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Northern Rhone

As in the rest of France, 2003 was one of the hottest ever experienced in Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage and St-Joseph. James Lawther MW finds out if the wines suffered in Northern Rhone.

Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage and St-Joseph are part of a select coterie of northern Rhône appellations that also includes Cornas and Côte-Rôtie. They share the Northern Rhone region’s continental climate and red grape variety, Syrah, and more often than not a similar pattern of vintage. But the semblance ceases there, individual terroir imposing a variation in style and identity.

The blue-blooded member of  Northern Rhone is Hermitage, a wine of power and intensity with the ability to age gracefully in the bottle. In top vintages 10 years would be the minimum for an inkling of the complexity of bouquet and flavour the wine can obtain. Production is confined to the 140ha (hectares) of terraced vineyards that straddle the mighty hill of Hermitage, overlooking the Rhône and town of Tain l’Hermitage below. The steep-sided hillslopes, a generally southerly aspect, hand-tended and harvested vines and a mosaic of granite, limestone and clay soils help fashion these distinguished but pricey and limited wines.

On the lower land surrounding Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage provides a round but zesty, fruit-driven version of Syrah for earlier drinking (two to three years). The appellation is more extensive, the largest in the northern Rhône with 1,300ha, and mechanisation prevalent (80% of the crop is machine harvested), enabling Crozes to inhabit the value-for-money end of the market. The soils vary, though, and from granite slopes to the north of the appellation at Gervans and stony soils further south, firmer, longer ageing wines with an air of the gravity of Hermitage can be produced.

Across the Rhône, St-Joseph strings its way along the river from Condrieu to Valance, a distance of some 60km. It’s a difficult wine to pin down due to the scope of the 960ha appellation. The best examples have the spicy blackcurrant notes of Syrah and a fresh vigour on the palate that makes them good for drinking at three to six years. Much depends on the site (south-facing granite slopes, particularly around the core of the appellation at Tournon and Mauves, help achieve greater ripeness) and the skills of the grower.


The major players in the Northern Rhone three appellations are négociants Chapoutier, Delas and Paul Jaboulet Aîné, as well as the coop at Tain l’Hermitage. It alone accounts for 60% of the production of Crozes-Hermitage and 30% of Hermitage. The latter has about 15 individual growers of which the most significant in terms of quality and quantity is Jean-Louis Chave. Leading growers in Crozes-Hermitage include Alain Graillot, Belle, Entrefaux and Combier and in St-Joseph Bernard Gripa, Coursodon, Cuilleron, Gaillard and Gonon.

Changes Afoot in Northern Rhone

Stylistically the biggest change in recent years has been the acceptance of destemming which has helped smooth out some of the raw edges. Older barrels have been replaced with newer stock, helping to give more precision to the fruit and a creamier note to the young wines.

The 2003 vintage of Northern Rhone was a landmark in terms of the extreme conditions. The Syrah suffered in the searing heat which reached its zenith 7–11 August with five days over 40°C. Even the nights were warm. Leaves fell in certain parcels and grapes were literally burnt. Sugar ripeness was achieved rapidly but growers had to wait for phenolic maturity. In the end most in Crozes-Hermitage and St-Joseph harvested the last 10 days of August with Hermitage running a week later. ‘We’re not used to working in this type of heat or with these alcohol degrees. Technology helped tremendously – 15 years ago it would have been dire in these appellations,’ explains Philippe Jaboulet, president of the Syndicat d’Hermitage and directeur des domaines at Paul Jaboulet Aîné.


What then of the wines? Firstly, volumes are down everywhere (35% in Crozes and an average of only 25hl/ha in St-Joseph) making this an economically unviable year for producers. As to the style it is an atypical vintage with high alcohol degrees, low acidity and a sweet, confit texture and feel. Where phenolic maturity was not obtained there’s a rough, vegetal strain.

The Crozes is supple and super-ripe and in general ready for drinking over the next two years. St-Joseph is predictably variable but with a little more vigour, while in Hermitage the wines are big and very ripe with tannic structure and consistency. It’s a good enough vintage but a little over-hyped after the mediocre 2002 and perhaps too luxurious for true purists of the northern Rhône. In recent years 1999 and 2001 have greater intensity, balance and staying power.

Red Vintage guide of Northern Rhone

2004 Promises to be good. Back to a more balanced, classical style

2003 Atypical. Big degrees. Confit notes. Almost meridional. Drink/keep

2002 Difficult. Rain at harvest (but less than in the south). Drink now

2001 Very good. Dense, firm. Keep

2000 Less matière than 1999 and 2001 but very good. Drink/keep

1999 The reference vintage. Generosity and balance. Keep

1998 Structured, long ageing. Keep

1997 Supple, fluid. Hermitage the best. Drink now

1996 High acidity. Fresh, agreeable but lacking weight. Drink/keep

1995 Great year. Concentrated. Small harvest. Keep (even Crozes)

1994 Misses a little maturity but better than two previous years. Drink now

1993 Catastrophic. Rain and hail. Avoid

1992 Average. Light and supple. Drink up

1991 Very good. Vigorous. Drink/keep

1990 Rich and powerful. Drink/keep

New faces

Domaine Yann Chave

This family domaine in Northern Rhone was taken in hand by Yann Chave in 1996 and continues to grow and improve. The quality of the fruit is exceptional (he is regularly one of the latest to harvest), both in the seriously solid Hermitage and spicy, aromatic Crozes-Hermitage.

Domaine Emmanuel Darnaud

A domaine to watch, as the first vintage was only 2001 but the wines already show a freshness and vibrancy, even in 2003. Each year Emmanuel Darnaud recuperates a little more land and will be up to 5ha in 2005. There’s a young vine Crozes-Hermitage Cuvée Mise en Bouche and the more serious Les Trois Chênes.

Domaine Eric et Joel Durand

Bottling at this domaine truly started in 1991, the two brothers working together from 1996. Their St-Joseph Les Coteaux is a vigorous wine with a touch of minerality. There’s also a powerful, chewy Cornas.

Domaine du Colombier

Florent Viale bottled his first vintage at the 16ha family domaine in 1991; prior to this, the wines were sold in bulk. Investment in temperature control, newer barrel stock and fine tuning in the vineyards has brought refinement to the texture and fruit. The limited-edition Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage Cuvée Gaby are top of the range.

Domaine Gilles Robin

As with Yann Chave, Gilles Robin debuted in 1996, again taking over his father’s vines (previously destined for the cooperative). There’s 15ha of Crozes-Hermitage and a tiny parcel of St-Joseph. The wines are clean and aromatic with a certain intensity, particularly the Crozes Cuvée Albéric Bouvet.

Northern Rhone: Best of 2003

Hermitage Paul Jaboulet Aîné, La Chapelle

Massive wine but surprising balance. Impressive power. Restrained but intense on the nose. Confit fruit but a notion of minerally terroir. Ripe and warm on the palate with plenty of gras. Solid tannic frame. Ageing potential. 2010–22. £58 in bond; WSo

Delas, Les Bessards

Seductive, almost exotic style. Elegant, aromatic, modern expression of confit Syrah fruit with notes of orange zest and vanilla oak. Good depth. Rich and smooth with well-worked tannins.

2010–20. £56.99; BWC

Domaine Belle

Very attractive fruit. Cassis cordial aroma and flavour. Smooth textured, fine elegant tannins. A firmness of structure but will appeal early on. 2008–16. £27.50 (2000); CPy

Cave de Tain l’Hermitage, Gambert de Loche

Creamy, confit fruit wrapped in fine chocolatey oak. Cassis notes on the nose. Full, round with firm, ripe tannins in behind. 2008–16. £40; BoW, DBy, Vyd

Chapoutier, Le Pavillon

Dark, rich fruit on the nose. Loads of extract. Oak apparent but should integrate. Good potential for ageing. 2010–20. £95–130 (2001); BBR, Men

Domaine des Remizières, Cuvée Emilie

Rich, ripe spectrum. Aromatic. Notes of currants and jammy fruit. Sweet attack. Round, warm and suave. 2008–16. £14.83 ib (2002); RdW

Ferraton Père et Fils, Le Méal

Restrained but good density with plenty of dark, brooding fruit. Firm, ripe tannins. Length on the finish. 2008–16. £42.65 (1999); BBR

Crozes-Hermitage Delas, Tour d’Albo

Spicy, dark pepper nose. Palate deep, intense with good length. Firm but fine tannic structure. 2006–09. £8.99; BWC

Domaine Belle, Cuvée Louis Belle

Serious wine. Spicy red-fruit nose with depth and persistence. Lovely, dense fruit weight on palate, firm, ripe tannins. 2006–09. £10.99 (2000); CPy

Domaine Combier, Clos des Grives

Deep colour. Good depth and concentration. Ripe, confit fruit, tannins firm but rounded. Oak a little present but should integrate. 2006–09. £16.95; HoT

Domaine des Remizières, Cuvée Christophe

Raspberry cordial fruit. Smooth, rich texture and tannins. Oak apparent but integrated. 2006–08. £11.25 ib (2002); F&R

Domaine du Colombier, Cuvée Gaby

Rich and intense. Plenty of concentration but harmonious, the excesses of the vintage reined in. 2006–09. £12.54 (2001); Bib

Domaine du Murinais, Vieilles Vignes

Concentrated, solid style of wine. Rich, dark fruits, firm tannins. Excellent value. 2006–08. £9.70; VTr

Domaine Combier

Lively, spicy, cherry-raspberry fruit. Round and suave. Warm glow on the finish. Up to 2007. £11.75; HoT

Domaine des Entrefaux

Typical of the vintage style. Very ripe, confit, notes of plum and kirsch. Rich concentration but with a nip of freshness. Up to 2007. £11 (2001); C&C

Domaine Emmanuel Darnaud, Cuvée Les Trois Chênes

Elegant, aromatic wine with fine balance and length, particularly for the vintage. Raspberry-cherry notes. Good intensity. Up to 2007. £12; Vll

Domaine Gilles Robin, Cuvée Albéric Bouvet

Very complete. Good balance for the vintage. Fresh, aromatic fruit. 2006–08. £12.95; GWW

Domaine Yann Chave

Spicy Syrah nose. Clean, aromatic palate. Little grip on the finish. Up to 2007. £11.99; SVS, Cmb

Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Domaine Raymond Roure

Ripe, creamy fruit, almost jammy. Powerful backward style, lots of extract. Will age. 2006–10. £17.45; BBR

St-Joseph Delas, François de Tournon

Plenty of chewy extract. Firm structure. Notes of spice and dark fruits. Powerful. Needs a little time. 2007–10. £10.49; BWC

Domaine Bernard Gripa, Le Berceau

Impressive wine. Lots of super-ripe, dark cherry fruit. Oak present but elegant and integrated. Firm, tight texture with a minerally nuance. 2007–10. £24.50; VTr

Domaine Eric et Joël Durand, Les Coteaux

Dark, spicy, cassis-tinged fruit. Minerally freshness on the palate, grippy tannins, length. Good balance. 2006–09. t14; N/A UK +33 4 75 40 46 78

Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Le Grand Pompée

Dark, curranty aromas. Quite complex. A touch of oak but integrated. Palate has loads of extract and a powerful tannic frame. 2007–10. £8.67 ib; WSo

Cave de St-Désirat, Ex Septentrio

Reserved but plenty of dark fruit extract. Hint of vanilla. Palate round and full. 2006–08. £9.99; HWC

Domaine Bernard Gripa

Spicy, rich and ripe but retains freshness and harmony. Palate sweet fruited but firm and vigorous with a touch of oak. 2006–08. £16.50; VTr

Domaine Coursodon, l’Olivaie

Concentrated dark fruit, cassis nose. Palate sweet-fruited, with a firm finish. 2007–10. £10.33 ib; WSo

Domaine des Remizières

Rich, luxurious and super ripe. Loads of sweet, confit extract. Chocolate, coffee oak a little excessive but plenty of fruit. 2006–08. £4.67 ib; Aph, Bib, Rae

Domaine Gilles Robin, Cuvée André Péalat

Spicy, violet, aromatic nose. Fine, accessible medium-bodied wine. A touch of minerality. 2006–08. N/A UK

Domaine Gonon

Attractive cherry, kirsch nose. Aromatically almost Burgundian. Palate rich, confit with a hint of cinnamon and vanilla. 2006–09. £15.75; VTr

Domaine Pierre Finon

Cassis aroma and flavour. Surprising minerally freshness. Good length and balance. 2006–08. t8.50; N/A UK +33 4 75 34 08 75

Domaine Yves Cuilleron, Les Serines

Modern Rhône expression. Ripe, spicy fruit wrapped in quality oak. Rich, intense, harmonious. Structured. Good length. 2007–10. £32; Swg

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