Andrew Jefford September 2011 column

  • Friday 19 August 2011

The northern Rhone is, in fact, a kind of second Burgundy

Andrew Jefford

There's something hypnotic about a grand river. Physically, of course: any mass of water snaking towards the sea, in ceaseless if subtle motion, arrests the eye as abruptly as it interrupts the landscape.

There’s a mental hypnosis at work though, too. We can’t get rivers out of our heads. They divide nations, despite the fact that those on both banks have much in common. Their long threads, by contrast, often lend an illusory sense of community to dissimilar places.

The Rhône is an example. its first vineyards are Swiss, of course, but once it’s crossed into France, this muscular, sun-seeking river lends its name to France’s third great fine-wine region: the Rhône Valley. From a wine lover’s point of view, though, the ‘Rhône Valley’ doesn’t (or shouldn’t) exist. it’s an artificial concept that stops us from seeing its two constituent parts clearly.

There’s size, first of all: the southern Rhône is about 25 times larger than the north. Culturally, the south is provence; the north is the Lyonnais. The south is olive oil; it’s butter in the north.

As with other great wine regions of France’s south (like Bordeaux), blends dominate the southern Rhône. The terroirs of the north are (like those of Burgundy, the Loire and Alsace) mostly revealed by a single variety alone. The stones are different, too, as is their disposition beneath the sky.

The northern Rhône is, in fact, a kind of second Burgundy. It’s a sudden flash of possibilities in a place where winemaking is mostly impossible. Those explosions of fine wine come when the big river (whose unhelpful north-south axis creates only eastern or western slopes) kinks a little, or when side valleys come to join the party.

Suddenly, the vines can find a way to face south. Slope, aspect, exposure: every second of sunlight counts. Soil and latitude mean that those in Côte-Rôtie or hermitage work with Syrah, Viognier and marsanne rather than Chardonnay or pinot, but their anxieties and challenges are Burgundian ones: nursing tiny parcels of hill-sited vines through summer rain, hail storms and chilly spells, towards a hard-fought maturity.

Workers may feel roasted on the slopes above Ampuis – but Syrah here will never be full-bodied, sweet or heady in the way it can be in Languedoc, California’s Central Coast or the Barossa Valley.

A few recent trips to what we should perhaps call Vienne-Valence kept making this point, wine after wine. The 2009 vintage is a magnificent one in the region, but that lunchtime bottle of 2009 graillot Crozes-hermitage still tasted as crunchily acidic as the first blackcurrant of summer.

On to Vernay. The 2009 Condrieu cuvées have an inner tension to them which has nothing to do with acidity (there’s just three grams per litre of tartaric acid in the Chaillées de l’Enfer) but seems drawn by osmosis from the granitic sands in some way; even the Viognier, in other words, has none of the muscular breadth of the southern whites.

Paul Amsellem brought me out a barrel sample of his La Blonde from Côte-Rôtie and i was metaphorically in Beaune for a moment: a pale red, the scent of flowers and a light, soaring palate with all the grace of a Fra Angelico angel.

Michel Chapoutier thought all this through many years ago. indeed he now carries the ‘single- parcel, single-variety’ philosophy to almost all the places where he makes wine (six and rising); he even allows Vienne-Valence to shape his Avignon wines (the two Châteauneuf single-parcel wines, Barbe-Rac and Croix de Bois, are both pure grenache).

Towards the end of a characteristically high-voltage, intellectually sparky lunch in the Chapoutier ‘canteen’ (‘I am against the continuous day,’ he said in inviting us), he flourished a 1991 pavillon from Ermitage whose glowing ripeness, suede textures and now gamey perfumes had the kind of disarming loveliness i associate principally with Burgundy.

The beautiful white twins L’Ermite and de l’orée, both 2007s, taught me that marsanne can (quietly) rival Chardonnay up at the summits: a shimmery plaid of flowers, quince and stones.

A taste of two 2007 hermitages, La Chapelle and La petite Chapelle, from Jaboulet (which, under Frey ownership, has made jaw-dropping investments), suggested that both are on the road back to greatness. yes, they are multiparcel blends, though even then there is a Burgundian logic to the division (La Chapelle is granite-based; La petite Chapelle limestone).

Purity, finesse and grace are the keywords for each, and the precision and freshness with which each has been vinified would not be out of place further north.

Tasting barrel samples of some of the ’09 blend constituents in the deep gloom of the Chave cellar was perhaps the most Burgundian experience of all – and Jean-Louis Chave, a man of quiet gravity, would be more than convincing in a tunic and cowl.

The Bessards is the core of everything and this was one of the least fragrant and densest wines I tasted during five days of visits, its sinew and length extending like a suspension bridge. The sunny flamboyance and easy sensuality of the provençal south was a world away.

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