Wine has played an important part in the history of the Rhone not just for centuries but for millennia. In the time of Julius Caesar, if not earlier, the river was used by the expanding Roman Empire as a means of transporting wine from the province of Narbonensis along the Mediterranean coast to parts of what was then Gaul. Once Gaul had been conquered, it was only a matter of time before the Romans thought about planting vines, especially in the warm southern reaches, where the vegetation matched that of their homeland.
The area to the north was the home of the Allobroges tribe, whose territory stretched from the Rhone eastward to Lake Geneva. The Romans found grapes already growing here on sites such as the slope of Cote Rotie and the hill of Hermitage; in both cases, the aspect and orientation of the land provided excellent growing conditions. The wine made in Vienna (modern-day Vienne) by the Allobroges was praised in ad 71 by Pliny the Elder. Pliny called the red grape used for this wine allobrogica and described it as being resistant to cold. This makes it highly unlikely that allobrogica was the syrah grape found in the northern Rhone today. However, one theory says that it could have been an ancestor, either the dureza of the nearby Ardeche or a member of the mondeuse family from Savoie, farther upstream.
Another explanation for syrah's presence in the Rhone is that the vine was brought from Shiraz in Persia by Phocaeans, the Greeks of Asia Minor, at the time they established Marsilia (Marseilles), around 600 bc. Yet another is that syrah takes its name from Syracuse in Sicily, and that the Romans under Emperor Probus took the grape from there to the Rhone in the third century ad, along with viognier, which had originated in Dalmatia.
After the Romans, there is little history of winemaking in the Rhone until 1157, when Bishop Geoffroy of Avignon planted an estate there. The Church continued its involvement in winemaking in the fourteenth century when Clement V, who founded Chateau Pape-Clement in Bordeaux, became Pope and transferred the papacy to Avignon in 1309. Clement is reputed to have ordered vines to be planted nearby, but it was his successor, John XXII, who built a new castle--chateau neuf--between 1318 and 1333 and established a vineyard.
However, we know nothing about the type of wine that was being made for the papal court, which remained in Avignon until 1378. Indeed, there are few records of the precise flavor of any Rhone wines from the time of Pliny until 1787, when Thomas Jefferson, then US Ambassador to France, eulogised both red and white Hermitage. He praised the red for its "full body, dark purple color ... exquisite flavor and perfume which is ... compared to that of raspberry," and he thought the white was the finest white wine in the world "without a single exception."
Hermitage of both colors had risen in popularity throughout Europe, partly due to a visit to Tain by Louis XIII. The red wine was also much in demand in Bordeaux for "improving" the local produce, and wines that had been Hermitage ("Hermitaged") sold for higher prices than unblended clarets. Farther up the Rhone, Cote Rotie also enjoyed considerable acclaim in the eighteenth century, while at the same time farther south, the Vin du Pape from the village of Chateauneuf-Calcernier was beginning to make a name for itself.
The advent of phylloxera at the end of the nineteenth century caused havoc in both northern and southern vineyards. This, combined with the two world wars that followed and the Great Depression of the 1930s, meant that the Rhone entered the last half of the twentieth century in a pitiful state. The castle at Chateauneuf had been destroyed by the retreating Germans, many of the young men of the region had been killed in the wars, and many landowners found it more profitable to plant fruit trees than vines. The north, in particular, was badly affected: in 1956, there were just 119 acres (48 ha) of vineyards left in Cote Rotie, while Condrieu boasted less than 25 acres (10 ha).
If Chateauneuf-du-Pape was in slightly better shape, it was largely thanks to the efforts of Baron Pierre Le Roy de Boiseaumarie of Chateau Fortia. In 1923, in an effort to preserve the reputation the wines had enjoyed prior to phylloxera, Baron Le Roy drew up a set of regulations stipulating what was permissible for the local wines. Among other things, this placed limits on the zones of production, grape varieties and yields. The scheme proved so successful that it became the blueprint for France's national appellation system. Yet despite these rules, by the second half of the century the average Chateauneuf, while drinkable, was still not exactly inspiring.
So when did the Rhone become the vibrant and exciting region it is today and what triggered its rise in fortunes? No event can be singled out as as the turning point, but 1978 proved to be a very significant vintage. First, it was a great year for both the northern and southern Rhone, and several wines from that year still have plenty of life ahead of them more than two decades later. In Chateauneuf, it was the year that Jacques Perrin died, leaving Chateau de Beaucastel in the very capable hands of his sons Francois and Jean-Pierre; the standards they have since set have served as reference points for many vignerons in the south.
In the north, 1978 saw the first release of Marc Guigal's Cote Rotie La Landonne, arguably the finest of the company's stunning trio of single-vineyard wines from the appellation (La Mouline and La Turque being the others). These wines set new standards for the Rhone as a whole, both in terms of quality and for the prices they commanded, and established the Rhone as a fully fledged fine wine region.
Since then, there have been further developments and other mold breakers. In 1988, for example, the firm of Chapoutier, which had been trading on its historical reputation for several years, received an injection of new blood when Marc and Michel Chapoutier took the reins of the company. Today, Chapoutier's prestige cuvees (blends) are every bit as good as those of Guigal.
When it comes to seminal forces, mention must be made of the influential American wine writer Robert Parker. Many people associate Parker with Bordeaux, but his enthusiasm for the Rhone is, if anything, greater and his comments on the southern Rhone in particular have hit home with many producers. Are they making wines just to please Parker? Maybe, but a more pertinent question would be are the wines they make now better than they used to be? The answer is "yes." Thanks largely to Parker, many domaines have cut their yields, reduced or eliminated fining and filtration, and are now bottling in one batch rather than over a period of months or even years. And, encouraged by the success of others, several growers who traditionally sold their grapes or must to local cooperatives have now begun producing their own wines, often with excellent results.
The effect of Parker's comments has not been entirely positive, however. For example, a number of domaines now produce two cuvees, one of which is unfined and unfiltered, and destined primarily for the American market, where most of Parker's readers buy their wines. A more desirable outcome would be for there to be just one superior cuvee available to everyone.
Looking to the future, the major change is likely to be the continuing rise in prominence of the southern Rhone. Chateauneuf-du-Pape has almost ten times as much vineyard area as Cote Rotie and Hermitage put together, and only a relatively small number of producers are currently taking full advantage of its terroir.
Gigondas will also become a serious wine village, and neighbors such as Vacqueyras, Cairanne and Seguret could also rise to prominence. Those who now look outside Europe for exciting new finds would do well to turn their gaze back to a region that has being making memorable wine for at least 2,000 years.
From "Encyclopedia of Wine"
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