From a glacier in the Swiss Alps, the mighty Rhône River flows into eastern France, then curls south on its way to the Mediterranean. When it meets the hills at Vienne, the formal Rhône Valley wine region begins, as the river cuts through granite and clay canyons before spreading out north of Avignon and ending near Arles about 150 miles later.
In the north, the red syrah vines are king, beginning at Côte-Rôtie, then continuing further downstream at Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Saint-Joseph, and Cornas. The white viognier is queen at Condrieu near Côte-Rôtie, but, further south, roussanne and marsanne grapes are the mainstays of white Rhône production. Gradually, syrah gives way to grenache as the lead grape for blends in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, and the more basic Côtes du Rhône rouge.
Through it all, the famed Mistral wind whips south down the valley, both an enemy and a friend of the vines, while, it is said, driving men mad as it howls for days on end.
Recently, I was guest of Inter Rhône at its Découvertes en Vallée du Rhône tastings in Vienne, Tain l’Hermitage, Mauves and — finally — the historic city of Avignon. Along the way, I was able to taste great wines and to hike through some of the world’s most-famous — and most vertical — vineyards as they lay fallow awaiting bud break.
Sheep in Seysseul
It’s a drizzly Friday afternoon when Côte-Rôtie winemaker Stéphane Ogier takes me to the hillside vineyards in Seyssuel, an exciting old/new area that has applied for status as Rhône’s most-northern appellation. The sheep must know lamb goes beautifully with syrah.
Trek Up Côte-Rôtie
It’s a beautiful Saturday in Ampuis as I begin my ascent into the vines of southeast facing Côte-Rôtie, which makes some of the most heavenly syrah wines in the world. All along the terraced vineyards of northern Rhône, famous producers proudly billboard their presence.