The Rhône River has its origins in Geneva, Switzerland, but its early meanderings have no significance in the wine world. Its impact begins only south of Lyon, where it flows together with the Saone to form a river of importance, both for commerce and for wine. By the time it flows into the Mediterranean Sea, it has passed through some of France’s most important winegrowing areas.
The Northern Rhône vineyards begin only half an hour by car south of Lyon. Ampuis, on the right bank, anchors the vertiginous vineyards of Côte Rôtie, so steep that tractors and animals cannot be used and all the vineyard work must be done by hand. Just below Ampuis is Condrieu, home to the uniquely aromatic white wine made from Viognier. The hill of Hermitage lies on the left bank down the river a few miles. Côte Rôtie and Hermitage are both 100% Syrah, as are the red wines made just below Tain l’Hermitage. There are two more appellations here — Crozes-Hermitage on the left bank and St. Joseph on the right.
The Southern Rhône doesn’t begin for another hour’s travel south on the Autoroute. Our producer in Bourg St. Andéol is at the northern limit of the Côtes du Rhône appellation, which stretches another hour south, well past Chateauneuf du Pape. There’s a marked difference in the weather in the Southern Rhône. It feels the vivid, intense sun that inspired artists like Van Gogh, Cezanne and Picasso; and the equally fierce Mistral blows regularly. Both conditions are good for vineyard health and ripeness, and the area produces a large amount of rich red wine, much of it a blend of Grenache and Syrah.