The river Rhône – one of the world’s great vinous waterways – rises in Switzerland before flowing through Lake Geneva and into France; it gets interesting wine-wise when it takes a dramatic left turn at Lyon and begins heading south. The vineyards begin on the schist slopes above Vienne; vines have grown on these steep inclines since at least Roman times and from there, for the next 250-odd kilometres (with a short pause at Montelemar) vines flank the river until it finally splits at Arles into the Carmargue delta and into the Mediterranean.
When one talks about “Rhône wines”, one is really speaking about the warmer Mediterranean southern Rhone, which accounts for 90% of all of the region’s production. Here Grenache is the king of the red grapes: the “pinot of the south”. It is blended with Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault and a host of other varieties to produce Chateauneuf du Papes, Vacqueyras, Gigondas and Cotes du Rhône, from clay-limestone vineyards, often with areas of sand and regularly overlaid with the characteristic rolled pebbles.
Our main focus is on the northern Rhône
The most northerly appellation is Cote Rotie. These are Syrah wines possessing just 12-13% alcohol, of lean muscle and liquid granite. Cote Rotie is the apogee of balletic Syrah and a new generation is coming through producing wines not in the oaky, syrupy style so beloved in the 90s but rather in the mould of the ‘traditionalists’; like our very own, dear Agnes Levet, which have become highly sought-after cult wines with huge demand worldwide. Levet is joined in our portfolio by her cousin at Domaine Chambeyron and by Christophe Billon.
The next village south is Condrieu, where the liquefied stone of Cote Rotie is channelled through the luscious, white Viognier grape. Condrieu’s low-acid, high mineral style of wine makes it wonderfully digestible and popular with A&B clients. We work with a variety of growers from the village, many of whom also make wines from neighbouring Cote Rotie and St Joseph: an appellation covering both reds and whites. The likes of Julien Pilon and Xavier Gerrard, two younger growers make outstanding wines.
We work with the most famous grower in Condrieu, Domaine Georges Vernay
South of Condrieu, vines are often found perpendicular to the river. This is St Joseph which runs all the way down to one of France’s most famous appellations: Hermitage. This imposing hill, overlooking the town of Tain, is centred around a granite lump which has been cut-off from the Massif Central and means Hermitage sits on the opposite (eastern) bank from every other Northern Rhône appellation. We work with the master of the appellation Jean-Louis Chave, whose family started off in St Joseph in 1481 before purchasing land in Hermitage in the 19th century. Chave’s Hermitages (both red from Syrah and white from Marsanne/Roussanne) are among France’s greatest and longest lived wines.
Jean-Louis’ ‘Selection’ label wines are some of the best value in our whole portfolio
Just two appellations of note remain in the granite lands of the Northern Rhône: Cornas and St Peray. They sit across the river from the town of Valence. St Peray makes a wonderful white on the clay-limestone soils next to the granite hill of Cornas, whose brutal, beautiful wines have become incredibly popular. We work with one of the defining producers: Thierry Allemand whose wines are always in very high demand. We also work with a younger grower, introduced to us by Thierry: Mikael Bourg. Thierry describes him as “vrai Cornas” and his wines are wonderful artisanal representations of their terroir.