Northern Rhône, France

Our second wine tour in the Rhône Valley brought us to the Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu AOCs in Northern Rhône (located south of Lyon).

Northern Rhône is known for Syrah wines. We were excited.

We pre-booked a tour directly with Lyon Winetours. The booking process was slightly more formal than the process for our Châteauneuf-du-Pape tour but still fairly informal. Lyon Winetours is owned and operated by a nice chap named Vincent. 

We booked a non-private “Tannin Classic” tour via the website (paid a small deposit at the time of booking), and a few days later, I received an email from Vincent. The day of our tour was a semi-public holiday, and he was concerned that wineries might not be open that day.

He asked if we could switch our date, and, unfortunately, we were stuck with the date because we had another tour booked for our second full day in Lyon. 

He replied, “Should be alright!”

A couple weeks went by, and I received another email from Vincent. A group of four was interested in taking a tour on our date, but they were only available for a half-day. He asked if we’d be up for the half-day tour instead of the full-day tour. 

We said no problem, and now we were booked for the “Tannin Classic Express.”

Vincent is a winemaker who’s traveled and lived in many different parts of the world, including South Africa, the USA, and New Zealand (or maybe it was Australia?).

We met Vincent and the “Swiss 4” at Bellecour Plaza at 9:30am. The Swiss 4 was a group of girls who traveled to Lyon to celebrate their friend’s upcoming wedding.

Only one of the Swiss 4 spoke French fluently, and since they all spoke English fluently, they were more than happy to have the tour in English, which lifted a weight off of our shoulders. It can be uncomfortable when we are the only people on the tour who cannot speak their native language.

We could not have asked for a better set of tour mates than the Swiss 4. Conversation flowed naturally; everyone chatted so much that the tour ran about an hour over the scheduled time. 

After a quick meet-and-greet at the plaza, we jumped in the van and were off!

I sat in the van’s front seat, and Peter sat in the back seat. I bet the Swiss 4 thought we were an odd couple, but I get car sick, so if the front seat is available, that’s where you’ll find me. As for Peter, he was being gentlemanly by climbing into the back.

The drive from Lyon to our first stop flew by. Vincent is a great conversation starter, and as soon as we hit the motorway/highway, he said, “Enough about me. Now I’d like everyone to introduce themselves, including stating your favorite wine and what you do for work.”

Europeans don’t usually talk about work, so this was going to be interesting. 

In the van, we had a doctor, a teacher, a museum/history coordinator, a researcher, a winemaker, and two tech people.

The motorway/highway followed the Rhône River, and as we approached the commune of Vienne (Northern Rhône begins just south of Vienne), we crossed from the east side of the river to the west side and exited the motorway near the village of Ampuis.

Let’s talk about river banks for a second. 

Our first stop was at the Côte-Rôtie AOC (English: “the roasted slope”), which is located on the “Right Bank” of the Rhône River. 

I can’t remember if I asked why the west side of the river would be labeled as the Right Bank (in my head, the west side should be Left Bank) or if Vincent offered up the explanation, but basically, the banks are labeled based on the river’s flow.

Since the Rhône River flows south, the west side is the right bank. My mind was blown again.

The terrain of Northern Rhône was the opposite of Southern Rhône, at least in the areas we visited. Southern Rhône was flat, whereas Northern Rhône was narrow and steep (nearly 60° incline).

I immediately noticed the vine structure to be different than in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The vines in this appellation were tall and skinny versus short and stubby.

The two appellations had one thing in common: the vines were not trellised. Plenty of sunshine in these appellations.

Going back to what our CdP tour guide said, that the vine structure tells the story of the climate, I suspected the climate in Northern Rhône was different than in Southern Rhône.

In Northern Rhône, the winters are wet, and the region experiences the same Mistral winds as Southern Rhône. They train the vines to start well above the soil to prevent mold and other problems in damp climates.

Foggy conditions in the spring and autumn can settle in the steep valley and cause ripening challenges. The vineyards are planted on the west side (Right Bank) of the river to maximize sun exposure.

The vineyards are terraced and fortified by stone walls to prevent erosion. As with CdP, machine harvesting is not permitted in the Côte-Rôtie AOC. The steep terrain would make it impossible to use machines even if permitted.

Fun fact: More wine is produced in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape AOC (appellation in Southern Rhône) than in all of Northern Rhône. Northern Rhône is a tiny area.

The two grapes grown in the Côte-Rôtie AOC are Syrah and Viognier (vee-on-yay). Syrah is a red grape, and Viognier is a white grape.

Côte-Rôtie AOC is one of a few appellations that permit white grapes in red blends. The Châteauneuf-du-Pape AOC also permits blending.

Although blending white and red grapes is permitted, it’s not a free for all. French wine has a lot of rules! 

In Côte-Rôtie, Viognier can only account for up to 20% of the blend. If memory serves correctly, Vincent stated that there was only one winery that blends 80/20.

We spent 20 minutes or so in the vineyard, climbed in the van, and drove a short distance to our first winery, Domaine Guy Bernard.

Domaine Guy Bernard

Vincent gave us a quick tour of the facilities and told us that he made (or helped make?) the wine at this winery in 2020.

As mentioned in a prior post, a “Domaine” is a winery that has vineyards that are on individual plots of land versus a continuous plot of land (“Château”).

Domaine Guy Bernard has multiple plots of land and produces wine in two appellations, Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu.

They’ve probably got the most modern and minimalistic wine label of all French wine.

After the tour, we sat at an old wooden table inside an even older building and got to work… tasting wine…

We tasted four wines. Three reds and a white. One of the reds was a 93/7 blend of Syrah and Viognier. I am sure I’ve consumed Syrah/Viognier blends before, but I’m not sure I was ever aware of it.

I enjoyed the 93/7 blend a lot. Syrahs can be heavy at times, and I felt the touch of Viognier lightened it up a bit. I think it will be my new favorite wine blend.

Viognier on its own is a “no” for me. I wasn’t a fan of the Viognier wines I tasted in Washington state, and I wasn’t a fan of the ones I tasted in France, And that’s OK. Not every wine varietal is going to be my cuppa tea.

Having only tasted four wines, our tasting lasted forever! Perhaps an hour, maybe longer. There was a lot of conversation happening.

The Swiss 4, Peter, and I compared cultural rumors and norms like when they asked if it was true that a man is supposed to spend 10 months of salary on an engagement ring and when they asked how parents deal with childcare in the summer when kids are out of school for months at a time.

I asked them if it was a thing throughout Switzerland to pay for tap water at restaurants or if that was a Zermatt thing, and they confirmed that it’s a Switzerland thing.

After the tasting, we hopped in the van and drove to Vincent’s wine bar/shop for our second and final stop of the day.

Les Enfants du Rhône Caviste & Bar à vin

Les Enfants du Rhône Caviste & Bar à vin is located in Condrieu where Vincent grew up. The Condrieu AOC is located south of Côte-Rôtie. The two appellations share a boundary and Condrieu experiences the same general Northern Rhône weather patterns described above.

As with all AOCs, Condrieu has its own set of rules. One is that wines produced in this appellation must be white wines made entirely from Viognier. 

As Vincent gathered the necessities for the tasting, we gathered around the high-top table and waited for the fun to begin. 

Vincent took out 12 wine glasses, two for each of us, and labeled half of them with a 1 and the other half with a 2. We were about to embark on a side-by-side tasting, and I was excited.

The unique thing about this tasting was that although we were in Condrieu, our wine tasting was not going to be exclusive to Condrieu wines.

We tasted six or seven wines. There was also a Champagne in there at some point after one of the Swiss 4 said she’d never found a Champagne she’d liked. I seconded that motion, and the next thing we knew, we were tasting a Champagne pulled from the fridge.

To some extent, Vincent let our comments, questions, and curiosities drive the wines he poured for us to taste.

I liked this format for a tasting but left the wine bar clueless about what we tasted, except a Champagne and a 95/5 blend of Syrah and Viognier.

The next thing I knew, we had run over time, and the Swiss 4 were at risk of missing their train to Switzerland. It was 1:30pm, and we were supposed to be back in Lyon at 1:30pm – we hadn’t even left Condrieu.

After a short chat with Vincent, we finalized our purchases and learned that he can also package and ship wine internationally. That was music to our ears. We now had two contacts in the Rhône Valley who we trusted to buy, package, and ship wine in the future.

Bags of wine in hand, we needed to skedaddle, and skedaddle we did. Due to time constraints, Vincent drove to the Lyon Part Dieu station, where we parted ways with the Swiss 4. It was 2:30pm, and we were starving!

If I had one suggestion for the tour, it would be the same one I had for Romain’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape tour. It would be a nice touch to offer some light nibbles at the second tasting. 

After dropping off the Swiss 4, Vincent began driving to Bellecour Plaza, and I knew we were going to drive by our hotel and asked if it would be convenient to drop us off at the hotel. He agreed – no problem! 

We paid the remainder of our tour balance via credit card in the van. We thanked him for the tour and said we’d be in touch about a future wine order. 

The tour gets a 9/10 rating; a 10/10 if there had been nibbles to eat during the tour.

Two tours done, one to go!

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