A Guide to Investing in the Rhône

Lucy Shaw, Contributing Writer

1 September 2023

Ticking all the boxes when it comes to quality, ageworthiness and intrigue, the top wines from the Rhône can represent incredible value for money.

Many of the stars from the region are still undervalued in the secondary market for their comparative quality, though the Rhône’s global reputation is on the rise as investors clock onto the collectability of the leading labels, which can be snapped up for a song compared to Burgundy’s big guns.

A brief history…

Boasting some of the oldest vineyards in France, vine cultivation in the Rhône dates back to the sixth century BC, and by the first century AD the Gauls were growing grapes on narrow terraces at dizzying gradients in the Côte-Rôtie and on Hermitage hill, having spotted the potential of these perilously steep sites.

The Romans helped to turn the Côte-Rôtie into a thriving wine hub, but the Rhône’s status as a wine epicentre declined after the fall of the Roman Empire. Winemaking took off again during the Middle Ages, under the influence of the Catholic church, when production grew exponentially.

The Rhône’s fortunes changed again in the mid-19th century when phylloxera ravaged the region’s vineyards, leading to a production crisis that would take nearly a century to recover from. Fortunately, a group of quality-focused producers breathed new life into the region in the 1960s, restoring the Rhône’s reputation for terroir-driven wines that age gracefully and improve over time.

Today, the Rhône Valley AOC is the second largest wine region in France after Bordeaux, with vines spread across 71,000 hectares of land and 6,000 vineyards on both sides of the Rhône River. The region is divided into two distinct areas: the Syrah-dominated, cooler climate Northern Rhône, and the sun-drenched, Grenache-focused Southern Rhône, where heady blends such as those found in Châteauneuf-du-Pape rule the roost.

Bordeaux Index Rhône Guide
The wine regions of the Rhône

The Northern Rhône

Syrah is the king of the grapes in the Northern Rhône, where it’s used to make boldly flavoured, long-lived reds with a savoury edge. What it lacks in volume it makes up for in quality, with over half of production from the region hailing from Crozes-Hermitage, on the flatter land around the hill of Hermitage, home to comparatively soft, fruity reds that can offer exceptional value for money.

Taking the quality up a notch are the wines from the Côte-Rôtie (‘roasted slope’), where vineyards are planted on ancient terraces above the town of Ampuis. While it’s the furthest north of the Rhône appellations, the south-facing slopes benefit from lashings of sunlight. Largely produced from 100% Syrah, Côte Rotie wines are prized for their aromatic intensity and perfume, offering notes of raspberry, blueberry, plum and violets. The leading light of the region is Marcel Guigal, whose single vineyard bottlings have become some of the most sought-after wines in the world. Further south lie St-Joseph and Cornas, home to powerful wines with a less-refined, even wilder, character profile. Among the best expressions to seek out come from established producers such as Jean Louis Chave, Pierre Gonon and Thierry Allemand.

Continuing south, the hill of Hermitage is a revered suntrap on the left bank of the Rhône River above the town of Tain l'Hermitage. The iconic appellation, boasting south-facing vines that drink in the sunlight, has attracted the biggest names in the region, including Guigal, Chave, Chapoutier and Paul Jaboulet, whose vineyard holdings centre around the single vineyard of La Chapelle.

Hermitage’s stony soils and steep, terraced vineyards create strapping, ageworthy reds with pronounced flavours of violets, smoked meat, truffle, leather and black pepper balanced by high acidity and firm tannins. On the white front, single vineyard Hermitage Blanc from the likes of Jaboulet and Chapoutier – who crafts his from 100% Marsanne – are a firm favourite among critics.

Bordeaux Index Hermitage Hill
The Hill of Hermitage

The Southern Rhône

Vastly different in character to the Northern Rhône, the South of the region is flatter and hotter, and home to higher volume, generally more accessibly priced reds known for their juicy fruit and appealing spice. In contrast to Syrah’s solo act in the North, the South is dominated by blends in which Grenache and Mourvèdre play a leading role alongside Syrah. With the mercury rising by the year, low bush vines are protected from drought – and fierce Mistral winds – through traditional gobelet training.

The jewel in the Southern Rhône’s crown is Châteauneuf-du-Pape, France’s first AOC and a particular favourite of American wine critic Robert Parker. Famous for its large round pudding stones that keep its vines warm at night, the region can be tricky for novices to wrap their heads around, as no less than 13 grape varieties are permitted within Châteauneuf blends, creating a vast array of house styles, though the classic Southern Rhône triumvirate of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèrdre form the backbone of most blends, often alongside Cinsault.

With Jancis Robinson MW considering it to be one of France’s most reliable appellations, Châteauneuf’s big, beefy reds pack a bunch with their high alcohol and extraction levels, though are able to seduce with their luscious fruit and alluring notes of raspberry, plum, leather, game and thyme imbued by Grenache’s dominance in the blends. Gigondas is another reliable red from the South made largely from Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèrdre in the image of Châteauneuf from higher, rockier ground, offering a great value alternative.

Bordeaux Index Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyards

Notable producers

Many of the region’s top names reside in the North, where pioneer Marcel Guigal revived the fortunes of the Côte-Rôtie through his tiny production single vineyard bottlings – La Mouline, La Landonne and La Turque – affectionately known as the ‘La-Las’, which are among the most sought-after fine wines on the planet due to their rarity, concentration and extended oak ageing. Made from 100% Syrah, La Landonne is meaty, brooding and tannic, with immense ageing potential, while La Mouline features a dash of Viognier, which gives it a more delicate, floral character. La Turque, meanwhile, straddles the two, offering the power of the former and the elegance of the latter.

Jean Louis Chave is another star of the Northern Rhône with a winemaking lineage on the Hermitage hill stretching back 500 years. Collector interest is focused around Chave’s superb red Hermitage, made from Syrah and 15% white grapes, which offers a compelling balance of aromatic complexity, power and finesse. Founded in 1834, Paul Jaboulet Aîné has long blazed a trail in Hermitage. Vintner Caroline Frey is on a quest for perfection, combining cutting-edge winemaking with scrupulous viticultural care. Her most celebrated wine is Hermitage La Chapelle, named after the chapel that overlooks the vineyard.

Bordeaux Index Louis Jean Chave
Jean Louis Chave corks

One of the Rhône’s most exciting producers is Tain l’Hermitage-based Chapoutier, run by the indefatigable Michel Chapoutier, whose diverse range of biodynamic wines offer a delicious snapshot of the region. His Hermitage bottling is known for its notes of black cherry and smoked meat, and is one of the most long-lived reds in the Rhône as he legendary vintages of 1978 and 1990 attest. Another Hermitage name to seek out is Marc Sorrel, whose small parcel, terroir-driven reds are gaining a global reputation.

The shining star of the South is renegade Château Rayas, whose intense, complex and powerful 100% Grenache wines, made from grapes grown on free-draining sandy soils, are some of the rarest and most in demand in the world, and are widely considered to offer the best expression of Grenache in existence. Run by the Perrin family, Beaucastel is another leading light of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. With 200 hectares of prime vineyards at their fingertips, they have the terroir and skill required to produce some of the region’s most compelling wines.

Bordeaux Index Château Rayas
Château Rayas vineyards

Notable vintages for investment

The Rhône is attracting attention in the secondary market off the back of a strong set of recent vintages, which kicked off in 2015 – where the Northern Rhône shone – followed by 2016, where wines from the South stood out.

The good times continued to roll from 2017 to the lauded 2021 vintage, with the region increasing its turnover at Bordeaux Index by nearly 50% over the last four years. Accounting for the lion’s share of sales is Guigal, which made up around half of the region’s turnover at Bordeaux Index in the first half of 2023.

Following hot on Guigal’s heels are Rayas and Chave, with the former accounting for 30% of sales over the last three years and the latter taking a 16% share in the first half of 2023. Drilling down into individual vintages, interest is currently focused around high-scoring years such as 2009, 2010, 2015, 2018 and 2019, with nearly two thirds of Guigal sales at Bordeaux Index over the last three years coming from this quintet due to their high quality and availability on the market.

Bordeaux Index Guigal
Guigal vineyards

Over the five years to 2023, Rhône wine prices have climbed by a modest 10% at Bordeaux Index, with the 2009 vintage leading the charge, delivering returns of 20-35% over the same period. 2009 remains aa popular vintage, with Château Rayas ‘09 delivering 30% returns over the 24 months to 2023. It’s also worth seeking out wines from the 2015 vintage, with Chave 2015 delivering 20% returns over the last two years. Putting in a strong performance over the last year, meanwhile, have been more mature wines such as Rayas 1995, Guigal La Mouline 2011, Rayas Blanc 2007 and Rayas Pignan 2005.

The Rhône’s inherent appeal

With a rich winemaking history, diverse array of styles, impressive ageing potential and high critics’ scores, the top wines from the Rhône are finally getting the recognition they deserve among collectors and investors around the globe, not least because they offer incredible relative value on the secondary market.

Part of the region’s appeal lies in the dependability of the wines, which are less prone to secondary market volatility than some of the other regions, making the top names an attractive proposition in bumpier economic climates.

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