Wine Buyer on Tour | Northern Rhône

by Ophelia Hirst

After many years of loving the wines of the Northern Rhône (and placing many orders for them!) I excitedly boarded a plane to Lyon to make my way to the Marché aux vins d’Ampuis (one of the largest wine fairs in France, focused entirely on the Rhône), at the epicentre of Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu.

Hills of the Rhône

In esteemed company, including Derek Robertson, our Rhône buyer and all-around Rhône fanatic, we set off for our first appointment at Domaine Benjamin et David Duclaux. Leaving Vienne, heading south along the Rhône river, you catch your first glimpse of the vines along the Côte Brune. It is difficult to put into words how striking these vineyards are – a sheer slope covered in the ‘échalas’ (the tall stakes that train the vines and protect from the strong winds), like a pin cushion. Driving alongside these vineyards really is staggering – you see the gradient and baulk at how one can harvest here. The winemakers of the Rhône much have core strength like no other – or, as Isabelle from Clos de la Bonnette said ‘the women in Condrieu have the best legs’, (whilst I breathlessly followed her up through the vines).

The Duclaux brothers are making elegant Côte-Rôtie in Tupin-Semons, at the southern end of the appellation, from vines mostly planted in vineyards with a bedrock of gneiss and granite. These are some of the most ‘Burgundian’ styles you can find. Having recently offered the 2021s from this estate (they release their wines a year later than others), it was exciting to taste the 2022s and 2023s from barrel, which were looking sensational at this early stage, with the 22s to be offered out in Autumn 2024.

Tasting with Duclaux

The 2021 Vintage

A quick word on this vintage. Critics and buyers alike have been quite sniffy about this tricky vintage (which was blighted by severe frost, decimating yields, followed by a wet growing season), but in the right hands with talented winemakers, this vintage is delightful. Direct and fresh, with a lighter expression of fruit that is delicate rather than thin and weedy, these are making for extremely satisfying and complete wines that are ready to drink now.

Then it was along the road to Condrieu, to the cellars of Rémi Niero. This domaine really is one of the go-to names in Condrieu, with some excellent St. Joseph and Côte-Rôtie offerings too. The 2022s here are fabulous, following the restraint of the 21s, these are approachable straight out of the gates, with fabulous fruit and great mineral drive. The Ravines, their ‘entry-level’ Condrieu, from four plots including Roncharde and Côte Chatillon, on granitic soils, is a perfect example of the wines from this estate.

The steep vineyards of Clos de la Bonnette

The next morning, we set out to Clos de la Bonnette. With snow on the hills ahead of us, in glorious sunshine, it proved to be a very atmospheric drive, cementing the respect one has for these winemakers in these challenging environs.

Isabelle greeted our cold, windswept selves, looking out over the Bonnette vineyards. These are incredibly sheer, eventually dropping down into a valley. Fully organic, which is no mean feat in this neck of the woods, this estate makes beautifully rich but linear Viognier, both at IGP level and Condrieu, and spicy, red fruited Côte-Rôtie from Tupin-Semons. These wines are only available in miniscule quantities, but well worth seeking out.

Clos de la Bonnette

From here we went to see Pierre Gaillard, one of the most famous names in Condrieu. As welcoming and generous as ever, Pierre kindly took us around his vast cellar, tasting from just about every barrel. His Condrieus and Côtes du Rhône Blanc (Les Gendrines) were excellent, a traditional style but delicious and a hallmark of the region.

Our next stop was Maison Bruyère & David, a relatively new signing to the Lea & Sandeman list but one with masses of potential that we’re very excited about. Focusing predominantly on St. Joseph in red and white, these were looking very good, as was their IGP Viognier. Very accomplished already, and exciting to see what more there is to come from this young domaine.

We then finally made our way to the fair itself. Luckily, by now, some of the crowds of allocation-hungry punters had cleared. This gave a great opportunity to get through to see our producers who were presenting wines at the fair, such as Domaine Patrick & Christophe Bonnefond.Daughter Léa now takes care of the winemaking and is producing very fine wines from some choice parcels. Les Rochins and Côte Rozier, both bordering the famous La Landonne, are very good in 2021, with the vintage expressing itself well in these wines, balanced against the powerful terroir here, producing wines that are incredibly appetising in their youth.

The mob had also cleared around Guillaume Clusel, of Clusel-Roch, giving us an opportunity to taste. As ever, these wines are sublime. La Viallière will also be a personal favourite, and the 2021 is gorgeous. Seductive, polished but delicate, this is delicious, and a wine that will pay dividends if you are patient enough to cellar it. Guillaume is clearly a superstar here, with his wines fetching the same prices as Chave Hermitage in local shops. Thank goodness the UK market hasn’t quite caught up, as I certainly will be buying some of his wines myself before they reach those stratospheric prices here!

Vineyards a Villière

We then popped in to see the Botts – aka ‘Les Kiwis d’Ampuis’ – certainly the hot ticket in the Rhône at the moment. Graeme and Julie are making very good wines here, drawing on their experience making wines at Ogier, and it’s hard not to draw a ‘New World’ comparison due to Graeme’s New Zealand upbringing. There is a beautiful gloss and polish to these wines married with an elegant poise and attractiveness. For those who don’t think they like Viognier – pick up the First Flight Viognier to change your mind!

This trip certainly whetted my appetite, not only for drinking more wine from the Rhône, but also for learning more about this famous (yet somehow still slightly overlooked) region. If you think Côte-Rôtie is all about the walloping power of some of the famous big names, think again. There is a range of styles, both from the schist-heavy Côte Brune vineyards to the gneiss-rich vineyards further down, and then to the deftness of touch from each winemaker. There is a very Burgundian feel, following the slope and looking at the vineyards along the Côte, with a palpable difference to each vineyard as you move along. These are wines I implore everyone to pick up, especially with some slightly older bottles still available in the shops, and enjoy.