or savoury tertiary notes such as leather and truffle. Certainly the deeply coloured wines of Cote Rotie, Hermitage, and Cornas, and to a lesser extent Crozes-Hermitage and St.Joseph, can be a forbidding spectacle in their youth – in the case of Cote Rotie and Crozes Hermitage the appellation laws permit the addition of a maximum of between 15 – 20% of white grapes, specifically in Cote Rotie of the aromatic Viognier, which when used undoubtedly contributes to the graceful and complex elegance for which it is particularly renowned. One should however be aware that even here there are many ‘new-wave’ producers, mindful of the current fashion for darker, heavily extracted wine styles championed by the high profile producer Etienne Guigal, and conforming to the prejudices of certain (American) wine critics, who disparage the use any Viognier.
Great northern Rhone Syrahs, most particularly from the favoured terroirs of Hermitage and Cote Rotie, are amongst the finest and most majestic bottles of wine in the world, capable of up to 30 years maturation. Those of the best producers have a loyal following, and command high prices. Cornas and St.Joseph, formerly inexpensive, are also no longer so, though in good hands they can be outstanding. By contrast, there are some superb Crozes-Hermitage available at relatively moderate prices.
Viognier is, of course, more than simply a softener for Cote Rotie. Now something of a darling amongst wine producers throughout the world, it was until comparatively recently confined to the upper reaches of the Northern Rhone, most famously in its incarnation as Condrieu, the tiny, uniquely white wine appellation sandwiched between Cote Rotie to the north and St.Joseph to the south. Noted for its high aromatics, with overtones of peach and apricot, here on the steep granite terraces with their overlay of chalk, flint and mica, Viognier is capable of reaching extraordinary levels of complexity, balancing a fine mineral delicacy with a sometimes substantial body. Dry by default, when sweet it must be labelled Selection de Grain Nobles. White wines are also made under the Crozes-Hermitage, St.Joseph and Hermitage appellations using varying blends of the round, full bodied Marsanne and more aromatic, herb-scented Roussanne varieties. Great Hermitage Blanc, with its aromas of honeysuckle, tropical fruit and minerals, is capable of developing wonderful complexity over 15 or more years.