The Rhône valley goes from strength to strength

The Rhône Valley consistently produces wines that are high in quality and low in quantity, says John Livingstone-Learmonth. Add to that the very successful campaigns run by Inter Rhône and consumers are convinced. But are they soon going to be paying more for the privilege?

Ranking of Rhône Valley exports by value in €k
Ranking of Rhône Valley exports by value in €k

First, a geography exercise: draw a line from Biarritz on the Atlantic coast in the south-west of France across to Lake Geneva. The area south of this line has enjoyed generally agreeable summer weather since 2010; the area above it has been marked by clouds, rain and cool temperatures, with only the odd burst of true summer weather. Into the former group falls the Rhône, into the latter fall Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne.

Second, a biology exercise: you plant your beans for the summer, and the weather is cool. Flowering is delayed. When the flowering eventually comes, the weather is cold and windy. The flowers sit on the plant, blacken, and no fruit emerges. Such was the fate of much of the Grenache Noir across the southern Rhône in the summer of 2013. Losses run as high as 60%.

High quality, low quantity. Good wines across 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012, but just not enough of them. Prices seem set to rise. This is the commercial dilemma facing the Rhône in the second half of 2013. The region has established itself as a major competitor on the world stage thanks to its ability to provide full-flavoured wines apt for convivial drinking, at accessible prices. A Côtes du Rhône against a Bordeaux Supérieur is no contest in favour of the Rhône, but a rise in prices due to shortages will hinder the progress of recent times.

Booming exports

Since 2009, Rhône exports have risen sharply, by 24.6%. The two locomotive markets are both Anglophone – the UK and the US. Britain imports the most Rhône, while the US pays the most of any country. In 2012, Britain’s 184,682 hL cost €69.5m ($91m), an average of €376.00 ($496.00) a hL, while the US’s 134,280 hL 2012 cost €78m, an average of €580.00 a hL.

Export figures for January to April 2013 are also encouraging, with a 13% rise in volume and a 23% rise in value for the Rhône, set against a general French wine exports context of up 2% in volume and 4% in value, according to Inter Rhône. They also show slowdowns for the Rhône across Asia, even before the EU vs Europe standoff, while the US is up 25% in volume and 36% in value; Britain is up 16% in volume, 40% value; and Sweden, whose banking crisis occurred over 20 years ago, is up 108% in volume and 85% in value for the first four months of 2013.

Export progress has been fuelled by another leading Rhône characteristic – the diversity of its wines: reds based on different varieties, whites and rosés. The northern Rhône reds are all made from what is now the globally fashionable Syrah, a big change since the early 1970s when vineyards were small and demand precarious.

Among these feature the easy-to-drink, flowing-fruit reds of Crozes; the grainy, granite-infused, clear-as-a-bell Syrahs of Saint-Joseph; the elegant, Burgundian, floral leanings of Côte-Rôtie; and the more punchy, tannic, insistent red fruit flavours of Cornas. Across price and style, there is a good range for everyone.

As for the whites, Condrieu was nearly dead in the early 1970s. The total plantation of Viognier in the whole world in 1971 was 13.7 ha – 12 ha at Condrieu and 1.7 ha at Château-Grillet. It was an expensive vine to cultivate, many wines were semi-sweet, and they also held high amounts of sulphur dioxide used to block fermentation in time for the Christmas market.

So what was once extremely rustic is now extremely swish. The pure, crystalline Condrieu from the Georges Vernay estate is much sought after – its British importer Yapp Brothers has seen demand increase in recent years, even after the worldwide recession. “Demand for high-end Rhône has never been higher – wines such as Cornas from Clape, J-L Chave Hermitage and Georges Vernay Condrieu are considered as investment-grade,” says Jason Yapp of Yapp Brothers Wine Merchants, whose UK-based firm has imported these domaines for nearly 50 years.

Regional variation

Crozes-Hermitage is the most commercial of the northern Rhône appellations, since its average yields of around 65,000 hL are double that of Gigondas, for instance, even though the vineyard area for Crozes is 1,530 ha, and for Gigondas 1,230 ha. It is also the only northern Rhône appellation that does not disallow the use of oak chips in the preparation of the wine.

Elsewhere in the northern Rhône, Saint-Joseph, with a straggly vineyard running over 40 miles north to south, may lack a true centre of focus, but the wines are popular, even catching the attention of informed, collector drinkers.

Domaines of the pedigree of Jean-Louis Chave, Coursodon, Yves Cuilleron, Pierre Gonon, Gripa and André Perret serve as a real heartthrob to the appellation, with Guigal hitting their stride on the old Jean-Louis Grippat vineyards thanks to titles such as the Vignes de l’Hospice and Lieu-Dit Saint-Joseph. Saint-Joseph reds serve as cheaper substitutes for the high prices of Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage and, to some extent, Cornas.

The curiosity in the northern Rhône is the state of Hermitage. Forty years ago, this was the mythical hillside, source of the finest, most compelling and long-lived Rhônes, both red and white. However, a sense of drift applies to the appellation these days.

In the 1960s and 1970s, there was an even more emblematic Hermitage name than Jean-Louis Chave, one that resounded in all the corridors of vinous power – that of Hermitage La Chapelle, from Paul Jaboulet Aîné. The legendary 1961 last sold in a Hong Kong auction in December 2012 for $22,000 the bottle, but the reputation of this wine has been in decline for many vintages, which has certainly hurt Hermitage’s global name.

Stocks held in cellars reveal the current predicament of Hermitage, which is 70% red and 30% white wine. On 31 July 2012, merchant stock of Hermitage amounted to 13,836 hL; the 2012 crop of both red and white was 4,434 hL, so over three years’ worth of harvest is currently being stored in wine form. The figure for Condrieu is eight months, for Côte-Rôtie it is a little over 21 months.

Philippe Guigal of E. Guigal has for some time insisted that Hermitage has been the hardest wine to sell across their range. “We are not a good barometer for the whole valley, since our sales by value and volume are up by 25% since the start of 2013, led by Crozes-Hermitage and Gigondas, but above all by the expensive wines – Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu, Châteauneuf-du-Pape,” he says. “The USA has digested its economic crisis, but Hermitage is the one wine we find difficult.”

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Southern beauty

The large mass of Rhône wine comes from the south. In 2012 2.9m hL was made, of which just 135,670 hL came from the northern Rhône – 4.74%. The main source is the simple Côtes du Rhône category, accounting for 1.4m hL in 2012. This is the heartbeat of the region, given that Inter Rhône has focused its marketing campaigns of recent years purely on the colour red and the tag Côtes du Rhône. There has been an undeniable lifting of standards in red Côtes du Rhône quality in the past five years. This is an exciting area, really suited to keep the Rhône on the international map. Even long-dormant co-operatives such as the Cellier des Dauphins have started to focus on a higher-value, higher-quality group of wines called Les Dauphins, while other co-operatives notable for their performance in this category – where the rapport of price and quality can be major – include the Cave de Cairanne of Camille Cayran, Cave de Rasteau Ortas, Laudun Chusclan Vignerons, Les Vignerons de Tavel, and the small Cave des Vignerons d’Estézargues.

There is also a healthy merchant interest in this sector. Guigal is peerless across his white, red and rosé range, with other names such as Chapoutier, Delas, Dauvergne Ranvier, La Compagnie Rhodanienne, the Famille Perrin and Château de Saint Cosme all offering excellent wines for the price.

For the independent importer, small domaines such as Réméjeanne, Mas de Libian, the organic Gramenon and Château de Montfaucon come to the fore, as well as the excellent value estates whose old vine Côtes du Rhône vineyards stand across a track at Châteauneuf-du-Pape – Domaine Charvin, Janasse, Roger Sabon and Vieille Julienne spring to mind. This cheap end of the pyramid is vital in Asia. Pierre Perrin of Château de Beaucastel and Famille Perrin reports: “La Vieille Ferme (the red and rosé are Ventoux, the white is Lubéron) is our biggest-selling wine in China. The three prongs there for us are that, the Perrin Réserve Côtes du Rhône and Beaucastel, nothing in between. Vinsobres and Cairanne are too complicated to sell and explain, for instance.”

“Overall, Asia is slow,” he says. “I set Singapore and Hong Kong to one side due to the expatriate influence. China and Korea are the only real markets for now, but it is a challenge logistically, especially with regard to brand protection. All of that demands a lot of time and patience – more than one might have imagined at first.”

The squeezed middle of the southern Rhône appears to be suffering – the less well-known appellations that include the reds of Beaumes-de-Venise, Lirac and Vinsobres. “There is segmentation to some extent,” says Marc Perrin. “Our Château Miraval project with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt shows that people will pay a price if the wine has a good story; the French market allocation of 12,000 bottles of the Côtes de Provence rosé sold out in five hours online, at a price of €16.00 a bottle.” He says that this shows that “wine these days is leaving a limited circle and can now touch all sorts of people. Terroir and the vintage quality aren’t so much factors at the lower end, so it’s the middle ground that suffers.”

He says that the price/quality ratio in the Rhône is unbeatable, as “the blue chip wines tie in with those from Burgundy and Bordeaux and sell extremely well in image-conscious markets such as Ukraine, Russia and China.”

Importer Yapp agrees with this analysis. “A £15.00 to £20.00 ($23.00 to $30.00) bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in a restaurant does not sell easily when it is marked up to £55.00 to £75.00 now,” he says. Nick Brookes, whose Vine Trail sells to a strong range of top London restaurants, says, “My Domaine Charvin Châteauneuf prices have increased, so there has been a fall-off in interest with them on lists at £80.00 to £90.00 for young vintages.”

The image and saleability of Châteauneuf-du-Pape present an interesting question in the post-Robert Parker era. Kermit Lynch, doyen importer of the Rhône to the US for many decades, points out: “I think Robert Parker’s enthusiasm and personal coverage of Chateauneuf-du-Pape has played a role in the big price increases we’ve experienced. And also in the fact that so many different domaines there are being exported. We’ll see if that can persist without his personal signature on the reviews.”

He goes on to says that the “other important force right now is the movement away from heavy wines,” he adds. “For years everyone has been going for concentration, but I sense that trend is slowing considerably. High alcohol has become more of a negative than a positive lately. Of course Chateauneuf was historically the go-to wine when you needed a big red at table.” Lynch also speculates on whether “it might now get caught in the trend towards easy swallowability. I hope not, but you know how trends are in the wine business.”

High alcohol wines, commercial doubts about organic wines, questions about how the big Asian markets can be cracked, and the lack of Grenache in the 2013 vintage are all matters for debate as the Rhône heads towards 2014. But the base of the pyramid, represented by lively Côtes du Rhônes, excellent Côtes du Rhône Villages such as Cairanne and improving names like Valréas and Visan, is strong, giving grounds for optimism as the world economy inches back towards growth.



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