Extract: Wines of the Rhône, by Matt Walls

9 July 2021 by in Classic Wine Library, Extracts, Wine and spirits

A bird’s eye view of the terrain
If we could board a boat in the canton of Valais where the Rhône emerges from the Rhône Glacier in the Swiss Alps, we would glide down the river for three weeks or so before it emptied us out in the Mediterranean. In all, we would cover 813 kilometres of waterways. And what an idyllic trip it would be: by the time we reached Lyon we would have already passed through some fascinating wine regions, drinking Chasselas, Petite Arvine and Humagne Rouge along the way. But it’s just south of Lyon that the wine region known as the Northern Rhône begins, and it’s here that we pick up the story, following its twists and turns through the Southern Rhône as the river meanders its way to the sea.

The Northern Rhône runs from Vienne to Valence (or a little further south if you include the resurgent appellation of Brézème). Today, the river runs broadly north to south, following the eastern edge of the hulk of granitic and metamorphic rock known as the Massif Central. The vineyards don’t stray far from the river; the majority are perched on the dramatic slopes of the west bank of the Rhône. The only two appellations on the east bank of this stretch of the river are Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage. Although the Northern Rhône receives a lot of attention it makes up just 5 per cent of the wine produced by Rhône Valley vineyards.

The Northern and Southern Rhône are connected by a river and a few shared grape varieties but are otherwise distinctly different, not only in soil type, but also in climate, flora and the typical character of its inhabitants. There is little in the way of vineyards in the 25 kilometres between the Northern Rhône and Montélimar, the town that marks the gateway to the Southern Rhône. As the river continues its journey south from here, the valley opens up and spreads wide. The Southern Rhône is less verdant, flatter, and the trees are notably different; suddenly there are olive groves, tall cypresses and Aleppo pines. Apart from fields of lavender, the landscape has more yellows and browns than the Northern Rhône, particularly in summer. The Southern Rhône growing area is vast; if you include the appellation of Duché d’Uzès, it covers more distance east to west than it does north to south. East of the river, the vineyards occupy as much land as they can before they hit the inhospitable Prealps. To the west, they stretch to the Cévennes. Follow the Rhône as it dog-legs south-west at Avignon, and you’ll get to Costières de Nîmes and eventually the Mediterranean Sea. Skirt around the southern edge of Mont Ventoux instead and you’ll enter the Luberon. All of this makes up the geologically diverse land that produces the remaining 95 per cent of Rhône Valley wines.

The Rhône, here not restricted by the Massif Central, has changed its snaking course over millennia, switching paths like channels of rain down a windowpane. Although only the fourth longest river in France, it is powerful and fast moving, bringing vast amounts of debris on its journey from the Alps, including the emblematic pale-brown stones known as galets roulés that have been rounded and polished over centuries by rivers and glaciers. There is no direct translation in English for the French term galet roulé; the closest approximation would be ‘cobblestone’ but this brings to mind something smaller and more uniform. Galets roulés vary in size, typically anything from a hen’s egg to a human head, occasionally even larger, and they vary in colour from cream to brown to crimson. They are most commonly associated with Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but deposits from various sources are found all over the Southern Rhône.

The east bank is more extensive, with more varied terrain than that of the west bank, and three different types of growing area. Firstly, there are a number of raised terraces, typically at around 100–150 metres, of ancient alluvial deposits over clay, sand or gravels (or any combination), which tend to produce powerful and potent wines. Secondly, there are three rolling low massifs: Massif d’Uchaux (280 metres), Ventabren (390 metres) and the Visan Valréas Hills (500 metres), each with their own character. Thirdly, there is the mountainous terroir among the Dentelles de Montmirail, on the slopes of Ventoux and around the Montagne du Luberon.

Southern Rhône ‘côtes’ don’t overlook the river Rhône as those in the Northern Rhône do. Instead they overlook the main tributaries of the Rhône that criss-cross the terrain, principally the Aigues, Ouvèze and Lez on the east bank, the Cèze, the Tave and the Ardèche on the west bank. Although there are plentiful rolling hills and plateaux on the west bank, the valleys of the Cèze and Tave are broader and the vineyard land tends to be lower and flatter – vineyards don’t scale the slopes to the extent they do on the east bank. It is however just as diverse in terms of soils. A few domaines start to ascend the Cévennes to the far west, but there is no mountain terroir to speak of. There is a difference in character between the wines of the west bank and those of the east bank. The red wines of the west bank tend to be relatively lean and straight, with a savoury mineral edge. Traditionally there have been larger volumes of white wine, pale red and rosé cultivated here. The red wines of the east bank are rounder and more generous and, for now at least, more varied in style, ageing for longer and reaching higher peaks of quality. Part of this distinction is down to the different types of soil typically found on each bank. There is more sand on the west bank, more clay on the east. Wines grown on the same soil type often share certain characteristics. Speaking about red wine:

  • Granite: vibrant in colour, upright, serious, saline;
  • Schist: perfumed, precise, airborne;
  • Galets roulés: bold, high in alcohol, muscular, rounded;
  • Clay: deeply coloured, thickly tannic and velvety, fruity, potent;
  • Sand: pale in colour, elegant, fine tannins;
  • Limestone: pale in colour, aromatically fresh, straight, lean, tense.

These are gross generalizations – needless to say these characteristics don’t always appear – but they are observations made after years of in-depth tasting. We’ll look at the terroir of each appellation as we address it.

Changing climate, changing wines
The climate is changing and winemakers need to adapt. Thankfully, Southern Rhône vineyards have plenty of varieties to play with, so planting later ripening ones that retain acidity and produce lower levels of alcohol is one possibility. ‘The problem is this region has been planting too much Grenache for decades,’ says Philippe Gimel of Saint Jean du Barroux in Ventoux. He believes looking into alternative varieties, perhaps from Spain, will be important in the future. Vincent Bouyer of Château Bizard in Grignan-les-Adhémar wonders if Tempranillo could work in his terroir. Other vignerons are planting late-ripening white varieties among their parcels of reds, and planting on cooler sites. Louis Chèze in northern Saint-Joseph is now planting white varieties on north-facing slopes. Pierre-Jean Villa in Condrieu advises that ‘before changing varieties, we should think about rootstocks,’ and has had some success by using once ill-advised alternatives such as rupestris du lot and gravesac. Using different clones and changing pruning methods back to gobelet could also help bring back balance, as could reducing planting densities. Irrigation could have numerous benefits, reducing hydric stress, helping to maintain yields, helping to preserve acidity and limiting alcohol levels – but there are downsides.

Adapting their methods to account for climate change may help vignerons produce balanced wines for longer. But these are short-term fixes that do little to address the causes of our increasingly chaotic climate. I’ve heard precious little from wineries about renewable energy, carbon capture, bulk shipping or lighter weight bottles. It’s not surprising therefore that some winemakers’ attitudes are fatalistic. ‘We’re going back to the old ways,’ says Thibaud Chaume of Domaine Chaume-Arnaud in Vinsobres, referring to polycultural farming. ‘I’m planting lavender, fruit trees,’ he says, as a way of hedging against climate change. Adrien Fabre of Domaine la Florane in Visan is doing the same. ‘You can’t irrigate the slopes,’ he says with a shrug of resignation.

It’s not bad news for every part of the Rhône. A warming climate has opened up areas such as Puyméras to more consistent, better quality wines. James King of Château Unang in Ventoux admits it’s also been the key to making better wines in his cool microclimate: ‘now nature is on our side,’ he says. It might be at present: whether it still is in twenty years, time will tell.

Extract from Wines of the Rhone © Matt Walls (Infinite Ideas, 2021)
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