At the northern-most tip of the Rhone Valley sits one of the smallest, but most important regions in the whole of the Rhone, the ‘Roasted slope’ or Côte Rôtie. The region consists of 10 parallel hills, where the vineyards sit on perfect south-east facing slopes, and rise sharply from the Rhône river, with the top of the hill sitting 330m above the river. This steep slope receives the maximum amount of morning and early-afternoon sun while blocking cold winds from the north, which translates to vines achieve a ripeness and body not often seen north of the Mediterranean. This also means harvesting in the Côte Rôtie can only ever be done by hand (sometimes with workers needing to be winched down slopes!), under the roasting sun, which could explain the high prices!
Soil is as important an aspect of the Côte Rôtie as slope and sunshine are; the hills are made almost entirely of dry, low nutrient, hard, rocky schist which is quite inhospitable, however creates some incredibly concentrated, rich berries. In addition to this, the rocky soils create high diurnal (day to night) temperature variation, which heat up fast in the morning sun, then cool quickly once the sun sets, which increases natural acids in the berry. The region is broadly split into two sub-divisions; the Côte Blonde is the south-western part of the region, and is as its name suggests, covered with a layer of lighter-coloured sand. The Côte Brune, which sits in the north-east of the region, is no less true to its name, covered with reddish-brown topsoil, enriched with iron. The final piece of the puzzle is the grape varieties; Syrah grows best in this iron-rich Brune soil, and wines from this area tend to be 100% Syrah, with its distinctive white pepper and blueberry aromas and chunky, dense tannins. The wines made in the Blonde region tend to be lighter, more perfumed and more approachable in their youth, due to there being more Viognier plantings, and up to 20% of this white wine allowed to be added into the final blend. The best wines, as stated by those who know the region intimately, are a blend of the 2 regions, matching power with elegance. Click map to enlarge
While the wines today enjoy world-wide renown, historically speaking, the wines of Côte Rôtie were floundering until the last few decades. Today we take for granted the fact that we can buy a bottle of wine from the other side of the planet and it is in fairly close condition to when it left the winery. Going back a few decades, when climate-controlled storage was much more expensive, and even before that when the majority of shipping occurred via boat, Côte Rôtie was all at sea in terms of getting its wines to foreign markets. When shipping via the local river systems you see, they must either pass through the southern Rhone to the south to enter the Mediterranean, or Burgundy to the north the reach Paris, the Low Countries and the UK. Both of these regions had no interest in simply letting these stellar wines pass by and steal away their customers, so placed heavy duties for passing through- so heavy that they basically priced Northern Rhone wines out of the game.
It was 2 men who basically introduced Côte Rôtie wines into the wine shops and restaurants of the world; one was Marciel Guigal, owner and winemaker of Guigal, the name synonymous with Côte Rôtie and largest landowner, and his biggest fan, American wine writer Robert Parker, who argued lustily for the Côte Rôtie and the northern Rhone in general as a quality, world-class wine region. Going back even further however, it seems crazy that the Côte Rôtie was almost lost to the annals of history; the Romans had a very important base at Vienne just to the north, and there is evidence to suggest that this region was the first site where grape vines were grown and cultivated in all of France (then called Gaul). With wines like Guigal’s La Mouline, La Landonne, Chateau d’Ampuis and La Turque coming out of the Côte Rôtie, and the prices they achieve, it seems they knew what they were doing!
Wine Sales Manager