Saint-Joseph, Northern Rhône
I was looking through my list of regions I have written about before (this is the 68th piece, thanks for asking), and I realised that I have yet to write anything about one of my favourite regions; the Northern Rhône- criminal! So today I’ll start large, by digging into what makes the largest appellation of the Northern Rhone tick, and what makes the wines of Saint-Joseph individual and recognisable.
So first, location; the Northern Rhône is a long, thin region that runs from Vienne in the north to just past Valence in the south. The vineyards hug the shore of the river Rhône as it meanders south to empty into the Mediterranean, about 160km south of Valence. Within this region, Saint-Joseph sits in the dead centre, and basically connects the northern regions of Condrieu and Côte Rôtie with southern Cornas and Hermitage. This whole appellation lies on the west bank of the Rhône, and its thinnest sections are only a few hundred metres across, though even the sections farthest from the river are truly not that distant from the water. The climate is warmer than Burgundy to the north, but significantly cooler than the Southern Rhône- spring frosts are a real threat here in cooler vintages. The cool winds known as the Mistral blow south from Germany and keep the threat of mildew and disease at bay for the most part.
Despite the long history of some other neighbouring appellations, such as the hill of Hermitage just across the river Rhône, which can trace a vinous history back several centuries, the Saint-Joseph region is a relatively young appellation. Over the centuries, a handful of wines from this area grabbed the attention of royalty, and in 1956 It was awarded AOC status after several years of the wines punching well above their ‘Vin de Table’ labels. These wines (mainly reds) were met with excitement as good-quality alternatives to Hermitage across the river and Côte Rôtie to the north- nowhere near as age-worthy, but a fraction of the price. This excitement got a little out of hand however, and the region expanded to sixfold the original appellation size through the 1970’s and 80’s, stretching the appellation to 50 kilometres north to south, and several kms away from the river to flatlands that were once farms. This made Saint-Joseph the largest Northern Rhône appellation, and as you could probably imagine, this was swiftly followed by a severe drop in quality. Come the late 80’s/early 90’s, Australian wines with their “Sunshine in a bottle” tagline entered Europe, and their easy-drinking style and low prices hit the sales of areas like Saint-Joseph and most Southern Rhône regions like the proverbial ton of bricks. In the mid 90’s, producers realised they needed to focus on quality over quantity, and a concerted effort was put into improving the wines of Saint-Joseph.
And improve they did, now being regarded as some of the best value reds in the region. Today 90% of production is red, and the only red variety allowed in this appellation is Syrah. The other 10% is white made from a blend of Marsanne and Roussanne. There is an old French saying from this region that translates roughly as “Syrah likes a view”, and this is so true herein Saint-Joseph where the best wines come from the hillside slopes right near the river. Soils here are low-nutrient granite with a thin layer of sand and gravel topsoil, which gives the Syrah its mineral blueberry aromas and bracingly fresh acidity. The major difference between these quality sites and those across the river in Hermitage is the orientation; where across the Rhône there are south-facing slopes, here on the west bank the slopes all vineyards face east. While they receive the morning sun, they get none of the warm afternoon sun– 2 hours less per day in midsummer when compared to Hermitage! These high-quality sites are where the original 100 hectares of appellational boundaries that were drawn up back in 1956- what a shock…
The best whites tend to come from the north of the appellation, where there is more clay in the soils, and the region actually overlaps with the Condrieu region- obviously a pretty good white wine growing area! Outside of these 2 high quality zones, the land becomes flatter and more fertile, and as a result the wines become less interesting. Without the granite subsoils, the wines lack the refreshing acid, and as the soils become more fertile, the vines put more energy into setting down roots and getting comfortable and less energy into the production of delicious grapes. As a rule of thumb therefore, the wines of Saint-Joseph are not as long-lived, and are less intense and complex, however when you see the prices of neighbouring Hermitage, Saint-Joseph is perhaps a good compromise!
Wine Sales Manager