Even most readers who know me reasonably well might be unaware that The Rhône was my first real passion in wine. I didn’t get to visit the north for a few years, but by the time I hit Ampuis in 1988 I’d already explored most of the South, from a base at Pernes-les-Fontaines for a couple of weeks, some years previous.
I’m not sure where my interest in the Northern Rhône sprang from. The South is clear. Around the time I was tasting my first oaked Australian Chardonnays I’d purchased a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Le Vieux Télégraphe. I’ve no idea what vintage, and I’m very much aware that I was drinking it too young, but it made a big impression, as you’d imagine.
The Northern Rhône came via Yapp Brothers, whose attractive base at Mere in Wiltshire was a pleasant day trip when staying with my parents-in-law. A picnic taken by the fountain in the Yapp Brothers “Old Brewery” courtyard (a reproduction of the one in the Square at Châteaneuf-du-Pape) or at nearby Stourhead Gardens, a pint in “The George” pub up the road, a climb up Mere’s old castle mound and a haul of wine. One great day out.
I recently mentioned to someone that I had been able to get into buying Chave Hermitage at £12.75 a bottle. Hard to believe. We are probably talking 1984 here. I tried to find evidence but all I could find was Yapp’s 1987 Price List, where the cheapest Chave vintage had risen to the dizzy price of £14. I’m sure Yapps won’t mind me reproducing some pages showing a few of the Rhône old-timers going for what seems like next to nothing. Of course, those wines were bargains, but £14 went a long way back then and they didn’t seem exactly cheap either. Yapp Brothers, via the exploits of Robin Yapp, generally got it right back in the day.
One of my truly happiest memories in wine occurred the next year, 1988. We were on a trip which was eventually to lead us to Umbria, but at Lyon we detoured south for a night in Vienne and then a day in the vineyards. We ate our baguette and cheese on top of the Hermitage Hill, drove up to Château Grillet, and after a further night in an aubèrge on the plateau we rocked up at Georges Vernay in Condrieu. Already being an avid purchaser of his wine for a couple of years this was an essential stop for me. It must be remembered at that time that Condrieu consisted of maybe a couple of dozen hectares at most, and as far as I’m aware, Viognier wasn’t planted anywhere else besides the environs of Ampuis/Condrieu. Vernay had almost single-handedly saved the Condrieu appellation, and the Viognier variety, just a few years before by working the steep slopes whilst everyone else seemingly preferred the greater ease of a factory in Valence.
We spent the morning with the great man himself, much of it going through very old photographs in the vines and winery, from a different age. His hospitality moved us. We couldn’t take a lot of wine on the road. We bought a couple of bottles, and knowing of our journey’s direction, Georges gave a us a couple of halves as a gift. I don’t recall what we used to drink it out of, but I do remember chilling one in a stream on the way east to Grenoble. Sometimes circumstances make a wine taste even more heavenly than you dream is possible.
Over the years I sort of left the Rhône behind a little. Southern Rhône and Châteauneuf trickled away some time back in the 2000s, largely because of high alcohol content. With Northern Rhône it was always price. The lovely 1991 vintage was the last year of my once-prized Chave red vertical, 1998 for the white. I have none left. I continued to buy Côte-Rôtie and a little Cornas, but my eventual Chave replacement, Stéphane Ogier, topped £50/bottle in the later 2000s and that saw me opt out as well.
There is one Rhône producer I do regularly look out for and that is Eric Pfifferling’s Domaine L’Anglore, based at Tavel. But otherwise, I do notice I’m not really buying much Rhône wine. I still have a dwindling supply of the old school producers (sadly no Chave, let alone from Gérard’s days), but the flame has not died. This is why I was keen to get my hands on Matt Walls’s Wines of the Rhône.
I’ve met Matt a few times on the circuit and at the occasional wine dinner/lunch, and he has always seemed to me one of the nicest guys in wine, as well as possessing a very good, and unusually ecumenical, palate. When I heard that he was taking his family off to France for a couple of years in order to write a new book on the whole region, I began to follow with interest his social media reports of his travels. The resulting book, another one in the Infinite Ideas Classic Wine Library, was published at the start of this year.
Wines of the Rhône is one of the fatter books in the series, running to around 375 pages, but thankfully (in my view) they chose to produce it in soft cover/paperback. Nevertheless, it still costs £30 full price. What I will say immediately, because I hate suspense, is that it is wholly and one hundred per cent worth investing in.
My extensive home wine library contains several books on the Rhône by a number of well-known authors, but they are bookended by one author’s books, a name that on its own means “Rhône”. Naturally I speak of John Livingstone-Learmonth. My Rhône section began with the 1983 reprint of his 1978 “The Wines of the Rhône” (Faber & Faber), written jointly with Melvyn Master. It ended (before Walls) with Learmonth’s 700-page epic, “The Wines of the Northern Rhône”. Published in 2005 by the University of California Press, even back then this formidable hardback set me back £42.50.
Of the other “Rhône” books I own, the most interesting would be Remington Norman’s “Rhône Renaissance” (Mitchell Beazley, 1995), but after 2005 I can find no other book on the region which has excited me enough to purchase. Nevertheless, Matt has big boots to fill, so it was encouraging to know that he was diving in deep.
Not only did the author go and live in the region in order to research his book, but early on, apparently, he made a significant decision. We know that the whole of the Rhône, north and south, is very complicated. Not only are there numerous layers of appellations, there are also an impossible number of wine villages and sub-sub-regions. Many of them attained named status long after I left the room, and many a long time after the last comprehensive work was published. In making the decision to visit every one of them the author struck gold. As he said in a social media conversation with me before I had read the book, it was so often in these small and almost unheard-of villages where some of the most interesting wines would turn up.
There are several reasons for this. The Côte du Rhône’s mountain fringes, or the terraces of the Massif d’Uchaux (to take two examples) are marginal to the story of the region, yet they offer relatively cheap vineyard land to committed and experimental newcomers. They often offer an opportunity to showcase less planted grape varieties (and especially allowing growers to focus a little on the potential for white wines). They also offer hope in the face of climate change which is pushing alcohol levels towards hard to sustain heights on the plain. Villages like Saint-Andéol. Only promoted to named village in 2017, Walls describes it as, in his view, one of the front-runners for conversion to full Cru status. It’s just one example of the great potential Matt identifies, all good for the future of the region.
There are other traits picked up upon too, and I think these include some of the reasons why this book will undoubtedly act as a catalyst for my re-exploration of both the Northern and Southern Rhône. First, he identifies a pendulum effect on alcohol levels. With the increase in temperatures and the change in rainfall patterns (as opposed to rainfall quantity) in the region, growers have seen that even if they felt the market was still quite as keen on high alcohol (which in the post-Parker era it clearly is less so), sustaining wines forever pushing well over 15% abv is unlikely to enable them to retain balance and quality. So, producers are finding different ways, whether by vineyard composition, viticultural practices, or winemaking, to dial back the alcohol (and often accompanying new oak) levels.
At the same time, there is a clear movement to either reduce or eliminate synthetic agrichemical inputs. There are many reasons for this, ranging from health (human as well as vines and, critically, soils) to costs (if the Mistral wind keeps the vines relatively disease free, why spend the money?). Many producers are going much further, and the younger generation is far more interested in biodynamics, and “natural wine” than most of their parents’ generation were. The increase in numbers of producers following these practices had, in the main, passed me by.
The format of the book is easy to follow. After the background issues and history set out in Part 1, the author begins his journey in the Southern Rhône. Starting around Avignon, which grants the opportunity to begin with the big guns of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, we then travel more or less in an anti-clockwise direction, via Ventoux and Luberon (the latter not always included in books on the Rhône) up to the mountains of the northeast. Then he crosses the river, into the Ardèche, to cover the west bank villages down to Lirac and Tavel, then as far south as Costières de Nîmes and Clairette de Bellegarde. The final chapter in Part 2 gives us an invaluable eight pages on the tiny, almost sub-Alpine, enclave of The Diois.
Part 3 takes us on a north-south journey through the Northern Rhône. We may only get two chapters, “Around Ampuis” and “Around Tain…”, but they are equally thorough. For example, this is the first time for a long while that I have read anything significant in print about Seyssuel, whose IGP wines are a very clear candidate for full appellation status (though the speed at which things move in Paris don’t expect any changes in the near future). Equally, in the south of this northern section, full coverage is given to the wines of Brézème and Saint-Julien-en-Saint-Alban (I know the former rather well, yet had never heard of the latter…Walls calls some of the wines and producers here “highly promising”).
Each chapter follows a format which explains the appellation in terms of history, viticultural politics, personalities, geology and climate, and then profiles the producers the author considers the most important/best/interesting. He calls them “Key Producers”. But you always get a good paragraph or three on “other good examples” as well. These may include promising new producers who only lack a track record, people doing interesting things in the vines or winery, or maybe someone with just one standout wine among a less interesting output.
Walls is incredibly good at spotting, and singling out, this kind of thing, and as a well-regarded judge of wine competitions (he’s Regional Chair for the Rhône at the Decanter Awards, and is also a Contributing Editor of the magazine) his palate is experienced but clearly open to the new. I especially like his open-minded approach to natural wine methods. Of Eric Pfifferling of Domaine L’Anglore, he says “Who are the greatest winemakers in the Southern Rhône? Perhaps it’s a matter of opinion, but I’d be surprised if Eric Pfifferling wasn’t in the Top 10”. That might surprise a few older traditionalists, but it’s a sentiment with which I wholly agree.
As with all the books in this series, there’s always the highlighted text box, which are scattered about each chapter. They cover all sorts of topics. I especially like the one on p295, called “Past masters”. It talks about the old guys, many of whom are no longer with us but whose wines live on, albeit usually at eye-watering prices and in tiny quantity. People like Auguste Clape, Robert Michel, Noël Verset and others. I could add more, but then I’m a bit older than Matt and I actually remember some of these folks. If you want to read more about the romantic era of Northern Rhône winemaking (generally pre-Parker), I can recommend the books of Robin Yapp. Vineyards and Vignerons (with wife Judith, 1977) and to a lesser extent Drilling for Wine (1988) contain vignettes of his early buying trips when pretty much no other British wine merchants were hitting the Rhône.
North American writers like Kermit Lynch and Englishman Simon Loftus have similar stories to tell. I think that as many older wine books become out of date as guides to specific wines and producers, those with more of a travel narrative nevertheless act as social history, for which there is an appetite among younger wine obsessives. The last chapter of Robin Yapp’s Drilling for Wine, titled just “Chez Chave”, is much more than a mere portrait of a then not quite so famous winemaker.
We end Matt’s book with two appendices. The first is a very good vintage guide, or sensibly two: separate ones for north and south. Initially I didn’t realise this but thankfully soon twigged. Appendix II is an abridgement of Simon Loftus’s quite famous visit to Rayas in 1979 (rewritten in 2019), when Monsieur Reynaud, well known for disliking visitors, hid in a ditch to avoid Loftus at the time of his appointment (Loftus was at that time running Suffolk brewer Adnams’ wine department).
If one thing stood out whilst devouring (as I did) “Wines of the Rhône”, it was just how easy it is to read, and equally enjoyable. As of necessity, the Rhône requires a lot of facts, and there are a lot of key producers. It would be easy to get bogged down in endless names and numbers. Equally, you don’t want a load of flowery prose when the detail is important. I’m not totally sure how the author manages to tread an almost perfect path between the two. One reads wine books to absorb knowledge. There’s an argument that if they are too easy to read you finish too quickly to retain that knowledge. In my case I do much of my reading in the hour or two before I turn out the light, and I don’t want to be sent to sleep prematurely. No chance of that here.
Are there any negatives? Well, the maps are okay but a little pedestrian. That’s not down to the author. You just need your copy of the World Wine Atlas to hand to scan the villages in just a tiny bit more detail (monochrome is never an easy medium for maps of overlapping vineyard appellations). I suppose some real enthusiasts may complain that the book is just too short and that there are not enough producers profiled in full. I guess a 360-page book at £30 will sell more than 700pp at what would now be considerably more than £42.50 today, I presume. I actually think that in aiming for the widest possible audience within what is undoubtedly a specialist area, the author has weighed the balance well.
As I have intimated before, I thoroughly enjoyed reading “Wines of the Rhône”. I don’t think there is any praise I can give higher than the fact that it really has reignited my interest in a wider region I used to buy from with great regularity, yet which to a significant extent had fallen off my radar in recent years, as I had begun to explore further and further east within Europe, and, for my Grenache-based wines, the higher altitudes of Spain. In fact, my next task is to try to seek out Grenache from the Rhône which hints at the excitement of what I have discovered this past decade from Spain, at hopefully a more advantageous price. As well as all the established classics, Matt Walls shows us that in parts of the Rhône we are possibly at the beginning of something. Perhaps a second Rhône Renaissance? So that’s an emphatic “Buy”!
Wines of the Rhône by Matt Walls was published in 2021 by Infinite Ideas Publishing as part of their ever-growing Classic Wine Library (rrp £30, though discount codes and cheaper sources may be sought for those unable to afford the full price).
The other older books and authors also mentioned can pretty much all be found at numerous online sources, often used copies. There’s a world of viticultural social history out there to explore.