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Rewriting the rules of the Rhone

Long outpaced by Bordeaux and Burgundy, both the northern and southern Rhone have taken their rightful place at the table -– offering drinkers around the world impressive wines at every price. Now winemakers must innovate to keep their market share.

Forget the robots in the rafters that punch down crushed grapes in open-topped fermentation tanks. Yves Cuilleron insists: “I use the traditional methods.”

Here at the northern end of France's Rhone Valley winemaking region, that means Cuilleron's grapes are plucked from precipitous, almost gravity-defying hillside vineyards. It means the 5 to 10 percent of viognier grapes blended into Cuilleron's lauded Cote-Rotie are picked alongside syrah fruit and crushed together -- no blending after the fact.

Halfway through the harvest, Cave Yves Cuilleron is a flurry of activity: waves of bins filled with white grapes show up at the loading dock, quickly dumped and crushed to begin a cold soak, allowing the grape juice to extract flavor and color.

Since taking over his uncle's winery in 1987, Cuilleron has established himself not only with wines that already brought fame to the northern Rhone –- silky, sought-after Cote-Roties and the lush viogniers of Condrieu –- but also by exploiting underappreciated terroir.

This urge to innovate extends throughout France’s Rhone region, from the austere, prestigious wines of Hermitage to the deep, briny bottlings of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Long outpaced by Bordeaux and Burgundy, both the northern and southern Rhone have taken their rightful place at the table -– offering drinkers around the world impressive wines at every price.

The expansive vineyards of the southern Rhone, especially, over 120,000 acres worth, have yielded an ever better universe of wines, and a growing number of specific appellations whose names have gained familiarity even on novice drinkers’ lips.

With fame, though, can come overexposure. On a recent trip, I found some popular Rhone villages -– Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Hermitage, notably -– are unabashedly taking advantage of their status.

Yet a growing number of Rhone winemakers are looking for new ways to expand beyond their traditions.

Turning to new cornersWhile Cuilleron has excelled with well-known appellations, he has also staked a reputation on the more obscure Saint-Joseph appellation, which runs for about 30 miles up the northern Rhone’s west bank. Once a source of unremarkable reds, the 42-year-old Cuilleron and other winemakers of his generation, like Jerome Coursodon, have begun turning out deeper, more elegant syrahs meant to rival the wines of more established regions -– mixing old-fashioned winemaking with new thinking about geography.

Cote-Rotie vineyards rise above the town of Ampuis, France, complete with large billboards placed by the region's major winemakers. The vineyard slopes are so steep they must be worked by hand. Jon Bonne

Cuilleron didn’t stop there.  In 1996, with fellow vignerons Pierre Gaillard & François Villard, he created Les Vins de Vienne, turning out vintages from plantings in Seyssuel, just north of the city of Vienne, at the very top of the Rhone region. These wines don’t even fall inside an appellation -– they’re simply sold as vin de pays -– but they already command $40 and up, marketed as an alternative to increasingly expensive Rhone standardbearers.

“We tried to make a very great wine similar in quality to Cote-Rotie,” Cuilleron says.

In part, this is simply a response to limited supply in the face of growing demand. Cote-Rotie contains just over 600 acres of vineyards; Condrieu has barely 400 acres.

But if the world is eager for Rhone wine, the many winemakers here understand they must be willing to provide enough of it -– even if that means rethinking France’s longtime wine regulations.

With relatively new appellations like the villages of Gigondas and Vacqueyras gaining fame, attention has turned to other, as-yet-unexploited areas. The Coteaux de Tricastin appellation, at the northern edge of the southern Rhone, produces rounded reds with the best elements of both northern and southern Rhone styles. Villages near Gigondas, like Seguret and Sablet, hope to mimic their neighbor’s success.

'Drink, and buy again'Even at Chateau de Beaucastel, arguably the most well-known Chateauneuf-du-Pape producer, the Perrin family has focused its attention beyond their hallmark annual blend. While their negociant business continues to produce table wine, they are working on new, high-quality vintages from more obscure corners of the Rhone, often using biodynamic farming to improve the vines.

The Perrins now produce 80,000 bottles annually from the Coudoulet appellation, literally across the road from Chateauneuf’s northern boundary, and they make syrah-grenache blends from the village of Vinsobres, which received its own denomination in 1999.

“We believe we can produce some top northern Rhone-style wines in the southern Rhone,” says Marc Perrin, who represents the fifth generation at Beaucastel.

Other big names are showing up. The Boisset family, which controls France’s third-largest wine company, is renovating the 13th-century Chartreuse de Bonpas monastary outside Avignon as a headquarters for its Louis Bernard subsidiary, and buying grapes throughout the Rhone to produce value-minded wines for the international market.

“The opportunity we have is to use the wine of the best areas,” says general manager Caroline de Beaulieu, who has brought some revolutionary thinking from the Langedoc region to the west, which has upended the French wine market in recent years.

With a new winemaker hired from Chapoutier, a major northern Rhone negociant and grower, Bernard’s managers want to produce fruitier, earlier-drinking styles wine that appeals to global, not French, palates. “We don’t make wine to drink in 10 years,” de Beaulieu says. “We like that people drink, and buy again.”

Chapoutier and its main competitors, Guigal and Jaboulet, remain a major force in the northern Rhone -- right down to the huge billboards that grace prime hilltops above the towns of Ampuis and Tain l'Hermitage. They, perhaps more than anyone, have been responsible for drawing the world's attention to the region.

Pushing past traditionBritish-born Julie Campos hopes to enter the fray with them.  She has begun a huge overhaul of the Cave de Tain, a farmers' co-op responsible for half of the appellation wine in the northern Rhone, including 65 percent of the wine in popular Crozes-Hermitage.

Though the Cave's growers control 70 percent of the Hermitage appellation, you may never have heard of it; under 30 percent of its wine is exported. Most French co-ops -- set up to keep grape growers in business --  have languished in recent years, turning out uneven wines.

Campos, who made her name at Chablis producer J. Moreau & Fils, is pushing the co-op's 390 growers to improve grape quality, while upgrading bottling facilities and overhauling the Cave's image.

She intends to export 50 percent of production by targeting a broader market than connoisseurs who currently pay top dollar for Hermitage wines. "I want to find our place in that world, but at the same time, I think a lot of elitism has to be kicked out of wine," she says. "We just want value for money."

That requires a split approach: Selling affordable wines under varietal names, like syrah, an increasingly common practice in France, but one currently frowned upon by French labeling rules -- while selling top-quality wines to those willing to spend $30 or more per bottle.

Still, tradition is hard to escape. At Domaine le Clos des Cazaux, you might taste a top-notch Gigondas next to old-timers who have sauntered in for jugs of table wine "en vrac" (in bulk).

And in the northern Rhone -- where vineyards were planted on steep hillsides even in Roman times -- many producers shrug off New World expectations of consistent, top-notch vintages year after year, regardless of the quirks of grape-growing.

"It's nicer to have wines different from year to year," says Alice Barge, whose husband Gilles' family has worked the slopes of Cote-Rotie for well over a century. "A big producer like Guigal or Chapoutier, their wines are the same from year to year."