We did a quick flit down to the annual Marché aux Vins at Ampuis last weekend for a taste of the wines of the northern Rhone. On the way down we stopped off at friends in Beaujolais, who recommended that we swing by the Musée Gallo-Romain just across the bridge from the city of Vienne before hitting the market. “That way you’ll get a feel for the importance of the Romans, not least how they shaped the vineyard landscape of the Rhone.”
It was a great tip. The seven-hectare (17-acre) site at St Romain-en-Gal, excavated and restored over the past 50 years, shows what must have been a town of extraordinary wealth, dating from around 50 AD. The first thing you see in the museum is a maquette showing the extent of the town in Roman times – just about the same size and with the same population as today. The mosaics are mind-blowing, like intricate tapestries made not of wool but tiny fragments of coloured stone.
When you’ve finished marvelling at them, you proceed outside, where the smooth, granite-paved streets, vestiges of grand villas, sophisticated thermal baths and fine gardens hint at just what a rich settlement this must have been. It seems there’s even a small vineyard planted with several different vine varieties and trained/pruned according to the methods used by the Romans, but we lost heart in the freezing cold and continued on our way to Ampuis, about 20 km along the river from Vienne.
Before going into the Marché we paused to marvel at the fabulously steep slopes of the Côte Rôtie, which rear up above the village (it was a hopeless day for photographing, as the Rhone – as indeed most of Europe – is currently cloaked in a thick layer of smog, trapped by the freezing cold temperatures and lack of wind). I did manage to get a picture of the slopes above Condrieu next day, which almost rival those of the Côte Rôtie for steepness, and another showing the Rhone down in the smoggy gloom (below). Both these famous hillsides were first planted by the Romans. As Robert Parker wrote in his book Wines of the Rhone Valley: “it seems doubtful that the look of the Côte Rôtie’s hillsides has changed much over the last 2,000 years”. Kind of puts it (and us) in perspective.
The Marché provided us Rhone neophytes with a good introduction to the wines of the famed northern bit of this vast region. The usual suspects (Guigal, Chapoutier) were of course in evidence, as well as eminent names like Cuilleron, Gaillard, Voge, Gonon, Chave and many more.
It’s fairly simple getting your head (tongue?) around northern Rhone wines: the only red grape is Syrah, with subtle differences coming from where the wine is grown. Whites include Viognier (the only permitted grape in Condrieu), and Marsanne and Roussanne (sometimes blended, sometimes stand-alones). The venue for the Marché – Ampuis village hall or salle communale – is pretty banal but we’re here to get to grips with the wines, not to admire the architecture. You pay the modest sum of €8 (which entitles you to taste wines of considerable quality), collect your tasting glass and launch off into the hall.
The atmosphere is good-natured and professional, there’s plenty of chitchat between growers and customers and – if the porters’ barrows piled high with boxes are anything to go by – a lively trade in wine. (Unlike other shows/fairs, this is one where the objective is to sell.) We tasted widely and spat a lot – note the huge bins in the bottom righthand corner of the pictures, so much better than those miserable little spittoons seen on the counters in the Sideways movie. And unlike some other wine fairs we’ve been to, we saw no-one staggering around, shouting loudly, throwing up or beating each other to a pulp – which may have had something to do with the flics standing around in the foyer, presumably ready to nab exiting tasters.
While you don’t find many bargains in the northern Rhone, we did score a few reds from the lesser-known, less-esteemed appellations like St Joseph (and learned to make like the locals, calling it “St Jo”) and Cornas. Crozes-Hermitage was trickier, but we tasted a few decent ones (both white and red). Even humble little St Péray, known in the past for making just two types of white wine, “dull still wines and dull sparkling wines” (Parker), is nowadays producing the goods, particularly in the hands of white wine specialists like Yves Cuilleron. It was fun, instructive – and productive – and now we know the ropes, we’ll probably go again next year.