Around Ampuis, in the northern Rhône , the river follows a south-easterly course, allowing the steep, terraced left bank uninterrupted sun-drenched exposure. This, Côte-Rôtie , the 'roasted slope', produces some sensational, fragrant wines, which combine energy, power, spice and richness, with finesse. Côte-Rôtie comprises numerous parcels, planted on sites with the best soils and the sunniest aspects, facing south/south-east. Upstream from Ampuis, the bedrock of Côte-Rôtie is schist which contains white and black iron-rich mica. This weathers to a dark brown colour – which explains the name – the Côte Brune, the brown slope. Syrah does well on these mineral-rich darker soils. Downstream, the rock is a combination of sandy/calcaerous schist, which weathers to a greyish colour – the Côte Blonde, where Viognier is more at home. The Côte Brune is by far the larger of the two.
The climate in the northern Rhône resembles that of Burgundy rather than the southern valley, enjoying hot summers and cold winters – though it shares the effects of the sometimes fearsome, sometimes benevolent Mistral wind with the south. The Côte-Rôtie appellation is for red wines only and these are Syrah based, with the possibility of blending with up to 20% Viognier .
The vineyards of Côte-Rôtie are almost impossibly vertiginous and extremely difficult to work but the rewards can be great. With slopes basking in the sun all day, allied to the heat-retaining, mineral-rich schist soils, growers are presented with a unique set of ingredients. Logically tasters might anticipate New World intensity and heat, but Côte-Rôtie tends to combine some warmth and spice with almost Burgundian delicacy and finesse. Even without any of the 20% Viognier allowed by law, the Côte-Rôtie produces hedonistic, aromatic wines which are extraordinarily perfumed.
Côte-Rôtie – history
The Côte-Rôtie has a long history, with arguments over its origins being either ancient Greek or Roman. Given the geography, it is unlikely that the core vineyards will have changed much since vines were first planted at least 2,000 years ago. In recent times, during the 20th century, the region suffered, along with all other European winegrowing areas, the ravages of phylloxera, followed by two world wars, with the Depression in between. Life for any vigneron was clearly a challenge. Adding to that, the painstaking work required on up to 60% gradient slopes at Côte-Rôtie renders the temptation of earning a living elsewhere totally understandable. People simply did not see the point of back-breaking work for little payback. Having enjoyed something of an international reputation in the 18th century, Côte-Rôtie was definitely in the doldrums by the mid-twentieth. It is extraordinary now to compare the relative obscurity of Côte-Rôtie in the late seventies with the current situation.
Today Côte-Rôtie is massively over-subscribed, despite production having more than doubled since the mid-eighties. The catalyst for change at Côte-Rôtie was the world’s burgeoning interest in fine wine, allied to Etienne Guigal’s wines, the attention they received, and the acclaim showered upon them. Small matter if these massive, powerful wines are not to everyone’s taste, the genie was out of the bottle. Côte-Rôtie today has a loyal and growing following both for the heavier styles and for the more classical, gentle wines.