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Katherine Canfield takes a study road trip through the Rhône

Published:  22 April, 2013

As MSc wine business students, it is in our best interest to have as broad a perspective as possible when it comes to understanding different wine regions and how international markets are perceived. Although I've visited various wine regions throughout Europe, I had yet to experience, first-hand, a French wine region outside my home base of Burgundy. It was time for a road trip.

The Burgundians will tell you that all you need to know about French wine production lies within the Côte d'Or, but two of my classmates and I decided it was time to expand our horizons. So the plan was made: five outstanding producers from the Northern and Southern Rhône and four days to do it. We had our work cut out.

What I discovered is not far off from what I see in most wine regions, each producer sharing their personal view, which often contradicts the others, on issues of wine production and international markets. One common thread that I identified was that throughout the Rhône valley, producers take pride in creating quality wine, but they also know what it means to be competitive on the global market. They have the traditions of Burgundy, yet assume characteristics typical of Bordeaux in their ambition to reach consumers around the world. Here's what we discovered:

Northern Rhône:

Following the A6 to the A7, we passed through Valence, the gateway to the Rhône valley, and headed onward to Tain d'Hermitage. It is small town with a big name, thanks to the exquisite slopes rising up behind it producing world-renown wines.

Our first destination was M. Chapoutier. Of over 6 million bottles sold, about 50% of which is exported to 110 countries, only 200,000 bottles are estate grown. Their forte, in my opinion, is their single-vineyard Hermitage. Two of these wines, not usually available for tasting, had been opened for a special event earlier in the day.

The "Le Pavillon" vineyard consists of 4ha located at the bottom of the hill and only 6-7,000 bottles are sold from this plot. I was astounded at the difference in price between the 2007 (€440) and 2001 (€189). When I asked if it was due to the vintage, Jérémie Fay, our host, said only in part. "The main reason is that consumers want to buy young vintages, even if the older ones taste better," he said.

My take home wine: Chante-Alouette 2011 Hermitage, €39.50

The next day, after failing to make an appointment with Pierre Gonon, the domaine of the Saint Joseph appellation, we decided to remedy the situation by visiting a small wine shop in Tain d'Hermitage. Although we arrived at Compagnie de l'Hermitage only a half hour before closing, the owner, Georges Lelektsoglou, showed us around for nearly two hours with a comprehensive tasting featuring major producers from all over the Northern Rhône, complete with his personal take on Rhône valley wine production and a bit of Greek lore.

"The Rhône valley has more than 10,000 producers. A hundred do something drinkable and five are exceptional," claimed Lelektsoglou. Born in Greece, he found, like so many before him, his passion amongst the slopes of Hermitage. He's making his own wines, and we tasted his Terres de Garrigues 2010, Côtes du Rhônes Villages alongside my sought-after Saint Joseph 2011 by Pierre Gonon, neither of which disappointed.

Sunday brought sun and a trip to Johann Michel and his domaine in Saint Péray. We hit Michel's cellar for a barrel tasting. Michel has only been making wine since 1997; before he worked as a fashion designer. Now he is making some unforgettable wines that tend to sell out before you can swipe your credit card. After tasting three cuvées out of the barrel, we tasted some of what he had bottled, including one from his very first vintage. This is a producer that is truly a "diamond in the Rhône."

My take home wine: Tradition Cornas 2011, €17

Southern Rhône:

Driving from Cornas to Avignon, I finally understood the radical changes in landscape and climate between the northern and Southern Rhône. Suddenly the hills disappeared and the sun grew stronger; we were definitely entering Mediterranean territory. We stopped for the night in Avignon, and the next morning we were off to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, to the town of Bédarrides.

I'd been looking forward to this one, Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe. Since their humble beginnings, Vignobles Brunier has expanded, purchasing Domaine La Roquète in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Domaine Les Pallières in Gigondas (half  of which is owned by Kermit Lynch). Léo Borsi walked us around the modern facilities, constructed so as to facilitate vinification using pure gravity from start to finish - no pumping over within those walls.

We tasted the full wine spectrum from entry-level to their premium flagship, Vieux Télégraphe. They've created a second label for Vieux Télégraphe, called Telegramme, which is their "drink now" offering.

My take home wine: La Roquète 2010, €30. (Borsi said: "If Vieux Télégraphe 2010 is the papa, than La Roquète is the momma.")

We continued northeast and finished up the day with a tasting at Domaine Richaud. Marcel Richaud and his wife, Marie, started the business 40 years ago and now organically produce 50,000 bottles per year. Marie showed us around the facilities, which appeared rather modest after the grandeur at Vieux Télégraphe, but one really can't compare the two.

During our tasting, locals in shorts and dirty boots would periodically enter the main room to taste a couple of wines and then continue on their merry way. Confronted with this lack of formality, I could hardly believe I was still within French borders, but than again this was the Rhône.

My take home wine: L'Ebrescade 2010, €18.50

The Rhône has taken the best of both worlds. The diversity and quality of its wines combined with its and their ability to properly acknowledge the needs and wants of consumers, can only mean a strong and healthy future. Perhaps one day it will even surpass its comrades and become French wine's main powerhouse.

* Katherine is working with Hapers Wine & Spirit on a business project as part of her course. She, like all the students on the course are looking for intern opportunities and full time roles in the wine trade. You can contact her  on