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In a land far, far away lies a tiny nook, a mere stitch in the massive quilt of the wine world.  Tucked nearly out-of-sight amongst the steep valleys above France’s Rhône River, the sound of its name conjures up a land far from prying eyes and stretch limos of gawking tourists, its mere mention eliciting a hushed nod of adoration from the most die-hard wine lovers.  Its name is Côte-Rôtie, and it is a special land where one grape reigns supreme.  It is in fact, one of the most hallowed homes for the Syrah grape.  If one were to utter the phrase “Yellow Tail Shiraz” in this area, it just may result in an ancient, rusty shotgun blast to the kneecaps.

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Is it the most perfect match of grape and soil, wind and sunshine, sweat and devotion?  Quite possibly.  For no wine quite elicits the peppery aliveness, the funkiness, the precision and complexity of a Côte-Rôtie.  And this from a land made up of less than 500 acres, its best vineyards meticulously planted up hillsides approaching 60 degrees of incline.  It is a mere postage stamp in the broader Rhône Valley of Southern France.  You won’t find a mechanical harvester here because Mother Nature won’t allow it.  Instead, the workers brave the steep hills to bring the grapes down in small baskets, or form a human chain to guide them meticulously down from their sun-drenched perches far above the valley floor.

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Côte-Rôtie lies at the top of the Northern Rhône Valley.  The area had gone out of fashion, only to rise again in the last 35 years because of an infusion of modern winemaking techniques combined with those of the past like the use of small, new oak barrels.  By law, vignerons are allowed to blend in 20% Viognier (a white grape), but you will rarely find anyone using more than 5%, and this because it not only adds aroma to the wine, but somehow, somewhere, the Viognier vines found themselves scattered in miniscule specks throughout the patches of Syrah.  It’s as if God had merely sprinkled a couple grains of salt into his fields of pepper scattered across the hillsides.

Translating as “roasted hillside”, Côte-Rôtie is made up of a handful of famous slopes, the most prized being the Côte Brune and the Côte Blonde, supposedly named after the daughters of an ancient aristocrat, with every available inch of steep vineyard being utilized to capture the direct sunlight of the day.  At night, the high altitude and the winds that whip through the valley chill the grapes down and preserve their acidity.

The Northern Rhône is a beautiful, yet savage land where the Mistral blows like a howling demon through the steep valleys, lashing the vines with a cold north wind that will chill one to the bone.  It requires the grower to meticulously stake each vine down to prevent it from being wrested from the earth and tossed to the heavens.  After heavy rains, it’s not uncommon for the workers to have to carry the granitic soil back up into the vineyards after being washed down to the valley floor.  Backbreaking work?  Absolutely.  But there is nothing quite like these wines, and no area quite so strikingly brutal and beautiful at the same time.  And somehow, man and grape have learned to form a perfect union built on tradition and adaptation.

Producers to look for: E. Guigal, Paul Jaboulet Aîné, M. Chapoutier, Rene Rostaing, Jamet and Bernard Burgaud

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2 Responses to “The Mythical, Magical Land of Côte-Rôtie”

  1. Eric Brown says:

    Hello David, where did you find the old photograph of Cote Rotie in this post? If you don’t mind me asking, as I am looking for photos like this.

    Thanks, Eric

  2. Hi Eric, I get the vast majority of my pics from istockphotography.com. If I pull them from other sites, there will be a link to them embedded in the pic or mentioned in the caption. Happy hunting, David

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