Granite and aspect. Two key factors influencing the styles found in the Northern Rhone. In his book Wines of the Rhone, Benjamin Lewin MW, comments that wines from granitic soil have a taut edge to them whereas those from less granitic sites produce wines with a less austere, fuller, fruitier impression. Commentators, such as Jancis and Hugh Johnson, also mention more granitic lieux dits, such as Les Bessards, tend to produce more tannic wines.
The three powerhouses of the Northern Rhone — Cote Rotie, Hermitage, and Cornas — are all on steep south-facing granitic slopes. The lighter wines of Saint Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage come from more varied terrain and with less granitic influence. They typically come from much flatter ground — meaning much less sun exposure — and from more fertile soil — meaning less energy going into fruit ripening. To generalise, the wines of Saint Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage are much lighter, less structured and less ripe than the big three.
Flavours of licorice, red fruits, blue fruits and black fruits are frequently seen in many Syrah/Shiraz wines around the world. However, flavours reminiscent of olives, tapenade, bacon, cured meats, grilled vegetables, and truffles are more particular to Syrah wines of the Northern Rhone and are likely to come from a combination of unique growing conditions and traditional wine making techniques.
Hallmarks: perfumed aromatics, wonderful marriage of power and elegance with a certain smoothness and plushness. Typically a rounder softer expression than Hermitage.
Why it tastes like this: the steep south-east facing, sun-baked, slopes not only give the appellation its name they also gives a rich, ripe quality to wine. Compared to Hermitage, Cote Rotie is consistently cooler (typically, at least 1°C on any given day) this combined with new oak use and Viognier inclusion are all factors that can contribute to more pronounced perfume and the fine, lacy, elegant structure typical of Cote Rotie.
What else: often noted for its floral perfume, particularly violets. Sometimes this is attributed to the use of Viognier. While Viognier can contribute significantly to the perfume, violets is a descriptor also found in 100% Syrah. I find apricot kernel and a slippery laciness to the texture of the wine can suggest generous inclusion of Viognier. I think Pierre Gaillards Cote Rote (10% Viognier) is a good example of this.
Hallmarks: light, elegant, and peppery with red (raspberry) fruit.
Why it tastes like this: the majority (but by no means all) is planted on cooler flatter ground. Vineyards are less exposed, higher yielding and from younger vines producing less ripe, less concentrated grapes. In an I’ll Drink to That podcast Jean-Louis Chave talked about the pH of the granitic soil in Saint Joseph being much lower than that of Hermitage. He believes this is one reason why Saint Joseph is often like bones without the flesh.
What else: Of course, as always, there are many exceptions. Wines planted on the steep granitic river banks of Saint Joseph, such as Guigal’s Vigne de l’Hospice, are closer to Hermitage in style (although typically still a bit lighter).
Hallmarks: dark colour; rich aromas of leather, coffee, and red fruit; powerful and tannic but with a good level of freshness .
Why it tastes like this: Hermitage is planted on a steep, south-facing hill that’s sheltered from the cool northerly winds. Combined with granitic soil, low yields, and old vines help produce ripe, concentrated, and powerfully tannic wines. Up to 15% of Marsanne and Roussanne can be used to help tame the tannins as well as new oak (although less used than Cote Rotie).
Hallmarks: hard to generalise, but, by volume, most wines show bright fruit with light, soft structure and modest complexity.
Why it tastes like this: majority of vineyards come from, flatter less well exposed sites, with more fertile, less well drained soil, and higher yielding, younger vines. Little new oak is employed here to add complexity or structure. And, most wines are intentionally made to be drunk young. Whole bunch, semi-carbonic not unusual. Up to 15% of Marsanne and Roussanne can be used.
What else: sites in the north of the appellation, near Hermitage, have more granitic soil and steeper slopes. Can produce bigger wines with more structure and complexity.
Hallmarks: dark, robust, and sturdy, with supple ripe tannins and earthy, truffle like aromas.
Why it taste like this: in local dialect Cornas translates to burnt land. Like Hermitage and Cote Rotie, it is also on steep granitic slopes, however, it’s much warmer here. Its position is protect from cool northerly winds and is also at a transition point where climate goes from Continental to more Mediterranean. Typically, sturdier than Hermitage or Cote Rotie with less elegance and finesse. The wines are 100% Syrah and new oak is not that common.
What else: traditional Cornas can be raw and rustic. However, more modern styles are fresher and more fruit forward.
White Wines of the Northern Rhone
Hallmarks: deep colour, exotic aromatics, perfumed and floral. A fine balance between fatness and elegance. Low acid and elevated alcohol. Phenolic texture. An oily, slippery mouthfeel.
Why it tastes like this: small berries with thick skins will give more phenolics. Viognier has high levels of terpenes — compounds responsible for the exotic, floral perfume. High terpenes can also increase bitterness. Elevated alcohol can also increase perception of bitterness. The grapes naturally ripen at high sugar levels with low acid.
What else: The traditional northern vineyards, produce richer with more floral sometimes exotic qualities with pear, apricot and honey notes. Southern vineyards tend to produce tighter and more mineral wines.
Saint Joseph, Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage
Hallmarks: deep colour (golden hues), scented, full body, low acid, high alcohol, phenolic bitterness, dry finish. Flavours of honeysuckle, rich almond paste, and pear.
Why it tastes like this: Typically a blend with Marsanne being the dominant variety and Roussanne playing a supporting role. Ripe grapes combined with oak aging conducive to deeper colour. The difficult to grow, but highly, aromatic Roussanne adds a perfume scent to the relatively restrained Marsanne. Delicacy and finesse also characteristics of Roussanne. Bitterness is a hallmark of Marsanne. Traditional winemaking, with neutral barrel aging can emphasise savoury, herbal, and nutty (almond and marzipan) characters.
What else: Hermitage, coming from warmer, higher quality site tends to have more intense, concentrated, and complex notes of honeysuckle, tropical fruit, and earthy minerals and can age for upto 15 years. Crozes-Hermitage often lack the fruit concentration to compensate for the low acidity
Hallmarks: gently perfumed, broad, pleasant and soft but lacks character.
Why it taste like this: south of Cornas, this is a warmer part of the Northern Rhone. Terrain typically flatter and granite not as prevalent here and soils more fertile. Less use of Roussanne the Hermitage or Crozes (up to 10%) means less aromatic impact and less refined style.
What else: some granitic vineyards on gentle slopes in the north of the region can produce richer, more flavoursome wines.
Identifying Northern Rhone wines in a blind tasting
As with all blind tasting, I think it’s import to put the wine you’re identifying into context. Especially, when it’s from a region or appellation where styles can vary. Saint Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage are an example of this. If you’re identifying a light, bright fruity example of one of these you need to demonstrate that you know not all Saint Josephs or Crozes-Hermitages are like this. You could imply this by saying that it’s an entry-level or early-drinking example typical of the region.
Similarly, with Cornas, not all are the raw, rustic beasts they used to be. If it is one of these you’re tasting, though, make the point of saying it’s a traditional example of the appellation rather than a modern one. I believe doing this shows you have a better grasp the wines from a particular region.