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Two Crus in the Southern Rhône Bravely Face a Hotter, Drier, But Hopefully Fresher Future

Two Crus in the Southern Rhône Bravely Face a Hotter, Drier, But Hopefully Fresher Future

Bonus: The resulting wines are a (relative) bargain.

The Southern Rhône is known for powerful, robust, long-aging reds. From $6 bottles of Côtes du Rhône AOC to $1,000 bottles of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the wines are hearty, bold, and sometimes rustic.

The ever warmer, drier, more extreme climate is expected to make these wines—celebrated for their heft and spirit now—even heartier. There can be, after all, too much of a good thing, and the line between hearty and cloying can be a fine one. Thankfully, strong action is being taken at the institutional level at the Institut Rhodanien, an organization dedicated to research and experimentation in wine in the Rhône Valley. It’s also being done on the ground in two under-the-radar crus, where vintners are determined to lay the groundwork for a fresher future.

Institutional Changes

The Rhône Valley, like most French wine regions, operates as a hierarchy of sorts. Winemaking has been traced back to at least the 4th century B.C., and has played an important role on the world stage since the 1300s, when Pope Clement V departed Rome for Châteauneuf-du-Pape. 

Today, there are four main classifications for Rhône wines, across both the northern and southern portions of the valley, starting with the Côtes du Rhône AOC as the foundation, which comprises half of the region’s wine. One step up is the Côtes du Rhône Villages AOC, then the Côtes du Rhône’s 21 named Villages. At the top of the pyramid are the Rhône’s 17 crus, eight in the north and nine in the south. Many, like Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas, are household names that sell on the merits of their reputation and collectability. 

But for lesser-known southern crus like Lirac and Rasteau, the contents of the bottle are what sells. Think of it as A-list versus emerging actors. Fans will keep coming back for Tom Cruise, even if he has delivered a few bloopers; but a few bad flicks from a relative unknown will tank their reputation. Growers and winemakers in Lirac and Rasteau are more motivated than ever, given market and climatic challenges, to maintain and burnish their reputations.

Climate change has become an (almost) undisputed fact of life for anyone working in or adjacent to agriculture. While large governmental organizations have been slow to adjust and prepare, smaller regional bodies like the Institut Rhodanien have been more nimble.

“I appreciate the work that is being done by the Institut,” says Paul Emile Masson, third-generation owner-operator at Rasteau’s Domaine Bressy Masson. “When my father harvested grapes, it happened on October 1. Now, 30 years later, it’s happening on September 1. I love the traditional grapes of the region, especially Grenache, but it may be that one day we cannot rely on our traditional grapes alone because of climate change.”

But change is inevitable, Masson notes.

“In the very beginning, all we grew here in Rasteau was Grenache,” he explains. “Then we started adding Syrah and Mourvèdre, and then other grapes for color, body, finesse, and brightness.”

Photo Credit: Domaine Bressy Masson

There are 28 grapes that are approved for use by winemakers in the Rhône Valley, with each cru having a slightly different mix approved. All wines—reds, rosés, and whites—are blends. Today, Rasteau vintners must use a minimum of 50% Grenache noir in their wines, and at least 20% Syrah and/or Mourvèdre, with the balance in other approved reds; Lirac vintners primarily use Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Cinsault for reds, and primarily Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc, Clairette, and Roussanne, with Marsanne, Picpoul, Viognier, and Ugni Blanc as secondary grapes for whites.

There are four main areas of research on climate change being tackled at the Institut, according to a spokesperson for the region. Scientists there are studying how ancient and discarded (often because they were not as productive) grape varieties react to extreme heat, drought, and other effects of climate change. They are growing 41 grapes, including promising ones from other countries, and conducting micro-vinifications on grapes that appear to respond positively to stress and disease. 

There are also two research projects focused on the development of completely new varieties. In one, scientists are crossing popular approved Rhône varieties like Grenache and Syrah with disease resistant varieties. More than 200 varieties have been created and are being observed and vinified. The second project includes an experimental crossing of Grenache and Syrah. This experiment has been positive, with the grapes showing excellent potential for drought tolerance, the spokesperson says. 

But the process of garnering approval for a new grape variety is slow in France. One experiment that is slightly further along in development currently allows four varieties that have shown to be potential allies in the war against climate change—Floreal, Vidoc, White Carignan, and Rolle—to be added to blends for Côtes du Rhône wines only, up to 5%. After a 10-year probation period, other vintners with higher classifications on their label will be allowed to use these grapes in their blends. 

Another project that has been completed is on rootstocks. The Institut has made their findings available for growers, allowing them to search for rootstocks that meet the needs of their particular terroir, from drought tolerance, to delayed ripening, to vigor.

Vintners Go Off-Label

Some winemakers are concerned that the changes aren’t happening fast enough. 

Jean-Baptiste Lafond, owner-operator at Lirac’s Domaine Lafond, has made adaptations in the vineyard, and is certified organic and using many biodynamic practices. While changes to farming have improved the quality of the grapes somewhat, he says he worries what will happen as temperatures increase. 

“Many of the classic grapes here in the Rhône seem to be vulnerable to both heat and drought,” Lafond says. “Grenache is still dependable, but Syrah and Mourvèdre are vulnerable. I would love to be able to use ancient varieties that were once grown here, like Counoise and Terret in our blends because they add the freshness we need, but they are not approved for use.”

Pascal Lafond and his sons, François and Jean-Baptiste | Photo Credit: Domaine Lafond

Already, he and his brother have developed a line of red and whites dubbed La Relève, which are made with the modern palate in mind.

“They are farmed carefully, harvested to be lower in alcohol, have very minimal sulfur additions, and are aged in cement and stainless steel,” Lafond says, adding that demand for the line, which started with 500 bottles two years ago, has grown so much, they are producing 80,000 bottles for this year’s vintage. “People want fresh, juicy, accessible wine. Eventually, if we are not permitted to use other grapes but need to maintain the style, we will, and just leave the AOC.”

Revolution at the Highest Levels

The powers that be in Lirac and Rasteau are aware of the challenges, and are also working toward more immediate solutions within the bounds of their crus. 

When Rodolphe de Pins was president of the AOC Lirac a dozen years ago, he helped draw up an environmental charter that would preserve the region’s almost 6,200 acres of forested land, and plant additional trees indigenous to the region. 

“When you have trees in and around your vineyard, it cools it down and adds freshness to the grapes,” de Pins says. “Not only does it shade the grapes the trees are close to, it cools down the air in the area, and brings in helpful insects, birds, and bees. When we started, we got maybe six or seven vintners to sign on to plant more trees, but as soon as their neighbors and friends saw what a difference it made, they started planting trees too. Word spread and now almost everyone has trees around their vineyard.”

In Rasteau, Rejane Pouzoulas, co-president of the cru and co-owner of Domaine Wilfried, is working on an initiative to get white wines approved for use under the Rasteau label. (While producers in Lirac can make whites, reds, and rosés and label them Lirac, Rasteau producers are confined to reds alone). 

“Whites are becoming increasingly popular on the market and consumption goes up around the world, every year,” Pouzoulas notes. “Plus, many of the white grapes that are approved for the Rhône generally—like Grenache Blanc, Picpoul, and Clairette—are well-suited to bring the fresh flavors that people also want. They are bright, they ripen early and they deliver that freshness, even in challenging vintages that are very hot and dry.”

Like Lafond and many others, Pouzoulas produces wines that are not approved by the cru—in her case, white blends—and releases them under a separate label. 

“But I would rather label them Rasteau because I have pride in the region, and I believe our terroir is ideal for producing excellent whites,” she says. 

The proposal to have whites approved is under review by the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO), a public body responsible for regulating wine in France, and is likely “at least” five years away from being rubber-stamped, says Pouzoulas. 

“Grenache is king here,” says Julie Paolucci, vigneron at Rasteau’s Domaine La Luminaille. “As vintners we are doing everything we can do to honor it and create fresh wines, by farming organically, blending with care, using low amounts of sulfites. But eventually, we may all need to consider not replacing Grenache, but adding additional grapes to the blend.”

Sometimes for a fresh perspective in life and in the bottle, something completely new and different needs to be considered. The vintners know that. The powers that be at the AOC likely know that too—here’s to hoping that the wheels of bureaucracy move faster than climate change.