Everything You Ever Wanted to Know…And Then Some

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 – www.RhoneWineTours.com – 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.

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