Rhône Wines

Running up a 12-inch (30-cm) wide, rock, one-sided staircase with no handrails from one terrace to another, all more than 30% sloped, I pause to capture my balance, which has now shifted behind me as the 45 lbs. (20 kg) of Syrah grapes in my plastic bin-backpack pulls me downhill. Sweat is pouring from my head, in my eyes, and down my back — even though it is a cold, brisk morning. A picker scouring above me drops his 3 lb. (1.4 kg) grape load from his bucket, driving my feet deeper into the rocks, and this is only the second run of the morning. Then a loud command from the terraces above, “porter” — French for young, naïve intern who volunteered to carry grapes on his back because he thought it would be far more fun than bending over all morning picking La Turque, for the prestigious E. Guigal estate’s 2005 Vintage. Thoughts race through my mind, when will I get to work in the cave? How much stem inclusion will this lot get? What is the Brix? Will I get off this cliff alive? What am I doing here in the first place . . . and will I ever understand the secret to Côte-Rôtie?

To best understand the Rhône varietals, it is important to start with the region’s history, specifically its terroir, the French word coined to encompass a wine’s supremacy when grown in the right climate, soil and cultivation techniques. All of this seeps into the terraced hills of the northern Rhône, all the way down to the galet-laden vineyards in the south, all intersected by the Rhône River as it heads to Marseille. Rhône wines have gained fame over the years, yet not all of the region’s fame is gold adorned. Visit any local French flea market and you will come across old vintage signs of 1950s tanker trucks labeled Côte Du Rhône wine. This region makes some of the country’s most fashionable, exclusive and sought-after wine as well as some bulk wine that would make Ernest and Julio Gallo envious at that price point.

Rhône’s History

The Rhône Valley was first cultivated around 600 BC by Greeks, who expanded their empire north of the port of Marseille. Soon thereafter the Romans conquered the area and brought more sophisticated cultivation techniques and began winemaking operations around the town of Vienne, the northernmost tip of the expansive Rhône Valley wine region. The wine would be shipped in amphora to the port at Marseille and off to other destinations. Roman slaves and bored soldiers began expanding the region onto the steep cliff faces eroded by the powerful Rhône River, now known as the northern Rhône regions. Others farmed glacially deposited, then river eroded, rock-covered rolling hills north of Avignon with such notoriety that in the 13th Century the Pope moved one of his residences, thus spawning the Châteauneuf-du-pape region. The most instrumental period for the Rhône valley came in 1737, when the king of France, Louis XV, declared the Côtes du Rhône as a recognized brand. Since then the Rhône region has gone through a feudal renaissance where large co-operatives have been slowly replaced with individual family producers. This renaissance is still forging ahead, and has been further bolstered by worldwide recognition. Today there is no doubt that varietals like Syrah, Viognier, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Marsanne and Roussane are ambassadors of the Rhône valley’s unique and diverse terrains.

Rhône Terrain

The Rhône valley is split into two regions, the upper and lower Rhône River, or in wine-speak — the northern and southern Rhône. The northern Rhône, with AOCs like Côte-Rôtie, Cornas, Hermitage, etc., are Syrah centric, predominantly red growing regions. The most northern area, Côte- Rôtie, is defined by powerful Syrah derived from whole cluster fermentations of varying percentages, sometimes co-fermented with Viognier. Here the co-fermentation is vineyard specific, where the percentage of Viognier planted in the block is the only known percentage going into the fermenter. Just south of Côte-Rôtie lies the almost albino version of Syrah, Viognier, which makes delectable floral wines when cold fermented. Further south as the river meanders are the AOCs of Hermitage, Cornas, and St. Joseph. All producing Syrah, nearly 100%, and stem inclusion depends more on the producer’s style than tradition. The southern Rhône is disconnected from the north by near 50 miles, and begins with a little known region making Syrah based rosés — called Tavel. The more influential sectors of the southern Rhône are Châteauneuf-du-pape, Gigondas and Vacqueyras. In these parts, Syrah takes a back seat to Grenache and Mourvèdre, all sometimes blended in with 9 other grapes. The white wines of the southern area are all blends, with Marsanne and Roussane being predominant. Viognier is hardly seen in these parts. The first question winemakers need to ask themselves is not whether they are going to make Rhône styled wines, but whether they are going to make northern or southern Rhône style wines.

Rhône Worldwide

This question has been answered by many producers worldwide that have taken the champions of this vast region, and introduced them to new terroirs. In fact the Spanish have probably mastered Grenache and Mourvèdre with unique awe-inspiring Granachas and Monastrell/Matarós from Priorat and Penedès. Darn near the entire continent of Australia was at one time planted to Shiraz — Australian for Syrah. These dark jammy offerings paired well with the roo (kanga that is) and were even made in sparkling styles, paving a style rarely seen in St. Péray of France. California embarked on the Rhône Ranger odyssey as regions in the coast, both Central and Sonoma Coast, showed terroirs able to render Syrah with complexity, acidity and structure far superior than other California regions, which further inspired plantings of the other Rhône varietals — to which no distinct region has fully emerged as champion.

Varietal Focus

To truly understand the Rhône varietals one must let them stain your hands, and like many other varietals, the best way to make them is the way you want. In order to help formulate your own style, let’s explore the more popular varietals, how they are grown, vinified and aged. It is important to discuss some of their viticultural background, because like most regions — 90% of the Rhône valley wines are made in the vineyard, or perhaps I should say cliffs.

Rhône Whites

Viognier — In the northern Rhône Viognier is queen, where single varietals offerings come under the name of Condrieu or the single vineyard AOC  Château Grillet. These vineyards are typically perched on south-facing cliff faces. When the land gets flat, they fall into the Côtes du Rhône catchall designation. Although the Condrieu region is quite small, at around 500 acres, many houses produce small lot offerings giving it a much more prolific appearance. Resistant to the sun, where it takes on a slight sunburned affect, Viognier is typically cane pruned with a single cane with a slight arch. The spacing is determined by the amount of land clinging to the terraces, but the canes typically don’t exceed 2 feet (61 cm) in length and are only trained in one direction. This equates to a very low yield per acre, with a high density of plants in that acre, and uniformity is achieved through minimal leaf pulling in the fruit zone. The most complimentary way to ferment this grape is the secret held most dear to these Condrieu producers – long cold fermentations. Viognier has a fair load of terpenes, not as many as Muscat, but enough that their fermentation can make the difference between a floral and mineral expression versus apricot cobbler pie aromatics. Nearly all of the Condrieu producers will ferment their wine around 60 °F (16 °C), sometimes taking them past a month in duration.

The extent of oak, new or neutral, and stainless is determined by the house. For example, at E. Guigal, the typical Condrieu is fermented in stainless steel at these low temperatures, where as La Doriane, their Cru version is also fermented at 60 °F (16 °C) in 100% new oak. They invented some pretty cool stainless steel submersible chillers that kind of look like an octopus  in each barrel. Fermenting at this low temperature allows for the more floral bouquet to evolve, reducing also rapid CO2 evolution that can blow these aromas right out of the fermenter. The cool fermentation also enhances the wines’ minerality, which can be complemented by the secondary malolactic fermentation. New World Viognier producers have found that as ripeness in the vineyard excels, a more fruity wine profile evolves, which either replaces or masks the floral mineral subtleness. In California, for example, many vineyards believe Viognier needs to be near 25 °Brix to make wines of caliber, however not only is this a whole 3 °Brix higher than in Condrieu, but it also leads to wines with more viscosity and fruitiness, and that can compromise longevity. Of course the secret to a good Viognier is in your own palate, but understanding how to get there is more important.

Marsanne — Found both in the northern and southern Rhône, Marsanne is a much larger clustered grape. In the north, single varietal offerings come under the name of Hermitage. In the south it is  blended with its sidekick, Roussane. Marsanne is less resistant to the sun, and is typically cordon pruned — either “goublet” head pruned or trellised in either direction or directions. In the northern area of cultivation, the vineyards are typically less steep, allowing for trellising, coupled with high densities resulting in higher yields per acre. In the southern regions, Marsanne is also cultivated the same, yet yields are typically higher to match the soil’s fertility. This wine, when fermented to be a single varietal bottling loses acidity as it ripens, so prepare to acidulate should you desire higher sugar/alcohol levels. Marsanne is conducive to making a very aromatic and balanced wine at lower ripens levels, yet either way the winemaker must keep a watchful eye for browning and mercaptan formation.

Aging is a subjective topic, and there are two schools of thought. The first school pursues the least aging as possible, low use of oak and more stainless to craft a wine with a short, fruity lifespan that can be revisited in 10 years to be discovered with a completely different profile. For example, at Chateau Tahbilk in Australia, the typical Marsanne is fermented in stainless steel, bottled within a year and sold as a new release, at the same time some of the wine is stored and released 10 years later – as a new release of an aged wine. The other school of thought is to ignore the two-stage lifespan of Marsanne and to make it more like Sauvignon Blanc, with good acidity, low alcohol and a more approachable style. In California, for example, many vineyards believe Marsanne requires harvesting in the low 20 °Brix to make wines of caliber, leading to wines with fruitiness. Secondary fermentation is also a stylistic call by the winemaker as well as site-specific experience.

Roussane — Roussane is a medium sized grape that “rusts” in the sun, hence its name, and is typically cordon pruned, either “goublet” head pruned or trellised in either direction or directions. Very rarely found on its own in the Rhône region, since it is typically blended with Marsanne, it is paving a little niche in certain parts of California. This wine, when fermented to be a single varietal bottling has very little acidity as it ripens, and is typically a very late ripener. Roussane is conducive to making a very aromatic and balanced wine at lower ripeness levels, yet the more the grape gets red, the higher the loss of aromatics. Some winemakers play with a little maceration to help with the wine’s body weight. Aging, as always, is up to the winemaker, but in most cases Roussane does benefit from barrel fermenting as well as barrel aging. If a cleaner, crisp style is desired, then harvesting at lower °Brix and stainless steel fermentations should be employed. Either way, Roussane doesn’t benefit from malolactic fermentation as it can make the wine overly viscous, especially at higher alcohols. Roussane has interesting beeswax and sandalwood aromas intrinsically, perhaps that might sway one’s decision on oak choice and use while making this exotic wine.

Other Rhône whites — Grenache Blanc, Muscat, Clairette, Picpoul, Bourboul-enc, and Picardin are all white grapes that are also in the Rhône varietal gene pool. Nearly all of these grapes never make a 100% varietal wine, yet become building blocks for various blends of the southern Rhône wines, like Châteauneuf-du-pape. Outside of France, they are virtually non-existent, except for Spain. In the New World, Grenache Blanc is generating interest, especially in the Central Coast region of California, where crisp, clean, lighter styles are capturing consumers looking for fruitier alternatives to Chardonnay, yet don’t want as much vegetative input as found in Sauvignon Blancs. Most central coast winemakers recommend a low oak regime, no malolactic and limited aging to preserve its freshness. They are not shy to consume it all within 5 years.

Rhône Reds

Syrah — Known locally in the northern Rhône as Serine, it is the noblest grape of the Rhône region. Wines made from this grape command respect with its squid-ink-like color, reductive aromatics and rich, powerful mouthfeel. This grape is truly all that there is in the northern Rhône, and the sub-region it grows in defines the winemaking style and vinification techniques. In Côte- Rôtie it is typically co-fermented with Viognier — the percentage actually determined by how much is co-planted in the vineyard. For example, E. Guigal’s La Mouline is co-planted to 11% Viognier, yet the actual weight by volume of Viognier to Syrah is not known since everything is picked together, never separated. This might be a bizarre sight for most winemakers, but a visit to certain Chianti producers in Tuscany reveals it to be a common practice. The reason behind the co-fermentation is elusive, however. It could be a trick to get more sugar, increase production without compromising quality, or get some nutritional or aromatic contribution to an otherwise typically reductive must. Whatever the reasoning, it is not always practiced, but when employed the wines definitely show differently than their counterparts. Co-fermentations are not confined to Côte-Rôtie. Sometimes Marsanne is used in Saint Joseph. Nearly all of these wines never get much beyond 24 °Brix.

Another tool used by many northern Rhône producers is stem inclusion (whole clusters) in the fermentations. On average, Côte-Rôtie wines have around 30% whole cluster, yet some wines reach as much as 100% — which is the case for the renowned La Landonne from E. Guigal. In regions like Cornas or Hermitage, stem inclusion is not as commonplace and the wines benefit from clean and concentrated fruit due to low yields and more whole berry fermentations. One thing is evident from any Rhône producer, don’t be shy with Syrah – beating it up in the winery will  lead to positive results, perhaps curing any sulfide issues you might otherwise encounter. Syrah is utilized in the southern Rhône, but typically is never more than 50% in any blend.

Syrah has many clones, is very resistant to the sun, can be trained and pruned virtually any way, and can be quite vigorous in fertile soils. One of Syrah’s handicaps is the ability to produce a very large crop with decent results, thus tempting many vineyards to see it as a cash cow. Syrah has also had some bad press from customer confusion generated by Shiraz from Australia, as well as another unrelated varietal – Petite Sirah. The US domestic market has not been fully seduced by Syrah yet, perhaps because every now and then, one comes across one with a “passed-gas-like” smell that dumbfounds consumers.

There, I’ve said it — sometimes Syrah can develop sulfides and eventually mercaptans in such high amounts a little fresh air is needed. This means careful attention must be paid to the fermentation, know your yeast available nitrogen (YAN) or ammonia levels going into primary. Monitor and if yeast foods or DAP is to be added, consider the timing of the application, and don’t be shy with aeration.

Unfortunately, learning the hard way will ultimately be the best guide to your particular vineyard or site, but don’t fret if it gets a little stinky especially towards the end. Aeration during the fermentation is extremely beneficial, it is not uncommon to pump-over with air throughout the primary fermentation, and sometimes a splash racking later is further beneficial. It seems counter intuitive, but the more air contact in a controlled fashion, the better. Yeast selection is also key, avoid yeast that off put H2S when stressed, which will dwindle your selection list to only a handful. Cold soaking and native yeast fermentations are beneficial, but when choosing to pursue higher alcohol Syrahs, native yeast can be just as stinky and get stuck regardless of nutritional supplements. For example, while working at E. Guigal, it was not uncommon to pump-over with air a Syrah fermentation twice a day, plus punch down twice a day, each followed by “turbo-pigeage” – French for a submersible stainless steel well pump lowered into the tank which sprays the liquid over the cap. Sounds like a hell of a lot of cap management, and when tasting those wines that can age for 48 months in oak and still have a long lifespan in front of them, I permit myself to say take your aggression out on Syrah! With regards to oak aging, all Syrahs benefit from oak, the percentage of new depends on your style and budget. An economical way to age in oak commonly practiced in the northern Rhône is via the use of casks.

Grenache — Grenache Noir, to distinguish itself from its white making cousin Grenache Blanc, or rosé-making cousin Grenache Gris, is the life-blood of the southern Rhône region. It is never found in the north, as it requires a fair amount more heat to get it to full maturity, which is accelerated by the “galets” — rocks reflecting heat and sunlight throughout the day and night. In the south, this grape becomes the majority of nearly all blends, found as 100% in Vacqueyras and Gigondas, and is very well suited to match with Syrah and Mourvèdre. Yet that suitability to blend has in some ways handicapped Grenache outside of the southern Rhône, where it has never commanded the respect of being a 100% varietal wine. This may be because of its historical association with blends, or the fact that it is one of the worlds most commonly planted grape making wines at all different price points. For example in La Mancha Spain, the largest Spanish wine producing region, it is by far the most dominant grape, yet has not received international acclaim. However in the smaller Priorat region of Spain, where it is blended with Tempranillo and/or Syrah it has become famous. Modest single varietal bottlings have recently taken hold in California, and new plantings with enhanced viticultural techniques give tremendous promise to its future.

Grenache as a grape however needs to be well farmed as it is extremely sensitive to sun — color can bleach out of the skin. In cooler climates, shatter plagues many vintages, so delayed pruning and keeping the root zone cold and wet to delay bud break becomes crucial. Grenache is extremely prolific, multiple passes to thin crop levels are required — otherwise harvest may be very late. It must be spur-pruned, cane pruning will end up causing a cluster bunch mess, potentially breaking the canes since the fruit is usually very large cluster in size, almost three times bigger than Syrah. In cooler regions, like California’s Central Coast, ripeness levels are often determined more by acidity levels than sugar, as winemakers have to wait to near 27 °Brix levels before breaking 3.35 pH. Grenache’s finickiness does not end in the vineyard, careful winemaking needs to be employed as it reacts to oxygen in the opposite manner compared to Syrah. Yeast selection to reduce higher temperatures, and limited racking with the lowest amount of oxidation is best, limited aging and less aggressive oak regimes benefit the wine’s longevity. For example, Chateau La Nerthe typically ferments its Grenache in stainless steel with punch-down cap management, and will commonly age the wine in stainless or occasionally go to neutral casks. Stem inclusion can be beneficial, typically not much above 50% and it must be practiced judiciously as too many stems will lead to bitterness, yet some can help combat its aldehydic nature. Resultant wines are typically described as having bubbly gummy fruitiness with bright acidity and a well rounded mouthfeel, when too much oxidation occurs the wine has more and more of a tin can aroma — like canned fruits. Grenache’s lees are something to behold — bright pink in color, you really question where the color is coming from in your wine.

Mourvèdre — Mourvèdre originated in Spain, where it is called Monastrell or Mataró, and is another very key ingredient in the southern Rhône, typically accompanying Grenache in blends. Mourvèdre brings the game and spice element to a blend, and is not very commonly found at 100%. Outside of the Rhône valley you can find it as 100% Mourvèdre in Bandol, in Provence — yet in the Rhône it is essential to add depth and longevity to the wine. Only rarely however do producers rely on it to be the majority of their blend. Château du Beaucastel, for example, typically uses Mourvèdre as the majority ingredient of their wines, blending in smaller amounts of Grenache, Syrah and some other regional red grapes. Yet Mourvèdre is accepted as making a unique and distinguished stand-alone wine, especially outside of France. In the Penedès region of Spain, it is commonly found in its pure form. Australia and California are not shy either in using it solely by itself in some rather astonishing wines with great aging ability. 
Mourvèdre is, however, rather frustrating to cultivate. High yields force appropriate crop thinning. Canopies typically are stunted, compared to its other Rhône cousins, thus compromising ripening and delaying harvest. Seed maturity lags, often resulting in relatively green seeds when ideal sugar and acid levels are attained. Stems are bright green, making even jacks produced by your destemmer an enemy. Mourvèdre also has to be spur-pruned, either head trained or on cordon, as clusters rival those of Grenache in size. Fortunately Mourvèdre is not sensitive to the sun, in fact it benefits from more exposure. However, aggressive leaf pulling can damage an already predisposed stunted canopy. Thus maintaining a balance of fruit-to-canopy becomes vital. In cases when not maintained, it can cause dead-arm, where cordons die-off unexpectedly. Ironically this lack of canopy vigor is not carried over to the winery. If not fully ripe, the wine will exude vegetative qualities. Therefore, forget stem inclusions, ensure all fruit is ripe, even with berry sorting if possible, and select cap management regimes in fermentation that promote healthy results without over extraction. Simple punch downs will suffice.

When aging Mourvèdre, consider the use of less aggressive oak regimes, therefore using more neutral vessels or larger containers, like casks. In fact, even the best producers in Bandol cask age their Cru bottlings, rarely going into barrels. However, some renowned examples of Bandol became more famous for their Brettanomyces than their actual varietal contribution. Mourvèdre’s tannins and gamey aromatics are void at high crop levels. Proper balance will ensure a wine with great aging potential. Mourvèdre seems to be less sensitive to yeast selection and is not predisposed to sulfide production, so typical prudence will pay off. Mourvèdre truly has more potency to surpass Grenache as a single varietal bottling, and shows great future promise in the New World.

Other Red Rhônes — Cinsault, Carignan, Counoise, Terret Noir, Muscardin and Vaccarese are all red grapes found in the Rhône valley as well, yet never play a more important role than helping add complexity to a blend. In fact most of these grapes become crucial in creating more substance with the bulk wine production of Côtes du Rhône. On their own,  there is little merit in their use, although New World regions have taken to Cinsault and Carignan. Still,  the presence of these in the market is so little that when are found they are enjoyed mostly because of their exclusivity. In California, for example, some old vine Carignan from Amador County is often sought after, not because of its pleasant wine characteristics, but rather that it comes from “old vines.”

Any Rhône wine, however — whether 100% of one variety or a blend of up to 13 different grapes as allowed by the Châteauneuf-du-pape AOC — is welcome on my dinner table. The Rhône’s true secret is that there is a wine for any occasion!

This is Michael Larner’s first article for WineMaker magazine.