The Red Wines of the Northern Rhône


October 29, 2012 | BY Roddy Ropner

Long under-appreciated and under-valued, our guest writer takes a look at the best red wines from the northern Rhône valley

With Bordeaux dominating the fine wine auctions and Burgundy becoming the darling of the market, it often seems that the great red wines of the Rhône Valley receive less than their share of coverage.

The Rhône river is more than 500 miles long, its source in Switzerland and mouth at the Mediterranean. When referring to the Rhône, most wine lovers mean the stretch of river flowing south from Lyon. This is divided into the northern and the southern Rhône regions that are geographically and climatically dissimilar and produce very different wines.

The top northern Rhône vineyards are planted on steep slopes above the river. The heartland of syrah, the vines are tethered to the ground by stakes as defence against the fierce Mistral wind and produce full-bodied red wines with great aging potential. I recently tasted a 1962 Hermitage from M. Chapoutier alongside Châteaux Mouton Rothschild and Latour of the same vintage. While the Hermitage was more obviously aged than the Bordeaux First Growths, it was alive and well at fifty years old.

The two AOC districts producing the best red wines are Côte Rôtie, and Hermitage. Hermitage has long been admired. The diarist George Saintsbury writing in the 1920’s, after a lifetime of collecting, described Hermitage as “the manliest French wine I ever drank”.


For years the manly wines of the Rhône were sent to Bordeaux and Burgundy to add body to those lighter wines. After a period of decline in the mid-20th century, the reputation of the region recovered in part thanks to Marcel Guigal. Guigal’s single vineyard offerings of Côte Rôtie wines La Landonne, La Mouline, and La Turque are among the most highly regarded wines in the world. Collectively known as the “La La” wines, they have led the resurgence of the region. Other fine producers include family concerns JL Chave established in the 15th century and perfectionist Stephane Ogier whose family used to sell grapes to Chapoutier and Guigal until the 1980’s.  

Stay tuned for when I return to discuss the white wines of the northern Rhône next week.