The Northern Rhône wine region produces some of France’s finest wines, but it’s also a region that offers some good value if you know where to look. I always include them in my Wines of Lyon tasting, and also offer a Rhône only tasting.
What is the Northern Rhône Wine?
The Northern Rhône makes both whites and reds, but the vast majority of it is powerful red wine made from Syrah.
While the Rhône Valley pumps out a huge amount of wine, the Northern Rhône only accounts for less than 5% of that production, which makes sense because it’s not very big!
Of that 5%, half of it comes from the biggest appellation, Crozes-Hermitage.
In France, it’s called Rhône Nord or more traditionally, Rhône Septentrionale. I’m going to nope out on that last one.
Geography of the Northern Rhône
This is hyper local to Lyon, starting at about 30 minutes south of the city.
The Rhône valley runs from Lyon down to Marseille, but the Northern Rhône wine region goes from Vienne to Valence, running alongside the river from North to South.
It’s about 75 kilometers/46 miles, and takes just under an hour to drive.
Northern Rhône Terroir
Most of the vines are on the Western side of the Rhône river, and face East.
It’s super steep here, and the vines have to be terraced so they can cling to the crazy slopes. Skinny little terraces snake all over the hillsides of granite that is the edge of the volcanic Massif Central.
There’s a wide variety of soils throughout, and due to the steep nature of the slopes, erosion is a big problem, and the terraces have to be constantly maintained.
In terms of climate, it’s a lot like Lyon. Cold winters, and hot summers.
The mistral, Southern France’s crazy and very cold spring wind, does affect this area but because of the shape of the valley the vines are pretty protected from it.
The driving power behind these wines comes from the sun, and these vines get direct Eastern, Southeastern or Southern exposure, leading to wonderful ripeness.
History of the Northern Rhône
The earliest evidence of winemaking here goes back certainly further than 71 AD, with Pliny writing about how good the local wine made by the Allobroges Gauls from Vienne was.
The Romans continued the winemaking traditions, and planted vines heavily throughout their occupation of the region.
Of course during the Middle Ages the papacy moved to Avignon, in the Southern Rhône, and the 14th Century saw the extravagant Catholic courts guzzling the fine wines from the Northern Rhône.
They were so good, that Burgundy, like the buzzkill that it is, was totally threatened by them and the Duchy of Burgundy actually banned all non Burgundian wines from being traded up the Saône in 1446.
To reach Paris and the international market of the UK and the Netherlands, these wines would have had to travel through that territory, so while that law was in place it effectively limited the spread and fame of these powerful reds until overland transport became easier and cheaper in the 17th Century.
Hermitage, the smallest appellation, was always prestigious, but in the 1970s and 80s Côte-Rôtie rose to fame largely through the efforts of Marcel Guigal. It’s pretty amazing how one person can transform the fortunes of a region.
The Northern Rhône Wine Grapes
There are four grapes allowed to be planted in the Northern Rhône according to the appellation system.
For the reds only Syrah is planted, for the whites we have Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne.
Syrah is King
Also known as Shiraz, Syrah is a red grape that produces full bodied, tannic, intense red wines known for aromas of dark plum fruit, black pepper, and eventual meatiness.
It can make ageable wines, and historically was never aged in new oak, but that has become more popular in the last few decades.
1998 DNA analysis tells us that Syrah is local to the Rhône valley, although it always had an Eastern origin story, being thought to have come from the Persian city of Shiraz. It’s cute how they make up these exotic stories for their grapes that are homegrown.
Long Live Viognier
Viognier almost went extinct in the 1960s, with only 3 hectares/8 acres of plantings.
Luckily it gained popularity and is now an international varietal spread all over the world!
People love it because it’s extremely aromatic, with scents of ripe peaches and roses. It’s super floral, and has a nice bright yellow color.
It can lack acidity and be quite alcoholic, leading it to often be kind of greasy or flabby.
The best Viogniers, from the Condrieu appellation, are neither of those things, but very pretty white wines with intriguingly perfumed noses.
Marsanne and Roussanne are cool too
We’re lumping these together because they’re usually blended together.
Marsanne is full bodied and rich, with a pretty neutral nose and some nutty characteristics.
Roussanne has a nice floral quality to it, and of the two is the more aromatic, giving off some stone fruit flavors. It also brings that acidity that Marsanne can lack.
Together you get a nice wine with some nutty, honey notes, floral character, and a peachy or pear vibe. They’re pleasantly rich white wines that can be oaked, and they go nicely with food.
Northern Rhône Wine Appellations
The Northern Rhône has eight appellations.
From North to South they are:
Côte-Rôtie is my favorite! This appellation exclusively makes red wines.
This beautiful appellation literally means “roasted slope” in French, and these are some of the steepest vines in the whole country.
The vineyards lie on unstable schist, so it’s backbreaking work to farm these slopes, which face directly Southeast for intense sun exposure.
Uniquely, in Cote-Rotie you are allowed to include up to 20% viognier in your syrah. That’s right, they add white to the red!
This gives it a uniquely pretty floral nose. Normally winemakers only use around 5%.
These wines tend to be pretty expensive, and there are some famous names up here, most notably Guigal, but you can find better value with smaller producers.
Condrieu exclusively makes white wine from Viognier. It used to often be made sweet or semi-sweet, but is now almost always dry.
At its best, these are heady, floral wines. Some winemakers use oak, which can be tricky and overwhelm the perfumed aromas, and there is debate over winemaking techniques, so at least there is some variety here.
Condrieu can be overpriced, so watch out.
Château-Grillet is tiny and consists of one producer, Chateau Grillet, owned by François Pinault, one of the two richest men in France.
It’s also 100% Viognier, like Condrieu. I’ve never had it, and I don’t care that much to seek it out, but if I ever get invited to go there I would not say no.
Ok now we’re back to normal wine that you can actually get.
St-Joseph makes both white and red, and they’re both great and often less expensive than their neighbors.
The whites account for less than 10%, and they are Marsanne/Roussanne blends that are intriguing. They’ve got a pretty floral thing but also some savory nuttiness, I like them a lot.
Because these vines face directly East instead of South-East, they don’t get quite as much sun and tend to be lighter than their neighbors, which means they’re better to drink within a few years of bottling.
Hermitage is nestled within Crozes-Hermitage, these two being the only appellations on the right bank of the river.
Hermitage wines are a big deal.
Despite its tiny size, this appellation produces the most prestigious of the Rhône Syrahs.
About a quarter of its production is Marsanne/Roussanne white.
It’s very cute here, the vines face South and are wrapped around the charming town of Tain l’Ermitage, which is also where the Valrhona chocolate factory and museum are, it’s worth a visit!
Hermitage is the most expensive of the Northern Rhône wines, and that’s because they’re great, they’re famous, they’re age-worthy, and they’ve always been known for quality.
Wrapping around the tiny Hermitage is Crozes-Hermitage, which is the biggest of the Northern Rhône appellations. It produces roughly eight times more wine than Hermitage!
This bigger region has quite a variety of soil types as well as aspects, with some of the vines facing West, reducing the fruitiness and power.
There’s a lot of great value to be had from this appellation, with some outstanding producers making powerful, age-worthy wines, but also plenty of cheap and cheerful Syrah as well.
About a tenth of production from Crozes-Hermitage is the Marsanne/Roussanne blend.
Cornas makes very good wines that can be powerful and ageworthy. Southeast facing, this appellation has some of the best geography in the Northern Rhône.
These wines are known for being the biggest and richest wines of the region with lots of tannins, but these days there’s plenty of user friendly Cornas on the market.
This tiny appellation at the Southernmost part of the Northern Rhône makes sparkling wines!
Made with Marsanne, Roussanne, and also the Savoie grape Altesse, these are made in the traditional method, as Champagne would be.
They also make still whites from Marsanne and Roussanne.
IGP Collines Rhodaniennes
Keep your eyes peeled for the IGP from the Northern Rhône, IGP Collines Rhodaniennes.
These are the wines that either are made from vines just outside the boundaries of the appellations or don’t quite follow the rules. There is LOTS of good value to be found in this category.
Côtes du Rhône Wine – Mostly Grenache
Most Côtes du Rhône comes from the Southern Rhône and is not Syrah based, but some producers will make it.
Why You Should Drink Northern Rhône Wine
It’s delicious and even though some of it is super fancy, a lot of it is really good value! It’s always sure to impress, and it’s consistently good.