Archive for the ‘Wine in general’ Category

Cornas – The Northern Rhône’s Best Kept Secret

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

There are more famous wine regions in the Rhône Valley. There are wine regions with greater reputations. But it’s the little village of Cornas that makes some of the best value red wines in the northern Rhône.

The steep terraced vineyards of Cornas.

The steep terraced vineyards of Cornas in winter.

While you’ll be lucky to see any change from 30€ for a bottle of Côte-Rôtie bought at the cellar door, and red Hermitage tends to start somewhat north of that, good, often great Cornas can be had for less than 20€. Even the top cuvée from a fabulous winemaker like Johann Michel will set you back only 35€. Hardly cheap, I grant you, but a bargain when put up against the wines of its neighbours. And as Cornas, Côte-Rôtie and red Hermitage share the same grape variety – syrah – and similar steep hillside vineyards (up to 60º slopes in Cornas) with similar granite soils, it’s hardly surprising that there’s a family resemblance. All of which may explain why I work with four Cornas “vignerons”, as many as in any other appellation, and why there is more Cornas in my cellar than any other northern Rhône red. (You could argue that the vineyards of St. Joseph share all those attributes and its wines are even cheaper, and you’d be right, but there the vines face more east than south so, as much as I love a good St. Jo rouge, the wines are less ripe and less grand. Their qualities are different.)

The typical granite soil.

The typical granite soil. It’s spring and the young vines have just started to produce leaves.

It’s not even as if the wines of Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage are rarer. The Cornas vineyards cover 130 ha (about 320 acres), almost exactly the same area as Hermitage. And given the boundaries of the appellation and the nature of the terrain there’s little room for growth. In comparison, Côte-Rôtie is more than twice the size. And if we’re talking about history, well Cornas has that too: the Romans probably had vines in Cornas 2,000 years ago. By the 10th century, the Canon of Viviers was writing that the church in Cornas was “surrounded by vines”.

One thing Cornas hasn’t got is a long history of bottling and exporting its wines. Until the 1950s, much of the wine was still being sold by the winemakers “en vrac”, that’s to say in bulk, to local restaurants who would sell by the glass or by the carafe straight from the barrel, or to private individuals who would carry out their own bottling. It was only once a small number of merchant houses, particularly Paul Jaboulet and Delas Frères, started buying and blending wines from smaller producers and bottling the results under their own labels that Cornas started to be seen outside the immediate region.

Mika outside his cellar

Cornas winemaker Mickaël Bourg outside his cellar

Cornas’s reputation is as a full, burly wine, the country cousin of the more civilised Hermitage, a wine that needs many years for its fierce tannins to soften before becoming drinkable. That may have been true at one time, but that reputation is certainly exaggerated now – there’s a whole generation of producers making wines that lack nothing in concentration but which can be enjoyed in their relative youth: Mickaël Bourg’s 2011 “Les P’tits Bouts” has been delicious almost from the day it was bottled and the 2012 is promising to be almost as precocious (admittedly, his 2009 is still a bit of a monster); I tasted (and bought) Johann Michel’s 2012 “Classique” recently and although it would be a shame to drink it so young – it will only get better with age – it’s very easy to enjoy right now.

Johann Michel in his tasting room.

Johann Michel in his tasting room.

Jacques Lemenicier has a large part of his vines sited high up in the appellation, at around 300 metres. The slightly cooler temperature up towards the top of the hillside helps give his wines real finesse and elegance, rivaling many a Côte-Rôtie, without any sense that his wines are green or unripe. Of the producers I work with, only Alain Verset makes a wine that is determinedly traditional: no destemming of the bunches, a basket press for squeezing the handpicked grapes, maximum extraction, old rather than new barrels. His wine is equally delicious in its own way but does require a little more patience. Even so, the 2006, ’07 and, especially, ’08 are perfect for drinking now, less for the fruit (typically blackcurranty when the wine is young) and more for a whole host of spice flavours including cinnamon, clove and sandalwood. And that 2008 is available right now for just 17€, that’s about £14 or 22$.

Alain and Emmanuelle Verset with the vineyards of Cornas behind them.

Alain and Emmanuelle Verset with the vineyards of Cornas behind them.

It would be remiss of me to not mention a few other producers – even if I don’t work with them, I’m not that biased. Auguste Clape is the star name in the region, although his wines aren’t cheap in anybody’s book; Stéphane Robert’s Domaine de Tunnel and Vincent Paris both make some delicious wines; I’ve never been disappointed by Alain Voge’s Vieilles Vignes wine; and Delas is also making very good Cornas at the moment. But whoever’s name you come across at your nearest wine merchant, the wine will be worth a try. It won’t be Hermitage or Côte-Rôtie, but it will be proudly Cornas.



Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. If you’d like to visit the region to see for yourself why we love Cornas you know who to contact. We also have a Facebook page with an ever-growing list of likes where you can keep in touch with what’s going on. Just follow the links.

Chateau Chadwick or Teaching the French How To Make Wine

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

I know I spend a lot of time talking about other people’s winemaking skills, but it’s not as if I’m ignorant in the matter; though I say it myself, I have form on the vigneron front. And to prove the point, last weekend I opened the very last bottle of “Chadwick Road”, named in honour of the south east London address where I lived for 12 years and where I planted my first pinot noir vine.

The last bottle of Chateau Chadwick

The last bottle of Chateau Chadwick. The glass is clear – the wine really was that colour.

A couple of years after that first back garden pinot, I planted another black grape vine – sold to me simply as a “teinturier” – and then a “cardinal” vine on my little organic allotment in Brixton, which in turn was joined by three more pinot noir vines that had started out as cuttings from the original.

Cardinal grapes in the process of changing colour.

Cardinal grapes in the process of changing colour, although they will always be red rather than black.

If you do the maths you’ll see that that comes to a total of just six vines. And although that made me one of London’s largest vineyard owners at that time – there wasn’t exactly a lot of competition –  it didn’t make a lot of wine. So each year I padded out my meagre haul with black muscat grapes I bought in Borough Market, which I accept didn’t do a lot for either the self-sufficiency or economic arguments for making my own wine. If you were picky, you could also point out that black muscat is a table grape, not a wine variety. But that’s ok – the cardinal grapes I was growing on the allotment would have been eaten not drunk in their native California, so the two were in good company. (You know, beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to buying vines at a UK garden centre.)

Teinturier grapes grown in a London garden.

Teinturier grapes grown in a London garden.

Despite all that, I didn’t always have enough grapes to make wine. So in 2008 I stuffed my bountiful harvest in the freezer and waited until late September 2009, when I was ready to pick the next lot of grapes. Then everything got pressed with a potato masher and fermented together – hence the bottle of “2008/9” in the photo. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with blending different vintages together, indeed Krug is very proud of its “multi-vintage” champagnes. Although I’m fairly sure they don’t store their grapes behind the fish fingers.

Fermentation was “en plastique”, as they say in France, and once the colour looked about right I drained the juice off the skins and carried on letting the wine slowly bubble away in a glass demijohn. Once the bubbling stopped, the wine was siphoned into a new demijohn, sealed and left to mature for a year before I put it in old (but clean!) screwcap wine and mineral water bottles. I didn’t use chemical treatments at any stage – not on the vines, not in the wine – although that probably wasn’t true for the bought-in muscat. And without adding sulpur, the only way I could think of to stop the wine oxidising was to fill the bottles right to the very brim so that there was no air in them and then screw on the top as tightly as I could. Scientific it ain’t.

Did I mention that the wine wasn't filtered

Did I mention that the wine wasn’t filtered?

And do you know what? Last Saturday, after four years of patient maturing, it was terrible. No, I’m joking. It really wasn’t that awful. None of us died, at least. The colour was still surprisingly deep – that’s the teinturier grapes for you (teinturier means “dyer” in French) – and there was a youthful little prickle of gas on the palate. It was even fruity, which I suspect came from the muscat more than anything else – it certainly had some of the flavour of the muscat grape juice that I can buy here in France. It didn’t clash horribly with a roast chicken. What more could you want? Admittedly I had one glass and moved on to a local viognier. But still, never let it be said that this boy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.



Note: this is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours, where we lead by example. There are plenty of pieces about other people’s wines in the archive, on the website, www.Rhô, and on our Facebook page.


Rhône Grapes Part 2 – White Wines

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

Part 1 of this blog was all about the grapes used to make the Rhône Valley’s red and rosé wines (follow this link if you missed it), so it doesn’t take a genius to work out that part 2 is all about the region’s white grapes.

It’s fair to say that the Rhône’s reds are better known than the whites – hardly surprising when red wine production dwarfs that of white wine – and that applies equally to the grapes that go into them. Most wine drinkers will know about syrah (although, for anglophones, perhaps more often under its Australian name, shiraz); some will know grenache and mourvèdre; others will know the blend of all three by its common abbreviation, “GSM”. But viognier aside, it’s likely that most people couldn’t name a single one of the white grapes.

So let’s start there:



Viognier may be the best known of all of the Rhône’s white grape varieties, but as recently as 50 years ago it was almost extinct. Only 14ha (35 acres) of vines were left in the whole world and they were all planted on the steep slopes around the village of Condrieu and neighbouring Ampuis. From that low point, the grape spread slowly at first, starting with the (very) gradual replanting of old, abandoned Condrieu vineyards, before a boom started in the 1980s when winemakers elsewhere began to discover how good viognier wine could be. It’s now grown all around the world and French plantings alone are roughly 300 times greater than they were.

Viognier’s origins have been debated for a long time, including suggestions that it was carried from the Dalmatian coast by Emperor Probus. But as with syrah, DNA testing has shown that one of viognier’s parents is mondeuse blanche, a variety now grown nowhere but the Savoie and Isère regions of France. So south east France, maybe even Condrieu itself, seems a more likely home.

Viognier is a difficult grape, being both susceptible to disease and requiring a fine balancing act on the part of the winemaker. Pick the grapes too late, sometimes by only a matter of a few days, and all-important acidity can disappear, leaving the wine feeling oily and fat. (Someone once described over-ripe viognier to me as tasting like a gin and tonic in wine form.) But pick early to preserve freshness or, even worse, allow the vines to produce an abundant crop, and the wine can end up bland. And bold flavours really should be viognier’s trump card – even at its shyest it will mix ripe pear with a whiff of spring flowers, but more often you’ll find apricots, musk, lychees, even parma violets. Despite that, almost all viognier wines are dry.

Although there are excellent examples in the southern Rhône, northern viognier is more highly regarded as the best wines have a firm core to balance the richness. None, though, are long term keepers. Even the best viognier, by which I mean the best Condrieu, loses a lot of its appeal after 4 or 5 years.

Marsanne growing at Hermitage.

Marsanne growing at Hermitage.

Marsanne is another grape variety closely associated with the northern Rhône. And apart from some plantings in Australia, most notably at the Tahbilk estate in Victoria, it has generally not travelled far from its presumed home, the village of Marsanne a few kilometres from Montélimar. It’s the most commonly planted white grape in the vineyards of Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Saint Péray and Saint Joseph – all reachable within 20 minutes drive of  one of the northern Rhone’s main towns, Valence – but hardly anywhere else. In those few places, even when it’s blended with roussanne (see below), it tends to be the dominant partner.

Like viognier, marsanne is a low acid grape. However, its flavour profile is less exotic. Ripe apple and almond are frequent descriptions, with the wines turning more obviously nutty and honeyed as they age, even though they stay dry. And unlike viognier, marsanne wine can age – stored properly, a good white Hermitage can easily live for a decade or two, sometimes longer, although don’t expect a Crozes or St. Péray to last as well.

Marsanne is rarely encountered in the southern Rhône, although it is permitted in Côtes du Rhône blanc.

Roussanne has traditionally been marsanne’s blending partner in the northern Rhône, where it’s allowed in all the same appellations. It tends to be a little less “fat”, having slightly higher acidity levels and aromas that, while not as flamboyant as viognier, are both finer and more pronounced than marsanne. Spring flowers are sometimes suggested.

DNA testing strongly suggests a parent-offspring relationship with marsanne, meaning one developed from the other. In that case, it’s likely that roussanne also originated in or near the Rhône Valley.

Unlike marsanne, roussanne is on the list of permitted varieties in Châteauneuf du Pape, which at least makes it a bit more visible in the south.

Grenache Blanc

Grenache Blanc

Grenache Blanc is a colour mutation of grenache noir, with the same DNA structure, qualities and (sometimes) failings.

Within the Rhône Valley, grenache blanc appears only in the south where it produces full-bodied whites, usually more notable for their rich texture than their pronounced flavour. The wines are low in acidity and can oxidise quickly. So to help ageing and balance, it’s normally blended with a compatible partner – some of the best white Chateauneuf du Pape show what such a blend is capable of: a rich texture, flavours that mix ripe green plum with apricot and lemon, and a surprising ability to age.

Clairette. Not to be confused with claret, the British name for red Bordeaux.

Clairette. Not to be confused with claret, the British name for red Bordeaux.

Clairette has traditionally been one of grenache’s partners, lending acidity and so a crisp edge to grenache blanc-based wine. It probably first appeared in France, although there do seem to be some genetic links to a number of Italian varieties.

Clairette appears in many of the white blends, from Côtes du Rhône upwards, but it only takes centre stage in the valley of the Drôme, the Rhône tributary that flows down from the alpine foothills to the east. There, between the towns of Crest and Luc-en-Diois, clairette is used to make the dry sparkling wines, Clairette de Die Brut and Crémant de Die.



Bourboulenc is another grape frequently encountered in southern Rhône blends, where producers value its citrus flavours and acidity. It’s found all along the French mediterranean coast, but possibly originated in the Vaucluse region: there is an old vineyard called Barbolenquiera in Aubignan, not far from Avignon.

Domaine de Durban - one of the best muscats.

Domaine de Durban ‘s Muscat de Beaumes de Venise (left)

Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains (small-berried white muscat) is grown around the village of Beaumes de Venise to make a sweet, fortified wine that smells of some or all of the following: elderflower, orange peel, honey and apricots. It goes particularly well with fruit tarts, although the locals in the southern Rhône also like it as an aperitif and with foie gras. Muscat is also the main grape (75% minimum) in the delicious, gently sweet version of sparkling Clairette de Die. (Yes, obviously it’s slightly confusing that a wine called Clairette de Die has no more than 25% clairette in the blend.)

It’s an ancient variety that has been grown around the Mediterranean basin for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years, but its genetic relationship with a large number of Greek and Italian varieties suggest one of those two as its original home.

Picpoul (or Piquepoul) Blanc is a colour mutation of picpoul noir and is also likely to have originated in the Vaucluse, where most of the earliest written references appear. It’s another in the list of higher acid grapes used to balance grenache blanc. One of its few varietal appearances is as bone dry Picpoul de Pinet, a wine made near Sète, on the Med. coast. It has become increasingly sought after in the UK over the last few years, performing a very similar job to Loire Valley muscadet, which is generally cheaper but completely out of fashion.

You can find traces of other white varieties in the Rhône: ugni blanc is allowed in Côtes du Rhône blends and chardonnay is grown to make vin de pays wines, particularly in the cooler Ardèche and Drôme hills. But I can safely say that if it’s not listed here, you don’t need to know about it.



Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours, our opportunity to spread the word about, well, the Rhône Valley and wine. We try not to force the tours bit down your throat; there’s a perfectly good website for that –
The website also tries its best to sell our rather fabulous wine tastings, too. Ten different wines for up to ten people from only 120€, including delicious local cheeses and charcuterie. That’s just 12€ per head! 1,20€ per wine per head!

Well, I only said we don’t try to push the tours here.

PS. All photos are ours. I don’t mind you using them if you ask first.


Rhône Grapes Part 1 – Red and Rose Wines

Monday, January 27th, 2014

French winemakers have a strongly-held belief that “terroir” plays a big part in a wine’s flavour; a belief that complex and subtle combinations of climate, microclimate, geology and geography can make the difference between a simple Bourgogne Rouge and a grand cru La Tâche in Burgundy or between a generic Côtes-du-Rhône and a Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the southern Rhône. I’d absolutely agree with them, but at the same time there’s equally no doubt that the grape varieties used to make wines have a major impact on the way they taste. Part of the reason a Bourgogne Rouge and a red Côtes du Rhône taste different is that one is made with pinot noir while the other is a blend based around the grenache grape.

I’ll come back to the idea of terroir at a later date. For now, I’ll stick to describing the main Rhône Valley grape varieties and how they influence the flavour of the wine in your glass. The descriptions and photos are all my own (and please ask permission if you’re going to use the photos), but the history bits owe a debt to Jancis Robinson’s magnificent “Wine Grapes”. Part 1 is all about the grapes that go into the reds and rosés.

Red wines

Grenache Noir

Grenache Noir

Grenache noir forms the basis of all southern Rhône reds, from Côtes-du-Rhône to Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It’s even used to make a port-style fortified wine in the village of Rasteau.

Its skin has less colouring pigmentation than, say, cabernet sauvignon or syrah (with which it’s frequently blended), so grenache-based wines are also less deeply coloured. But don’t assume that means they are lightweight. Although grenache can be persuaded to make Beaujolais nouveau style “primeur” wines, it’s a heat-loving grape that can reach very high sugar levels, meaning that many southern Rhône wines are around 14-15° once all that sugar has been converted into alcohol. The best hide the alcohol well while remaining warm, round and hearty. Flavours tend to be in the red-fruit spectrum – red cherry, even strawberry, with some spiciness.

It’s most likely that the grape originated Spain, where it is called garnacha or garnatxa, although Sardinians, who call it cannonau, claim their island is its home.

(Note: As rather a long aside, it may be useful at this point  to explain what I mean by a grape’s home. I’m talking about the place where that particular variety first appeared, often as a result of the natural cross-fertilisation of two other distinct grape varieties. This isn’t always easy to establish – many grape varieties have existed for centuries, if not thousands of years, and have migrated from their original base, although the advent of DNA testing has made the task slightly easier. For example, we now know that cabernet sauvignon is a crossing, almost certainly accidental, of cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc, which would suggest that cabernet sauvignon’s origins are French, and more particularly around Bordeaux, where its parents have been grown alongside each other for centuries. The first written records of cab. sav. (late 1700s) also come from that area.

In turn, sauvignon blanc is thought to be an offspring of a similar-sounding eastern French grape, savagnin, and another, unknown variety, while cabernet franc’s parents haven’t been traced, although there are genetic links to certain Basque grapes. Cabernet franc also happens to be one of the parents of merlot, while chenin blanc also has savagnin as a parent, making it a half-sibling to sauvignon blanc. It’s all a bit Jerry Springer.)

Syrah. Notice the little "wings" at the top of the bunch. They're typical of syrah.

Syrah. Notice the little “wings” of grapes that stick out at the top of the bunch. They’re typical of syrah.

Syrah is the sole black grape of the northern Rhône red wine appellations – from north to south Côte-Rôtie, St. Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, Cornas and Brézème. In the south, syrah forms an important part of most blends.

Despite longtime suggestions that the grape was originally from Persia (around Shiraz) or from Sicily (Syracuse), it now appears that syrah comes from south east France as DNA testing has shown that it’s a crossing of dureza, an obscure grape from the Ardèche region to west of the Rhône river, and mondeuse blanche, a white grape from the mountainous Savoie area to the east. Despite having a white variety as a parent, it’s a darker grape than grenache and brings extra colour to southern blends.

In the northern Rhône, the flavours centre around black fruits, particularly blackcurrant, but sometimes there are strong meaty, gamey, even farmyard smells – think grilled bacon, dead pheasant and shit, respectively. Surprisingly, this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Less ripe examples can taste a little stalky or green. The fullest wines come from Hermitage and Cornas, with Crozes-Hermitage and St. Joseph capable of making soft, juicy, easy-drinking wines as well as something more serious. In the hotter south, the flavours are typically more like blackberry, even bramble jam, and the alcohol levels higher.



Mourvèdre is another Spanish import (called monastrell around Valencia) that loves heat and ripens late. Go any further north than the southern Rhône and it won’t ripen at all. It probably first entered Provence from the Spanish port of Sagunto (once called Morvedre in Catalan) and came into Roussillon, on France’s border with Spain, via Mataró, hence the grape’s names in mediterranean France and subsequently Australia.

Mourvèdre wines are deeply coloured, high in tannins, relatively low in alcohol, at least when stood alongside grenache, and often need time to soften. They are very resistant to oxidation, which means they keep well. All these qualities make the grape an excellent fit with the paler, softer grenache.

Mourvèdre’s flavours are of black fruit (plums, black cherry and blackberry), often with something meaty or leathery about the aromas, something like the smell of a saddle or a posh handbag depending on your demographic.

Carignan. Disappearing from many southern Rhone vineyards.

Carignan. Disappearing from many southern Rhone vineyards.

Carignan is the bad boy of the southern Rhône, banned from Chateauneuf, Gigondas and Vacqueyras on quality grounds, and severely restricted elsewhere. It was far more common in the vineyards thirty, even twenty years ago, but its most common replacement, syrah, brings an easy fruitiness to cheap Côtes-du-Rhône intended for immediate drinking whereas carignan, when asked to play the same role, produces hard, charmless, frequently bitter wine. It can make great wine, but the winemaker needs to be willing to cut the crop level to the bone and it helps if the vines are old. You’re best chance of finding a good French carignan is in a wine from Roussillon, where the best taste like inky black fruit mixed with crushed rocks.

Other black grapes used to make red wine include cinsaut, counoise, muscardin, camarèse, vaccarèse, picpoul noir and terret noir. If it’s used at all in red wine, cinsaut makes up a minor part of southern blends. It never appears in the north. And the rest exist almost more in theory than in practice.

You do get the occasional appearance of  “international” varieties like cabernet and merlot, but they’re not allowed in appellation contrôlée/protégée wines, only in vins de pays. And let’s not open that can of worms.

Rosé Wines

Mourvèdre, syrah and grenache noir (especially) are also used to make the Rhône’s rosé wines, which are typically dry and pale (although less so than their Côtes de Provence neighbours) and range from light, crisp quaffers through to the full, powerful wines from the village of Tavel. But there’s another black grape that’s used far more in rosés than in reds – cinsaut.



Cinsaut is an old southern French variety, almost certainly from Provence or neighbouring Languedoc-Roussillon. It’s happiest in hot, dry climates. On its own, it gives wines that are pale and relatively low in alcohol, but also (at their best) aromatic, fresh and fruity, which is why lots of southern winemakers like to add a small percentage to their red blends – many a Châteauneuf-du-Pape has 5% or so of cinsaut in the mix to give the wine a bit of a lift. And it’s precisely those qualities that make it excellent for rosé.

Anything left out of this list can be safely ignored. There are a few brave souls persisting with obscure grapes like chatus and even the (technically prohibited) jacquet. But your chances of finding their wines are as likely as a Rhône winemaker making a “blush” grenache.



Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours, and my opportunity to write about the Rhône in general, wine in general and the combination of the two in particular. As the name suggests, we run wine tours throughout the region and we’ll never turn down the chance to host a wine tasting. If you want to know more, just go to the website:

And I’d be delighted to reply to any comments you might have, either about the blog or our increasingly popular Facebook page (several Friends and counting!).


Everything You Ever Wanted to Know…And Then Some

Friday, January 17th, 2014

The 3rd in a short and occasional series on my favourite wine books.

700 pages devoted to 50 miles of vineyards.

700 pages devoted to 50 miles of vineyards.

Oz Clarke might have helped to get me interested in wine and Kermit Lynch might have inspired me to make wine my way of earning a crust, but it’s John Livingstone-Learmonth who has cornered the market when it comes to books on Rhône wine. I could have chosen my trusty battered copy of “Wines of the Rhône”, published in 1992 and still the best guide to the Rhône in general. But in the end it had to be Livingstone-Learmonth’s magisterial tome, “The Wines of the Northern Rhône”.

There are downsides to the book – as the title makes clear, you’re not going to find anything about the southern Rhône vineyards and its 700-plus pages must weigh a good 5lbs. So it’s not the book to take on a wine holiday if you’re travelling the length of the river. But the scope of  it makes you believe that if JL-L had tried to cover the south too the book may never have been finished, or would have needed a trolley to be carried around.

The introduction looks at modern winemaking methods in the valley and the history of wine in the region; the grape varieties used and the climate they grow in. But the level of detail gets even more impressive when it comes to the different appellations. So, for example, Côte-Rôtie has its own chapter starting with a map precise enough to show individual vineyards, followed by a description of the geography and geology, the “terroir”, of each place in minute detail. That could, should, be dry as dust, but the tone is lively and JL-L has roped in the winemakers to give their descriptions of the vineyards and the different styles they produce. The result is certainly geared to readers with a real interest in wine – wine geeks like me, perhaps – but it hardly reads like an academic paper

Livingstone-Learmonth then describes what surely was every Côte-Rôtie wine estate that existed at the time of the book’s publication (2005), giving each at least a potted history, sometimes a number of pages, as well as a review of their recent wines. Finally, there’s a general overview of previous vintages back to 1955.

That whole process then gets repeated for Condrieu, St. Joseph, Hermitage, and so on. And for anybody whose head isn’t spinning by this point, there are plenty of statistics at the back of the book to get your teeth into.

The passing of time inevitably means that some details are out of date, what with new estates appearing and old ones being sold or split up, or one generation passing the reins on to the next, sometimes with a dramatic change in quality (for good or ill). But that shouldn’t detract from a remarkable achievement.

In short, this book is essential if you love Rhône wines.



PS. I once went to a tiny little wine fair outside the equally tiny (but sadly not very pretty) village of Les Pilles in the southern Rhône. Roughly half a dozen producers had turned up, a few small independents and representatives from a couple of co-operatives, all of whom make wine in the obscure little Coteaux des Baronnies region whose wines you rarely see outside the region, so hardly of interest to anyone writing for an English-speaking audience.  I had an excuse to be there – I work with one of the estates (I didn’t say the wines aren’t good) and I live nearby. Now I don’t know where John Livinstone-Learmonth lives, but there he was interviewing the winemakers and scribbling notes. That’s dedication.

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours, not the John Livingstone-Learmonth fan club. If you’ve found this you’ll know that the blog contains lots of other pieces about the Rhône, wine and most combinations thereof. There’s also a website – – and a Facebook page with fewer words and more pictures. We’re always looking for more “likes”, but occasional visitors are welcome too. JL-L has his own website, Drink Rhône.

Bonne Année

Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

After the excesses of Christmas and New Year, well December in general really, what better way to start 2014 than with a long, vigorous walk? In my case, 3½ hours up hill and down dale starting in the village of Condorcet in the Baronnies hills, 15 minutes drive from Rhône Wine Tours base in Nyons.

All that's left of the old village of Condorcet, abandoned around 1870.

All that’s left of the old village of Condorcet, abandoned around 1870. The vineyards in the foreground produce Coteaux des Baronnies reds.

This is a favourite walk, starting with a steep climb from Condorcet church, up past vineyards, the old hilltop village abandoned in the late 1800s in favour of the current valley site, and then on into the woods before dropping into the hamlet of Saint-Pons. It was here that seven French resistance fighters were shot by a firing squad in 1944.

Plaque attached to the wall of a house in the hamlet of Saint-Pons commemorating the execution of seven resistance fighters.

Climbing again from Saint-Pons, on past the apricot orchards, you come to one of the best places in the region for picking sloes. The locals leave them alone as there’s very little you can do with this little wild plum other than make sloe gin, which doesn’t seem to be to the French taste. This is unusual, as almost everything else edible and free for the picking gets used in one way or another – wild herbs and walnuts, gentian root and  mushrooms, the fruit from the occasional remnants of old orchards, brambles and wild raspberries growing high on Mont Ventoux, you name it.

Sloes growing wild near St-Pons

Sloes growing wild near Saint-Pons

Tradition says that sloes should be picked after the first frost, so New Year’s Day couldn’t be better. If I take a bag or a tupperware container I can grab a couple of hundred grams, enough to make half a litre of sloe gin. If you’d like the recipe, get in touch. (If I had the distilling know-how, I could also pick juniper berries on the same walk and use them to make my own spirit, taking the whole process right back to basics. Although, given that home distilling is illegal here in France, perhaps it’s better that I stick to cheap supermarket gin as my base.)

Juniper grows abundantly in the woods around Condorcet.

Juniper grows abundantly in the woods around Condorcet, but it’s hard to get at – those spikes are sharp.

By now, I’m at the half distance mark and my legs are starting to tire. Although it’s a favourite, it’s a long time since I’ve done this walk and I feel unfit and out of practice. So it’s a good job that I’ve brought a packed lunch – sandwiches made with the remains of last night’s roast duck and apple sauce – and that the path starts to zig-zag downhill to the stream that runs along the bottom of the valley.

You're going to get your feet wet whatever you do.

You’re going to get your feet wet whatever you do.

With Saturday’s rain, the stream is swollen and the banks are muddy – enough sticks to my boots to double their weight. But I’m quickly back on gravel and the mud drops off as I climb gently towards the the first vineyards since the start of the walk, past the hunting dogs’ kennels, the fields that are full of poppies in summer and a handful of farmhouses before I’m finally back in Condorcet.

A winter vineyard waiting to be pruned.

A winter vineyard waiting to be pruned.

In the hills above Condorcet on a beautiful New Year's day. The snow-capped peak of the Angele mountain is just visible on the horizon.

In the hills above Condorcet on a beautiful New Year’s day. The snow-capped peak of the Montagne d’Angèle is just visible on the horizon, to the right.

By the end, I’m stiff and tired. But I wouldn’t want to start the year any other way.

Wishing you an excellent 2014,

Bonne année et bonne santé surtout,


This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. If you’d like to experience the delights of the Rhône Valley, whatever the time of year, you can contact us at You can also visit our website – – where there’s loads of information about our tours and wine tastings; things to do and places to stay while you’re here; our winemaker friends; and probably some other stuff too. Our Facebook page is home to smaller pieces too short to justify their own blog and plenty of photos. And we’re always looking for more “likes”. Hint, hint.

Another week, another trip to Lyon

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

involving hideous parking problems (3 hours to find a parking space!), an idiot opening his car door on me as I drove past and a self-inflicted bang on the head. At least there are some compensations, good wine being chief among them.

Christelle Betton

Christelle Betton

Christelle Betton let us taste her newly fermenting red and white Crozes-Hermitage, as well as her lovely 2011 reds, Espiègle and Caprice. Christelle ferments the grapes from her various plots separately and even at this stage it’s easy to spot the difference between the wines from, say, Les Chassis and Sept Chemins, young vines and old vines. Christelle was shattered after three weeks with three hours sleep a night, but charm itself.

Alain and Emmanuelle Verset

Alain and Emmanuelle Verset

Alain Verset showed us how he draws the wine off the bottom of his tanks of Cornas every day during fermentation and pumps it back over the top to help extract colour and flavour. And so we could see the result, he then poured us glasses of every finished vintage from 2006 to 2010. The ripe 2009 and structured ’10 are still very young, the spicy ’06 and funky ’07 ready to drink. The most pleasant surprise, however, is the ’08, which Alain serves last. In the language of winemakers, 2008 was a “difficult” vintage (for which read “horrible”), cool with lots of rain. But despite that, Alain’s ’08 is a wine I’d very happily drink very often. Yes it’s lighter than the rest, but it smells like the contents of a spice rack (clove, cinnamon, star anise) and would be perfect with roast pheasant (maybe lightly rubbed with a little pimenton, for you foodies out there).

Mika outside his cellar

Mika outside his cellar

Mickaël Bourg handed us a barrel sample of his 2012 St. Péray. By the time of writing it should be in bottle and will be worth looking out for if you’re in the region (sadly he doesn’t export). Mika recently took over a plot of very old marsanne vines growing on granite in the northern sector of the appellation and they have added richness and structure to round out the liveliness of the wine from his vines grown on limestone. He’s rightly very pleased with the result.

We finished with a glass of his delicious 2011 Cornas. It’s a totally different style to Alain’s, darker with more fruit (especially blackcurrant). It’s one of wine’s fascinations that two winemakers, growing the same grape variety – syrah – in a wine region only a few kilometres long and wide, using similarly Heath Robinson facilities, can fashion such contrasting wines.

Seb in the cellar at Domaine de Lucie

Seb in the cellar at Domaine de Lucie

Non-interventionist rebel Sébastien Wiedmann explained the difficulties of doing as little as possible when making wine, drawing pictures to illustrate the whole thing, and expounded on his love of old plots of hybrid vines (naughty boy, Seb, but strictly for home consumption) before letting us taste his red St. Joseph 2011 and Lucie Fourel’s range of Crozes-Hermitage. Lucie makes a pure roussanne white and three different reds, of which the Saint-Jaimes 2011 was my pick. I should explain the Seb and Lucie are partners, in the living together sense, if not when it comes to winemaking.

Lucie Fourel's Aux Racines de Saint-Jaimes 2011

Lucie Fourel’s Aux Racines de Saint-Jaimes 2011

There were also visits to two of the Rhône’s big guns: Vidal-Fleury, who put on a great tour of their hi-tech winery before a comprehensive tasting of their range, and Yves Cuilleron, producer of damn fine Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu. Of course I picked up a couple of things; well it would be rude not to, wouldn’t it?

Vidal-Fleurie's Brune et Blonde Cote-Rotie 2009

Vidal-Fleurie’s Brune et Blonde Côte-Rôtie 2009

Yves Cuileron's Les Chaillets Condrieu 2011

Yves Cuileron’s Les Chaillets Condrieu 2011

And for light relief and super-tasty everyday drinking, I came home to Alexandre Liotaud’s Rieu Frais syrah rosé 2012 (an excellent cure for stress and bumps on the head) and Julien Montagnon’s Domaine Lombard La Côte 2011 (an equally excellent accompaniment to a roast guinea fowl and an episode of Morse on YouTube).

Alexandre Liotaud

Alexandre Liotaud

Domaine Lombard La Cote

Domaine Lombard La Côte

Thanks to them all for helping me forget the less glamourous side of the job.



Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours, where I write about wine, food and the hazards of driving in Lyon. There’s plenty more on the website – www.RhoneWineTours – and lots of shorter pieces, photo albums and the like on our Facebook page.

For those of you who can’t make it to the Rhône valley, Christelle’s red Crozes and her white Hermitage are available at Theatre of Wine in London and the Hermitage should soon be in New York; Fields Morris and Verdin import Alain Verset’s Cornas, which should mean that you can get it at Berry Brothers (again in London); Seb and Lucie’s wines are – or at least were – sold by Vinoteca (guess where) and Lucie’s wines are imported into the USA by Wine Traditions; Vidal-Fleury’s tasty Côtes-du-Rhône is available at Majestic in the UK, check for US suppliers; Yves Cuilleron’s wines can be found at many independent merchants of taste and discernment – Theatre of Wine certainly stocks his great value vin de pays viognier, roussanne and marsanne, as well as some of his more expensive bottles. Again, a quick scan of should bring up a supplier near you.


There’s Wine In Them Thar Hills

Friday, August 9th, 2013

I recently (foolishly?) found myself hosting a bilingual wine tasting for 30+ people in my home town of Nyons. It was July 14, Bastille Day, and the day the Tour de France came through town on the way to that day’s finish line on top of Mont Ventoux. As this year also happens to be the 100th anniversary of the Tour, it was all quite a big event (I’m talking about the Tour here, but I believe the tasting almost overshadowed it).

The second biggest event in Nyons on 14 July

The theme for the tasting was the route of that day’s stage of the Tour, which started in the town of Givors before crossing the Rhône and heading south past the town of Crest and on to Ventoux. The idea was that, as far as possible, the wines would come from the towns and villages along the route. Well that caused a bit of a problem from the start: as far as I knew there was no wine made in Givors itself, but happily Condrieu is just a few miles down the road and that gave us an excuse to start with Philippe Verzier’s lovely Viognier 2012.

Philippe Verzier in his cellar. It was his 2012 Viognier that I used for the Big Event.

But if only I’d looked a little harder I would have found a Givors wine right under my nose: Xavier Gérard, Rhône Wine Tours other Condrieu producer, makes wine from the last parcel of vines growing in the town. Or, to be more precise, on the hillside overlooking the town – Montée des Autrichiens. There on the steep, south-facing slope he grows 0.3ha (about three quarters of an acre) of gamay which was passed to him by his grandfather.

In the vineyards with Xavier

As the vineyard isn’t within any existing appellation it is sold as a simple Vin de France, but it could certainly teach many Beaujolais producers, responsible for most of France’s gamay, a lesson or two. Vinified in the northern Rhône style – traditional fermentation and barrel ageing – it is a deeper, more structured wine than almost all Beaujolais (grown on just the other side of Lyon) but it keeps plenty of juicy fruit. The current 2010 vintage is on fine form. It costs 7,80€, but that’s of dubious interest unless you happen to visit Xavier’s estate as all sales are at the cellar door (which, of course, you can visit through Rhône Wine Tours!).

The wine itself – from the last remaining vines in Givors.

You might ask why I hadn’t realised this before. Well, I can only explain that the first time I tasted the wine was a week after the Nyons tasting – production is tiny and Xavier has never been able to show me the wine before. I knew of the theoretical existence of his gamay, but didn’t actually know that the vines were in Givors.

As it happens, it wouldn’t have been the right wine with which to start a tasting – on a hot evening a cool white was much appreciated – but it does show that in France there are little, forgotten islands of winemaking (and often skilled winemaking at that) which keep alive an old heritage that has almost disappeared. If you’re travelling to France and you’re interested in wine, I urge you to seek them out. A bit of internet searching and a willingness to get off the beaten track are often all that’s required.



Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours where we shamelessly plug our favourite winemakers (but they’re worth it). We also use it as a front for our nefarious money-making (if only) activities, namely wine tours and wine tastings. If you’d like to read more about those, then the Rhône Wine Tours website is the place to go. We’re also on Facebook – like us, pleeeeeeease – and now on Tripadvisor. You won’t get to read any of my writing there, but you will read how fabulous we are.


The Miracle of Life

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

Maybe miracle is pushing it a bit, but the start of the growing season is always pretty exciting for me.

It’s been a (relatively) cool, wet winter and spring in the Rhône and everything is a bit behind. This time last year we were eating the first of the new season’s cherries; this year they’re still two or three of weeks away. The winemakers don’t mind at all – the spring rains will give the vines a water reserve to call upon when the temperatures are up near 40°C and the top soil is parched and dusty. A cool, wet autumn, on the other hand, can ruin a year’s work.

My grenache vine, snapped on the 24th April (pre-repotting). The leaves hadn’t been out long, but you can see the first signs of the flower heads.

But what I really wanted to write about was my abundantly healthy grenache vine, which sits in a large pot on my roof terrace. It started off as a discarded branch that I picked off the ground on a walk through the vineyards of Mirabel-aux-Baronnies early last year, the time when the workers go through vines cutting them back in preparation for the new season’s growth. The branch had obviously been snipped only recently – the cut end was still green – so I thought it might be worth planting out to see what would happen.

15 months later and my cutting is now going to produce its first harvest. Purists will tell me that the vine should be allowed to concentrate on producing roots until its third year, that I should get rid of the nascent bunches. Well, having just re-potted it, I can tell you there are plenty of roots. Besides which, I’m not trying to make Châteauneuf-du-Pape up on my roof, just provide some shade. And anyway, I’m too worked up by the thought of picking my own grenache.

An old bush (“gobelet”) vine in Mirabel-aux-Baronnies. Photo’d in November when the leaves have turned red.

Talking of which, I assume that it’s grenache. It’s the variety that makes up well over half of all plantings in the area, including the vineyards of Chateauneuf  and Gigondas as well as the Côtes-du-Rhône of Mirabel, so the chances would be high in any case. But the “mother” vines were being grown “en gobelet”, in other words as bush vines, which is a training system preferred for grenache, whereas the region’s other main grape, syrah, is grown along wires using a method called “cordon de royat” (don’t worry, there’s no exam at the end). And while there are no grapes yet, the leaves have a grenache look about them. But recognising grape varieties is notoriously difficult and if you know better from looking at the photos, please tell me.

The same vine on May 13th. You can see how the flower heads have developed. These will (hopefully) form bunches of grapes.

In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter. Whatever the variety, from stick to grapes in a year seems pretty miraculous to me.



Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. There’s more of this sort of thing on our website – www.Rhô – where there are potted biographies of some of “our” winemakers, suggestions for things to do in the region and where, in a fit of extravagant commercialism, we also offer tours and wine tastings. You can also find (and like, bien sûr) Rhône Wine Tours on Facebook, where smaller pieces and photo galleries tend to get posted. You can also follow us on Twitter, but don’t hold your breath for constant news.

Vines and Wine in Paris

Saturday, April 20th, 2013

Paris has a host of fantastic wine shops, and it’s no surprise that there’s a bunch of great wine bars (see below), but did you know that in and around Paris, in the Île de France region, there are 130+ vineyards? Ok, so some of them are on the small side – 150 vines here, 300 there – and as far as I know only one produces wine commercially, but at least it’s a step on the road to reclaiming at least a little of Paris’s long winemaking history.

January in Paris. Looking through the vines to the Eiffel Tower

A Brief History

For 2,000 years, until the early 1800s, Paris was surrounded by vineyards. But the advent of the train in the middle of the 19th century dealt them a series of blows. First, the tracks cut their way through the vines, then the subsequent urbanisation of the outer arrondissements and surrounding countryside covered much of the remaining vineyard land. Finally, to rub salt into the wound, the trains gave access to cheaper (and more alcoholic) wines from southern France.

Rue des Morillons in the 15th arrondissement in Paris, named after the Clos des Morillons vineyard which once existed in the Vaugirard district. Morillon is an old grape name.

Until the trains came, Paris, like everywhere else, drank what was made locally. And such was Paris’s thirst, Île de France was one of the largest wine producing regions in France. In 1808 there were around 42,000ha  (roughly 100,000 acres) of vineyard land. Argenteuil, just to the west of the city, was considered a “premier cru” and also the “première vignoble de France”, with 60% of the commune’s 1,700ha given over to grape growing. But once wine could be shipped easily from the hot Midi, where huge harvests of grapes would ripen reliably and cheaply year in year out, there was little need for Parisian wine, especially not the thin, acidic plonk produced for the guingette taverns outside the city limits. By 1900, Île de France’s vineyard area had shrunk to 12,000ha, or roughly ¼ of the figure of a century earlier. Even more dramatically, the commune of Issy-les-Moulineaux, just beyond the city walls, had produced 650,000 litres of wine in 1840, equivalent to 860,000 bottles, but in 1884 it could produce only 5,300 bottles worth.

Come the 1930s there were only 350ha of productive vineyards in the Île de France, less than 1% of the 1808 figure. With the exception of a few hectares at the extreme east of the region entitled to the Champagne appellation, proper commercial production petered out shortly after the second world war – the Paris suburb of Clamart hung on to a vestige of its old vineyards until the early 1960s, but that, finally, was it.


Some people felt the loss of Paris’s “patrimoine” keenly and decided to do something about it. The first, and most famous, of Paris’s “new” vineyards was established in Montmartre in 1933 at the instigation of  local artist Francisque Poulbot. Unlike the once-celebrated “Goutte d’Or” vineyard which was planted to the east of Montmartre, the new vineyard is on the north-facing slope of the hill, looking away from the sun, so its grapes struggle to ripen in Paris’s northerly climate. But that doesn’t stop the harvest festivities being celebrated each year.

The vineyard in Suresnes, to the west of the city centre.

On the other hand, the largest new Paris vineyard – 1½ ha (roughly 4 acres) at Suresnes – faces south-east on the slope of Mont Valerien, overlooking the Bois de Boulogne and the Eiffel Tower. The mixture of chardonnay and sauvignon blanc gives a wine that could be generously described as Chablis-like. You can even buy Suresnes wine at the local tourist office.

I bought a bottle

If you’re staying in Paris and would like to visit a vineyard here’s a list of easy-to-reach sites:

Montmartre (18e) – mostly gamay and  pinot noir but many other varieties planted at the junction of Rue St-Vincent and Rue des Saules.

Clignancourt (18e) – surely the oddest of Paris’s “vineyards”: 32 mansois and négrette vines planted on the embankment of a former railway line near Porte de Clignancourt, not far from the Montmartre plot.

Belleville (20e) – The Vigne du Parc in trendy Belleville is made up of just 140 chardonnay and pinot meunier vines, but is planted on the site of a monks’ vineyard that covered 15ha in the 13th century. The vines are at the Rue Piat side of the park.

The vines on a wintry day in Parc George Brassens

Vaugirard (15e) – Vigne du Parc George Brassens – 720 pinot noir, pinot meunier and perlette vines, plus some chasselas for table grapes. At one time Vaugirard had extensive vineyards with names like Clos des Morillons and Clos des Périchots, both of which have given their names to local roads. The plot is at the southern end of the park.

Bercy (13e) – The quai at Bercy was Paris’s wine warehouse. Now the park has a small chardonnay/sauvignon blanc vineyard and a large trellis for table grapes.

And skirting round the western fringes of the city there’s a chain of further vineyards:

The vineyard at Suresnes

Suresnes  – chardonnay and sauvignon blanc at Rue du Pas St-Maurice, Suresnes, just to the west of the city (see above for more information).

Rueil-Malmaison – two plots not far from the Suresnes vineyard.  The first consists of  750 sauvignon blanc vines in Rue Cuvier, the second another 150 sauvignon in Rue du 19 janvier. Local street names such as Rue des Bons-Raisins and Chemin des Vignes attest to the area’s wine history.

Clamart – there are two Clamart wines: Clos Franquet comes from a small vineyard planted with semillon in Rue Pierre Franquet and Clos de Clamart is made from a mix of pinot noir, gamay, chasselas, muscat and baco planted in small plots, or even as single vines, around Clamart.

Courbevoie – 500 semillon vines planted in the Parc de Bécon, close to La Défence. And at La Défense itself, a further 700 chardonnay and pinot noir vines in the Clos de Chantecoq overlooking the A14 road tunnel. Romantic it isn’t.

Issy-les-Moulineaux – Chemin des Vignes, 113bis Avenue de Verdun. Chardonnay and pinot gris, or as they call it pinot beurot. Local schoolchildren help with the harvest.

Bagneux – 760 sauvignon and semillon vines planted on Rue de la Lisette.

And if you prefer to trawl the shelves rather than tramp the streets, here are a few of my favourite wine shops:

La Cave de l’Insolite – 30 Rue de la Folie-Mericourt (11e). A haven for “natural”, organic and biodynamic wines. But more importantly, the wines are interesting and well-chosen. One word of warning: since I last went the shop has become a shop and wine bar, and it appears that tables have taken over some of the room used for displaying wine. On the other hand, it looks a very nice bar à vin.

Specialising in organic, biodynamic and “natural” wines

Bacchus et Ariane – 4 Rue Lobineau (6e). A small shop in the covered market at St. Germain. Last time I went they had a nice selection of grower champagnes including Cédric Bouchard, Jacques Lassaigne and Larmandier-Bernier.

Lavinia – 3 Boulevard de la Madeleine (1e). Apparently the largest wine shop in Europe with 3 floors and several thousand wines and sprits. It’s not homely, but just about everything you could want is here.

And if you just want to grab a glass, here are a couple of suggestions:

Le Verre Volé – 67 Rue de Lancry (10e). Like “Insolite” above, another natural wine specialist. Make sure you go to Rue de Lancry if you want to sit down – the branch on Oberkampf is a wine shop only.

Le Baron Rouge – 1 Rue Theophile Roussel (12e). An institution. Bustling, lively, wines served from barrels, customers tucking into cheeses and oysters.

I hope you’re inspired. If not to go to a Parisien vineyard, then at least to visit Paris.

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. While we don’t offer tours of Paris (although I could always be tempted if the price was right) we do have a rather fine selection of private tours and tastings in the Rhône. Go to our website if you want to know more. And we dabble in the social media too: bits and pieces are posted on Facebook and Twitter now and again should you fancy following us.