Even after years of drinking my way through the various intoxicating appellations of the Rhone Valley, I continue to be mesmerized by the wines from the Northern section, especially those from the steep sloped vineyards of Cote Rotie, located above the town of Ampuis and equal to the size of Hua Hin Hills Vineyard in Thailand.
Many classic as well as single vineyard cuvees have been tried and the names I fondly remember are Stephane Ogier, Christophe Bonnefond, Robert Jasmin, Francois Villiard, Jean Michel Gerin or Yves Cuilleron. While the soft vintages are easily approachable young at 4-5 years, the vintages of acclaim are hard hitting wines which need at least 10-12 years of maturation before opening up to expose complex aroma beneath the deep dark core.
Looking at French wine map, it appears the entire Rhone valley, should make rich and warm wines from sunny vineyards, but not so in the northern reaches, which the French call vin septentrional. It is here in Cote Rotie, where structure is matched with elegance. Take a closer look and you are reminded of Burgundy in style, but will not mistake the dark-berried Syrah. The same schist and granitic soil that runs from Burgundy through Northern Rhone all the way to Piedmont, allows for vintners to create wonderfully Burgundian-styled wines respectively of Pinot Noir, Syrah or Nebbiolo.
A good Cote Rotie rarely wows you from the start. Instead, it runs its course (2-3 hours in a decanter), before slowly building up intriguing concoction of dark berries, graphite, and smokey bacon fat – something you will find nowhere else. If the winemaker has co-fermented some Viognier with the Syrah, you will notice a light floral note in the bouquet. They are highly sought after and pricey due to limited supply and manual work on the slopes.
Are these wines worth the praise? An astounding yes, but you need find the right moment, and of course pay a handsome fee for each bottle. I suggest, that if you want a very similar experience, go even further north to an area around Vienne called Seyssuel. This was a coveted region during the Roman times, but left forgotten since until many of the young and talented winemakers moved there to reenergize what the trade knows as Vin de Pays Collines Rhodaniennes. Here you will find very similar wines for half the price.