I have just been on a 10 day trip to the Rhone Valley region where I visited some of France’s greatest wine regions; Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu, Hermitage, Gigondas and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
My journey started in the Northern Rhone region of Côte-Rôtie, just south of Vienne. This is the northern most outpost of Syrah (Shiraz) in France and is planted on steep terraces, some of which have been farmed since Roman times! It was fascinating to walk in these beautiful vineyards… although you have to watch your step – you have the impression that if you fell you would be impaled on a stake in the terrace below.
All vineyards forgo trellis wire in a style we call ‘bush vines’ (see image above) where the vines are staked onto a pole. Each vine has an average of 6 canes each bearing one to two bunches. With high vine density this will give a production of about 5 tonnes per hectare, or less for the very old vineyards. All these vineyards are totally non-mechanized, which must make them very expensive to runs since labour costs in France are high. Can you imagine caring out all these grapes by hand over that terrain!
The wines of Côte-Rôtie may contain a small proportion of the white grape Viognier which supposedly gives fruit and perfume to the Syrah wines. The wines from this region are expensive, but those I tasted were very pure expressions of Syrah with great elegance. I would love to have tasted more but my habit of buying wine in every place gets prohibitively expensive quickly!
Just south of Côte-Rôtie is Condrieu, the home of the Viognier grape. This appellation is also build on terraces but these aren’t quite as steep as those of Côte-Rôtie. Only Viognier is grown here and the vines thrive to produce wonderful apricot and honey scented wines. I found the Viognier wines here more elegant than others I have tried and it is characteristic that we try to emulate with Excelsior’s Viognier.
From Condrieu we moved to the famous Hermitage area, perched above the pretty town of Tain l’Hermitage. Syrah is King of the reds here alongside its white partners Marsanne and Rousanne. The vineyards are terraced in a southerly direction to maximise the sun exposure and practices seem very similar to those of Côte-Rôtie where the main trellis system is bush vines, although I did see a few vineyards with more conventional canopy management. The soils of this region are very granitic, and generally slightly acidic, which is great for Syrah and limits its usually vigorous growth.
I thoroughly enjoyed the wines from this region: big powerful expressions of Syrah and concentrated, complex whites which rarely showed prominent oak characters.
Peter de Wet