The earliest sign of viticulture in the Rhône Valley dates back to the 4th century BC, making it the first place in France known to grow vines. The activity continued with the Romans and then the Catholic Church, when Pope Gregory XI moved the papacy from Rome to Avignon in the 14th century and built his summer house in what is now, so named as a result, Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Today, while the Rhône is known to be fruitful for value-hunters, it is also a notable haven for serious collectors.
From Ampuis to Avignon, the Rhône Valley stretches around 250km north to south, encompassing 52 different appellations. With this large territory and great diversity, the valley is easily separated into two separate areas: the north and the south. The north is home to some of the most iconic wines on the planet. It runs from Vienne to Valence, where vineyards lie very close to the river, most of them on dramatic slopes. The only red grape variety allowed is Syrah, with Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne for the whites. The dreamy journey starts with Côte-Rôtie, going south into Condrieu, St-Joseph, Hermitage, Cornas and St-Péray.
The Northern Rhône is home to some of the most iconic wines on the planet
As the Rhône river continues its way south, the town of Montélimar marks the gateway to the southern Rhône. The landscape here changes, becoming flatter, with Mediterranean flora and fauna, and olive trees and pines mixing with vines on vast plains. The south produces more than 95% of the region’s wine spread over a much more complex appellation system, dominated by the two most famous wines, Châteauneuf-du- Pape – the classic Grenache-based blend allowing 13 grape varieties – and Gigondas, with its rich, complex soils at the foot of the majestic Dentelle de Montmirail slope.
Before the 1980s, most of the wines produced in the Rhône, especially in the south, were sold by négociants and cooperatives. The improvements in quality and consistency over the subsequent decades saw the reputation of the wines soar, and more and more growers began to bottle under their own names, creating increasingly coveted cuvées. Today – from modern releases, to mature vintages – the calibre of wine coming out of the Rhône has cemented its status as part of France’s triumvirate of fine wine regions, alongside Bordeaux and Burgundy. Indeed, one could argue that while many wine lovers have been buying Bordeaux en primeur for years with the intention of storing it for future enjoyment, the opportunity to do the same with the Rhône has been missed. And given the comparatively small production of many estates, it gets harder every year to find mature examples. As a result, the region has never been more collectable.
Stand-out Rhône wines for the cellar
Etienne Guigal, La Landonne, Côte-Rôtie
The most famous name in the Rhône Valley, Guigal is without question the region’s most consistent and comprehensive producer. Over the past two generations – from Etienne down to Marcel Guigal – the wines have reached outstanding levels of quality. The transformation began when they started to produce single-vineyard wines in Côte-Rôtie: La Landonne, La Turque and La Mouline. These ‘La-La’ cuvées reign supreme and make most wine lovers weak at the knees. While they are all released at the same time, La Landonne enjoys the highest demand. Producing the darkest, deepest wine of the three cuvées, the Landonne vineyard is located on a vertiginous slope of the Côte Brune. The wine is powerful and requires patience; it needs a minimum of 10 years in the cellar but is even better after 20. The latest vintages, such as 2017, 2016 and 2015, fetch £200+ per bottle, while reputed back vintages such as 2003 or 2005 are now more than double this.
Auguste Clape, Cornas
Cornas is probably the part of the Rhône that we most associate with traditional winemaking. And within this, Auguste Clape is the greatest example. Convinced of the potential of the granite slopes of Cornas, Auguste started planting vines in 1968 on his wife’s family land. His wines are balanced, complex and the very essence of traditionally made northern Rhône Syrah. Today, his grandson Olivier is in charge, and the wine is better than ever. The winery’s Cornas is a blend of grapes from the family’s 8ha holding, across some of the best sites in the appellation. Its reputation is immense among wine lovers, and due to high demand and tiny quantities, the wine is almost impossible to buy on release. A recent vintage such as the 2018 costs around £95 per bottle on release, while it would be more than twice that after 10 years.
Domaine Jean-Louis Chave, Hermitage
Each bottle of Chave Hermitage proudly announces that the family has been ‘vine growers from father to son since 1481’. Of the most recent incumbents, Gérard Chave started working with his father in the late 1960s, and he was joined by his own son Jean-Louis in 1992. The Chaves are known for their skilled blending from extensive vineholdings of a broad range of fruit. Their Hermitage reds are incredible wines to own because they age so gracefully; they are among the finest of their type anywhere in the world. The quantity produced is tiny, at around 2,500 cases a year, making it even more collectable (the ultra-scarce Cuvée Cathelin, produced only in certain vintages, is even rarer). The most coveted vintages, such as 1990, are selling for close to £2,000 a bottle, which is around ten times higher than their release price.
Domaine Paul Jaboulet Aîné, La Chapelle, Hermitage
Over the past 10 years, the Frey family of Bordeaux’s Château La Lagune has revived the fortunes of Domaine Paul Jaboulet Aîné and restored its flagship Hermitage La Chapelle to its rightful place as one of the world’s most famous wines. Such is its reputation that La Chapelle can lay claim to not one but two entries in any list of the greatest wines ever made: the 1961 (around £15,000 per bottle) and the 1978 (£1,300 per bottle). Named after the small stone chapel supposedly built as a retreat for a 13th-century knight who fell in love with this sun-baked hill high above the river Rhône, this is a wine rich in history but modestly priced (on release). As such, and in no small part thanks to the astonishing prices achieved by its historic vintages, La Chapelle is one of the most collectable wines on the planet. Produced mainly from the ancient vines in the granite soils of Le Méal and Les Bessards on the Hill of Hermitage, the wine boasts a majestic perfume and a richness quite unlike any other. Its modest alcohol level, layers of fruit and, when fully mature, its incredible balance between sweet fruit and intense savoury notes are simply a joy to behold.
Domaine Michel Chapoutier, L’Ermite Blanc, Hermitage
With roots dating back to 1808, Chapoutier is one of the oldest estates in the Rhône Valley. Yet its global fame has only truly been established since the arrival of Michel Chapoutier in 1990. His willingness to change, combined with a thirst for knowledge and openmindedness, has put Chapoutier wines firmly on the world’s fine wine map. His philosophy is to discover and reflect the full potential of terroirs, letting the soils express their true character, and nowhere is this clearer than in L’Ermite Blanc. In good vintages, this wine bears comparison with the best white wines in the world. Made with 100% Marsanne grapes, giving a deep richness, the wine has often been compared with grand cru Montrachet, despite, at around £300 per bottle on release, being just a fraction of the price.
Château Rayas, Réservé, Châteauneuf-du-Pape
There are very few secrets left in the world of fine wine. Yet there is an estate tucked away towards the small town of Orange in Châteauneuf-du-Pape that remains one of the most mysterious, enigmatic wineries in the world. The wines produced at Château Rayas are nothing short of extraordinary and are among the most singular wines of any region. There is something magical in these unusually sandy red soils and/ or the winery that gives Rayas the most haunting bouquet, with an incredible purity of fruit, a silky texture, and a true elegance. The wine is released on to the market by owner Emmanuel Reynaud only when he considers the vintage ready to drink, with the current release being 2011. Only a few lucky collectors have the chance to buy the wine at launch. The demand for Rayas has been soaring over the past couple of years, and the iconic Châteauneuf-du-Pape Réservé has seen its price quadruple on the secondary market. It is now extremely difficult to find full cases, with the cost per bottle approaching £1,800 for recent vintages such as 2009 and 2010.
Château de Beaucastel, Hommage à Jacques Perrin, Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Perhaps the most conspicuous ambassador for Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Château de Beaucastel is a story of family heritage: that of the Perrin family. The estate’s Hommage à Jacques Perrin is considered one of the greatest wines of the Rhône Valley, if not the world. This is a great tribute to Perrin, who served as head of the family estate until 1978 and was a key figure in the development not only of Beaucastel but of the whole Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation. Something of a visionary, Perrin was the first to move to organic and biodynamic agriculture in the 1970s, and as a pioneer he chose to focus on Mourvèdre, a return to Châteauneufdu- Pape’s heritage. A hard grape to grow but showing amazing results in the bottle, Mourvèdre is, out of respect for Perrin’s vision, the dominant grape in Hommage à Jacques Perrin. New vintages are released to the market around September, after two years of ageing. While it is relatively easy to find on release for about £250 per bottle, the best vintages sell out quickly.
Henri Bonneau & Fils, Réserve des Célestins, Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Henri Bonneau was a very special winemaker who created phenomenal wines. He was the 12th generation of his family to make Châteauneuf, and the quality of this extraordinary estate has become legendary over the decades. A champion of low-yielding, old-vine Grenache that is harvested late and bottled unfiltered, Bonneau delivers wines of concentration, flesh and supple texture, but they are balanced with a freshness that belies their ultra-ripe, almost viscous nature. Quite simply, they are right up there with Rayas as the flag-bearers for the region, even though the styles are dramatically different. Sadly, with only 1,500 cases produced, there isn’t a lot to go around, but even though prices increased significantly after Bonneau’s death in 2016, they remain significantly cheaper than Rayas. Recent vintages such as 2016 or 2015 can be found at around £250 per bottle, while classic vintages such as 1990 achieve closer to £2,000.
Clos des Papes, Châteauneuf-du-Pape blanc
Not many Rhône producers would appreciate a comparison with Burgundy, but owner and winemaker Paul-Vincent Avril at Clos des Papes would likely be among them, since he, his father and even his vineyard manager all cut their teeth in the region. Clos des Papes has long been appreciated for its sublime finesse, which is akin to that of many Burgundian estates. Avril is a passionate pursuer of wines of balance, elegance, and poise. He is also a great character: articulate and with a wicked sense of humour, allied to deep understanding of viticulture and tannin management. Of course, his red Châteauneuf-du-Pape could easily have been part of this list, but the white is equally special and even rarer. The quantity produced is so tiny that it sells out instantly on release, especially since the cost is generally less than £50 per bottle. Great examples such as 2009 have since increased in price by at least 30%. (For a vertical tasting of Clos des Papes, see here.)
Ones to watch
Vincent Paris, La Geynale, Cornas
Vincent Paris’s story began when his grandfather gave him a single hectare of vines in Cornas in 1997. Ten years later, he bought La Geynale from his uncle, the renowned Robert Michel, and today he owns 5ha in the appellation. La Geynale holds particular appeal for label drinkers (rare, made from 100-year-old vines) while being total hipster catnip (using minimal oak but whole clusters). It is also a favourite of some big-name critics, who have showered the cuvée with high scores. Paris’s wines are now among the highest ranked in the appellation and collectors are advised to get on board with this young vigneron before it is too late. Release prices remain very reasonable at around £35 per bottle when sold en primeur. Great vintages, such as 2010 or 2009, sell for about twice that price.
Le Clos du Caillou, La Réserve, Châteauneuf-du-Pape
While the domaine was founded in 1895, it took a century for Le Clos du Caillou to make its reputation, and in recent years it has shifted towards a more elegant, delicate style that has found favour among critics. The estate’s top blend, La Réserve, is made from its oldest vines (60–80 years old) and only in the finest vintages. Silky yet powerful, it can age for decades to reveal a multifaceted personality. The wines are immensely pleasurable, making wonderful alternatives to the evermore- expensive top Châteauneuf-du- Pape cuvées. Release price is around £60 per bottle, but the best vintages rise in value quickly. The brilliant 2019, the latest release, is currently trading at around £100.
Southern Rhône St Cosme, Le Claux, Gigondas
Since taking over the family estate in 1992, Louis Barruol has transformed Château de St Cosme (pronounced to rhyme with ‘Somme’) to become one of the most vaunted estates in the southern Rhône. Previously, the estate simply sold its wines through négociants, and little attention was paid to the exceptional quality these vineyard sites could offer. In fact, with its rich, complex soils, Gigondas is home to some of the finest terroir in all of the Rhône. The Claux vineyard is one of St Cosme’s treasures: the plot was planted in 1870 on marl and limestone overlooking the town of Gigondas and protected by the beautiful Dentelle de Montmirail limestone ridges. The wine is deep and intense in its youth, with black fruit and truffle, before it settles and gains incredible elegance with a few years in bottle. New releases start around £300 per dozen, while mature examples from the finest vintages, such as 2007, fetch twice that.