Each January for the past few years I have visited the Northern Rhône for the annual Marché aux Vins in Ampuis. It has been a great way to learn about this historic, famous and yet relatively small wine region.
When people talk about Rhône wines they often mean those of the Côtes du Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, rich in Grenache and with a warm, Mediterranean style. However, to the north, along the river between Valence and Vienne, lie vineyards of higher esteem
in the eyes of wine connoisseurs.
Known in France as Le Rhône Septentrional (the Latin word means ‘of the north’) and rich in Roman history lie the fabled vineyards of Hermitage, Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie, where Syrah and Viognier are the king and queen of grapes.
The whites can be relatively simple wines from Saint-Péray and Saint-Joseph, made from Roussanne and Marsanne. I personally find these the least exciting wines of the region. They seem to have a slightly soapy texture and flavours of melon, peach and pear. Some manage to have a more interesting minerality.
However, the finest whites of Condrieu, made from Viognier and fermented in oak barriques, can have a beautiful grace and tension combined with the particular apricot characters of the grape. The downside is that they are nearly all expensive, especially those of the tiny Château Grillet AOP, because demand exceeds supply.
The red wines are made purely from Syrah and have a characteristic structure and freshness that is not often found in wines of the Southern Rhône or Languedoc, nor in the Shiraz of Australia.
Saint-Joseph is the largest AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) by area and covers a lot of different terroirs. In general, the wines are the least concentrated of the region and can show unripe, rustic characters.
However, certain domaines, such as Coursodon and Voge, have made it their goal to produce Saint-Joseph wines that can compete with their more prestigious neighbours.
To the south of the region lies the famous hill of Hermitage, surrounded by the sandier vineyards of Crozes-Hermitage and the small rising-star AOP of Cornas. These wines tend to be the richest and most powerful, although Crozes is noticeably smoother and fruitier on the palate.
For me, the jewel in the crown is the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) Côte-Rôtie, perhaps partly because those are the vineyards which surround the town of Ampuis, where the Marché aux Vins takes place. I love the intense, inky character of the Syrah that comes from these steep, hard-to-farm sites along the river.
What makes it really interesting is that the area is divided into two hillsides, the Côte Brune and the Côte Blonde (named, legend has it, after the hair colour of a local lord’s daughters), and the wines really show the different terroir once you have tasted a few of them.
None of these wines are cheap. Saint-Joseph and Saint-Péray start around €7 and go into the €20s whereas Côte-Rôtie can cost between €25 and €100. However, they are rare, age well and have a truly distinctive character not found elsewhere.
The fair itself is a great event. It costs just €8 for a tasting glass which allows you, if you can fight your way through the crowds and speak nicely to the producers, to taste some of the finest wines in France. Be aware though that it is a market, where people buy lots of wine, and not a fête, where people just drink. But in my experience, the vignerons are just as happy to sell bottles as they are cases.
Outside the fair is a range of stalls selling local cheeses, charcuterie and other food products to eat or take away. When the day is over, there are some great “resto-caves” in Ampuis where you can join other winelovers at long tables to enjoy regional cuisine and local wines.
The fair takes place in late January but the region is great to visit all year round, with impressive cellar-doors and great restaurants in the old Roman towns of Vienne and Valence. It is only 30 minutes south of France’s gastronomic metropolis, Lyon.
For more information on the fair, and for dates of next year’s event, see www.marche-aux-vins-ampuis-cote-rotie.com
Jonathan Hesford has a Postgraduate Diploma in Viticulture and Oenology from Lincoln University, New Zealand and is the owner, vigneron and winemaker of Domaine Treloar in the Roussillon – visit www.domainetreloar.com.