The Rhône Ranger – Derek Robertson

by Derek Robertson

It is fair to say that I am ever so slightly obsessed with the wines of the Rhône Valley. Having worked with a wine importer in Sydney in the mid 90’s, I was fortunate enough to attend a dinner hosted by the original Aussie Rhône Ranger Charlie Melton of ‘Nine Popes’ fame who showed me a range of his iconic Châteauneuf-du-Pape pretenders, whilst we paired them up against the real thing, the big guns of Vieux Télégraphe, La Janasse, Beaucastel & Les Cailloux. It was a truly memorable evening and I have been hooked on the Rhône Valley ever since.

Rhone Valley SunsetI stumbled across the Côte Rôtie & Condrieu Marché-aux-Vins around the same period, and with the odd exception, I don’t think I have missed many years since. It has almost become a pilgrimage for not just myself and the hundreds of members of the public, who descend upon the sports hall in the small town of Ampuis every January, but cast your eye around carefully, listen to all the different accents and you see the journalists, the winemakers from across France and the rest of the world.

With over 70 stands of producers to visit, three days is just not enough time, and with a waiting list of producers who would also like to be there, it really has become one of the highlights of my tasting calendar. It’s not just the amazing selection of Côte Rôtie & Condrieu on offer, many a wise winemaker has now branched out into Vin du France & St Joseph to satisfy the appetites of this lovely part of the Rhône. With a backdrop of some of the most breathtaking steep terraced vineyards there is a real party feel to the town, the place is alive with joy and the few restaurants in Ampuis are doing a brisk trade, with the bigger city of Vienne also benefiting from the influx.

Rhone-RangerWith hyperbole surrounding the 2015 vintage for the Northern Rhône, and with most journalists backing up winemaker claims that this could be the finest vintage for 40 years, I was almost giddy with excitement as I queued (in my wife’s bobble hat at-2oC) for an hour before the hall opened to the public on the Friday morning.

Our first stop was to establish a benchmark from the legendary Pierre Gaillard –  you will struggle to find a more affable and knowledgeable wine person in the Northern Rhône. He is the godfather that all the young gun winemakers look up to for inspiration. A quick taste through his wines served only to confirm what I had already been told, 2015 is shaping up to be one hell of a vintage.

Next stop was Clusel Roch, as polished and charming as ever, these wines will pay those not looking for instant gratification –  a very pleasurable experience.

There are too many producers to mention, but it is certainly a red vintage, with Côte Rôtie providing the regal majesty. There are also great value wines that will drink beautifully in around in 2-3 years. The wines from Crozes Hermitage (it is almost a sin not to climb the Hermitage hill and drink something outside the La Chapelle) are superb and the wines of Cornas and St Joseph will also provide great drinking.