Discover the Wine Region of Côte-Rôtie
Côte-Rôtie, or “roasted slope” in French, is one of the most striking wine regions in the world. The vines cling to steep terraced slopes that gaze over the Rhône river. Côte-Rôtie is the Northernmost region in the Rhône Valley, producing exclusively red wine made predominantly from Syrah. It is located about 35 minutes south of Lyon, France.
History of Côte-Rôtie
Just south of the ancient Roman city of Vienne, vines have been grown here for at least two thousand years, but the first written records of wine from Ampuis, the village at the base of Côte-Rôtie, come from the sixth century.These wines were valued for their quality during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. They were exported to England, and later even Thomas Jefferson bought Côte-Rôtie.
The late 19th Century and early 20th Century were extremely difficult in this part of France, first with phylloxera, the devastating mite that destroyed vines all over the world at the end of the 1800s, and then with both world wars. The region picked back up again in the 1970s, grew rapidly in prestige in the 1980s, and now is considered one of the finest wines in France.
Geography, Geology, and Climate of Côte-Rôtie
Côte-Rôtie is a small region, covering fewer than 500 acres. It spreads above the village of Ampuis. Sitting on the Western bank of the Rhône river, the vines face south and southeast for maximum ripening, hence the name “roasted slope.” When we call these slopes, we mean it! In some places the land is as steep as 60 degrees. The soil is extremely unstable, requiring special terracing and stone walls to keep the soil in place. Erosion is a big problem, and beyond constant maintenance of the terraces and stone walls, people will even collect fallen soil at the base of the hill and bring it back up.
The soil is crumbly schist, with two distinct types. The Côte Blonde is composed of decomposing pale granite and schist, and the Côte Brune is much darker, iron rich schist. Legend has it that a 16th Century lord named the two distinct areas after his two daughters, one blonde, one brunette. The climate here is continental, with cold, rainy winters, and hot summers. It can be extremely windy here, and the vines are trained to be tied in pairs at the top of an A-frame, to protect them from blowing around.
The Grapes of Côte-Rôtie: Syrah and Viognier
Côte-Rôtie is always red and is made from the Syrah grape, as with all of the other Northern Rhône appellations. Uniquely, Côte-Rôtie allows the inclusion of up to 20% Viognier, a white grape. This is very unusual, and the grapes must be co-fermented, or mixed together before fermentation. These days, very few producers include Viognier at all, it’s seen sort of as cheating. If they do include Viognier, it’s a very small amount, no more than a few percent of the total volume. Syrah historically was thought to be an exotic grape from Persia, but is now known to be local to the Rhône Valley.
The Wines of Côte-Rôtie
These wines are powerful reds made to be drunk after at least five years, but the best can be aged for longer. Like all Syrah, they have black fruit, meat, and pepper characteristics, but are distinct from their elegant floral notes. This can come from the Viognier, but is also a characteristic of 100% Syrah Côte-Rôtie. The wines may or may not be aged in some new oak, this is producer dependent.
Things to Do in Côte-Rôtie
Côte-Rôtie is tiny and the village of Ampuis is very small as well. One of the more well-renowned restaurants is Le Bistrot à Vin de Serine. It is recommended to book ahead of time. If you can’t get in there, the small cafe across the street, Café de la Poste, is quaintly old school and has a delightful menu of the day. This is the type of place full of local elders drinking small glasses of beer at 10 in the morning, it’s very real. As with most of France, vineyard tours in Côte-Rôtie are normally by appointment only.
Notable Producers in Côte-Rôtie
Domaine René Rostaing
Written By Caroline Conner of Lyon Wine Tastings
Caroline is from California but got into wine while at university at Oxford. As a wine nerd, she did competitive blind tasting and was Top Taster in the 2009 Oxford Cambridge Varsity Blind Tasting Match, judged by Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson. Caroline has her WSET 4 Diploma and has worked in sales, wine publishing, retail, and now runs educational wine tastings in English for expats and tourists in Lyon, France. She loves Lyon because she can be in Côte-Rôtie in 30 minutes. Her goal as a wine educator and wine writer is to make wine fun and interesting without being snobby about it. She misses London’s dynamic wine market, but loves discovering France’s more esoteric grapes and regions.