Northern Rhône: under the radar


Views through the vines in a steeply sloping northern Rhone vineyard.
Photograph: Jason Lowe
With its world-class wines, winemakers and terroir, the Northern Rhône is an undisputed fine-wine hotspot. So why does it continue to fly under the radar, asks our Buyer Catriona Felstead MW.

There are only a handful of regions across the globe that can be considered truly iconic in terms of tasting and understanding wine. Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Barolo, Rioja… these are all names that are embedded in even the most amateur wine enthusiast’s vocabulary. And, firmly up there, in the same breath as these “fine wine” exemplars, is the Northern Rhône.

Yet, for many wine aficionados, this incredible region remains an afterthought – a fact I find difficult to comprehend. The Northern Rhône has just experienced its fifth wonderful vintage in succession; it is home to some of the greatest winemakers in the world; it produces some truly astonishing and unique styles of both red and white wine, and the wines, almost to a fault, offer tremendous value for money.

Simply put, these are superb fine wines to lay down for both investment and future enjoyment, wines that can compete on a quality level with any in the world while, generally, not costing a fortune.

Winemaking at 60-degrees

So what is it that is both so amazing yet often so unappreciated, about this region? Firstly, let’s consider its dramatic landscape. It really has to be seen to be believed, and perhaps this is not always translated into the general consumers’ perception of the bottle on offer in front of them.

From the incredible, often 60-degree gradients of Côte-Rôtie, via the hills of Condrieu and Hermitage, and the steep slopes of St Joseph and Cornas, the general impression of the Northern Rhône is one of vines clinging, almost impossibly, to the hillside as the landscape falls away, like a painting, towards the eponymously named river below.

With mechanisation impossible, such landscape requires truly dedicated work in the vineyards. Harvest, particularly, is gruelling work but, year-round, work has to be carried out to shore up the terraces and minimise the risk of erosion, as well as all the essential, manual work pruning and tending to the vineyards.

Despite these difficult conditions, many producers have deliberately taken the decision to focus even more of their time on the vineyards by work organically and biodynamically; this improves the vine, grape and, therefore, wine quality. After the damaging hailstorm in Crozes-Hermitage in 2019, for example, one biodynamic grower sprayed valerian (for vegetative revival) and arnica (for its healing properties) on the plants immediately after the hail and noted that the results were “amazing”.

The next generation

This type of exquisite hard labour can only be undertaken by a certain type of person – which leads me on to the characters of this unique place with its palpable (Roman) history. Many producers come from families that have been there for many decades, and a number of our growers in this offer are already transferring the reins to the next generation.

This hereditary transfer of knowledge is invaluable when understanding and adapting to the conditions of these otherwise inhospitable vineyards. But often the new generation brings with it as well new ideas to improve and refine the wines – evolution, not revolution as it were.

In praise of Syrah

And then there is the unequivocally key red grape variety of the North: Syrah. Where do I begin with Syrah? Along with Riesling, my personal view is that this is one of the most under-appreciated varieties in existence. And yet, much to my chagrin, I propose to you that if I re-term it Shiraz, then many more would flock to its call. While Syrah and Shiraz are indeed the same variety, its expressions across the globe are so hugely different, it defies belief.

The heavy, glycerol-rich Shiraz of the Barossa simply bears no resemblance to something which is one of my absolute favourite wine styles of all: that lifted, perfumed, exhilarating red wine of the Northern Rhône with its violet scent, black pepper spice and rainwater perfume.

For those that appreciate and enjoy the finesse of Burgundy, elegant Northern Rhône Syrah should literally be the next port of call. The astonishingly lifted flavour, intoxicating complexity and sophistication of these wines should make them a must-buy for any Pinot-phile who wishes to branch out – not only from a stylistic point of view, but also considering their investment potential.

As a recent LIVEX report from November 2020 stated: “The Northern Rhône also continues to offer relative value for money. Its finest Syrah is 7.5 times cheaper than Burgundy’s top Pinot Noirs on average. Even more pertinently, they are half the price of the best from Australia.”

I hope that this insight to the region will inspire you to adore these wonderful wines as much as I do.

To find more about Rhône 2019 En Primeur, browse the offer here.