Wait, What, When - Part Four: The Rhône

The Rhône Valley has long been France’s best kept secret. Not only did it find an international following later than established regions like Burgundy and Bordeaux, but those regions historically would also smuggle in Rhône wines to adulterate their own, boosting ripeness and body in colder years. This practice was largely abandoned after WW2, but it sets a precedent: the Rhône Valley can ripen grapes pretty reliably.

Since ripeness is a big component of drinkability, one could surmise that all Rhône wines are good to go, no help needed, why should I even write this article? Well, just hold on there, buster. The Rhône valley is a big place with many villages, and each of them makes wines of particular character, there’s no catch-all rule regarding when to open your bottle. That’s where I come in.

As always, these are personal guidelines, based on years of drinking Rhône wines (and having spent time there). Let’s start with the Southern Rhône and the village that put it on the map:

Southern Rhône

Chateauneuf-du-Pape: One of the reasons for Chateauneuf’s popularity is its flexibility: most of the ageable wines also drink well young, you rarely pay a penalty for loss of willpower. That said, certain producers do make tighter wines, especially if they incorporate higher percentages of Mourvèdre, which adds considerable tannin to a blend. If the Chateauneuf is mostly Grenache – as many are – then have at ‘er.

Gigondas: Chateauneuf’s sassy cousin from the other side of the valley is a steep incline from the valley floor up to the Dentelles mountain range. Favouring Grenache, many Gigondas are ready to go, except for the wines – usually the priciest – that come exclusively from the higher plots above the village. Those wines will usually feature the vineyard name on the label, so if it just says “Gigondas” you’re probably in the clear. Enjoy.

Lirac: Across the river from Chateauneuf, Lirac offers similar blends (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault) that are both more austere on the nose and less structured. With only a few exceptions, I’ve found Lirac to be accessible upon release, and great comparative value.

Tavel: A Rosé that was raised by wolves, the wines of Tavel are comprised of the same grape varieties as their valley-mates, with all the body and the structure, but pink. Besides the combat-wines of Bandol, this is the only still French Rosé that benefits from a few years nap – say, 6-7 years from the harvest date. If you open it young, drink it with rich food.

Cairanne: This valley-floor village specializes in deliciosity. Good to go and have fun.

Vacqueyras: Adjacent to Gigondas’ lowest border, Vacqueyras serves up valley-floor yumness, dive in. Vinsobres: This tiny hamlet at the north end of the southern Rhône makes curiously dense, structured wine that can be drunk early with protein, but can benefit from a couple years down – 5 years from harvest date is perfect.

White Chateauneuf-du-Pape: These luxurious festivals of sin tend to see more barrel time than the reds, and that micro-oxygenation – often accompanied by malolactic fermentation – softens the texture considerably. Picture the shape and weight of a Russian River Chardonnay, but with different aromatics. These are generally good to go, even from producers who avoid malo and oak in order to make zippier wines.

Côtes-du-Rhône White/Red: These are some of the best values in France. Food friendly and ready to drink.

Northern Rhône

Hermitage: The spiritual home of Syrah, and one of the world’s most famous Wine Hills, alongside Corton and Montrachet in acclaim and price tag. There are a selected few producers – mostly co-operatives – that make drinkable young Hermitage (can also be spelled “Ermitage” for peeps with H allergies), but on the whole these are cellar investments, released as tight time capsules that must slowly unwind over 10-15 years. A 20-year-old Hermitage is an exhilarating dose of beauty.

Crozes-Hermitage: From the partially-chomped-donut area around Hermitage, Crozes was initially introduced as a cheaper, drinkable alternative to those hill wines, but certain producers have taken the Syrah from this appellation to much higher levels of quality and longevity, so you should ask nice wine store people like me which ones are which.

Cornas: One of the few Rhône appellations shielded from the cooling Mistral winds, Cornas trends hotter than most villages – it’s usually the first place to get harvested – and the Syrah from there is deeper, darker, thicker, and generally rounder than most other northern Rhône Syrah. Some producers favour heavier tannins, but even then the fruit weight often balances everything out. If you’re not sure, wait an additional 2-3 years, but most Cornas is pretty crushable when young.

Saint-Joseph: A big, sprawling appellation that makes some very good wines – some of the northern Rhône’s best values can be found here – but there’s not really a consistency to the style of Saint-Joseph, so there’s no common wisdom as to drinking windows. I’d say look at the producer’s overall style: if they make super-structured wines elsewhere, they probably do here too.

Côte-Rôtie: Closest to Hermitage in shape and longevity, Côte-Rôtie differs in its composition: it’s the only northern Rhône appellation where small amounts of white Viognier are regularly added to the Syrah. Accordingly, these are wines with high acidity on top of high tannins, and although they become drop-dead-gorgeous swans after 10-15 years past the harvest date, you should avoid drinking them young, at least if you enjoy having teeth.

Condrieu: The birthplace (we surmise) of Viognier, and one of the few premium white wines not usually intended to age. Gloriously aromatic, rich and generous, Condrieu is lower in acidity, an important component for longevity, and the youthful fruit is so gorgeous you wouldn’t want to lose it. There is, admittedly, an argument for aged Condrieu, usually argued by strange weirdos. Drink it and smile.

White Hermitage: Completely producer-dependant. While virtually every white Hermitage is a thing of beauty, not every one has the same drinking window, and it usually comes down to composition. If a white Hermitage is predominantly Marsanne, wait at least 10 years past the harvest date. If it’s half Marsanne and half Roussanne, you’re probably safe. Marsanne is the bones and Roussanne is the flesh, so the more Roussanne there is, the rounder the wine will be.