By Mark DeWolf
National President Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers
The Southern Rhône Valley offers well-known destinations for wine lovers: Avignon, Orange, Aix-en-Provence, and even Chateauneuf-du-Pape. While thousands of tourists visit the Southern Rhône, many don’t realize that they are steps away from Pont-de-L’Isère, the symbolic divide between Northern and Southern Rhône Valleys.
Pont-de-L’Isère is named after the bridge that crosses the Isère river on the southern edge of the town. Those who enjoy wines from the Southern Rhône Valley will discover that the wines of the North have a lot to offer.
While Syrah-based wines that come from the slopes of Cornas, Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie bask in the warmth of notoriety the pleasures of Rhône extend to white wines as well. Lesser known flavours like Marsanne, a white grape varietal, play a key role in the whites of the southern section of the Northern Rhône. These grapes are less known than Viognier which stars in the celebrated wines of Condrieu and Château Grillet in the far north.
Another feature of the North is its easy pace. This makes travelling the Northern Rhône a pleasure, whether from the deck of one of the many river boats that travel the river’s calm waters or like me from the high perches of the Hill of L’Hermitage, high above the town of Tain Hermitage.
The pleasures of this part of the Rhône extend beyond the vineyards. Hikers can walk between the vines for spectacular views overlooking the valley below. This is also perfect for leisure hikes while enjoying the breathtaking views of Saint-Péray, which led me to a 12th-century limestone castle named Château de Crussol. The limestone has left its lasting impression on the soil which has also translated to the wines being made as either still or sparkling wines.
The wines of Saint-Péray have a high degree of purity which leads to a natural feel. Saint-Péray is only a short 15-minute drive from the town of Tain L’Hermitage. Tain L’Hermitage town offers a remarkable amount of food and wine experiences as in addition to birthing prestigious wineries such as Chapoutier and Jaboulet but it is also home to Valrhona – the world-famous chocolatier.
On my recent trip to the hill of Hermitage, I anticipated lasting memories of savoury Syrahs. Having tasted a variety of red wines from the Northern Rhône, the whites of the hill are equally memorable. While I reaffirmed my love of Syrah in the vineyards of St. Joseph, Hermitage, Cornas and the Côte-Rôtie, I rekindled a love of Marsanne in the Northern Rhône. Often when travelling the wine regions of the world it is the unexpected that is the most rewarding.
For wine lovers and foodies alike, the Northern Rhône is an undiscovered gem worth visiting.