The Vineyards of Côte Rôtie

  • By Mattia Cianca
  • 17 Dec 2020
  • 5 MIN
  • Level 201
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Côte brune - Credit : Copyright M. CHAPOUTIER

Côte Rôtie is the northernmost appellation of the Northern Rhone Valley and produces red wine only, using Syrah which is occasionally co-fermented with the white Viognier (maximum 20%). The presence of Viognier, adding floral elements and rounder structure, is wholly linked to soil composition. It is found mostly in the southern part of the region where lighter and more friable soils are similar to those of the neighboring Condrieu AOC.

A History That Goes Way Back

Originally created by the ancient Allobroges tribe, then developed further with terraces by the Romans, the vineyards of Côte Rôtie are considered some of the oldest in France.

Vineyard altitude is between 140 and 320 metres above sea level, reaching up to a 60% gradient, making manual harvesting the norm. The total vineyard area is 319 hectares (Inter Rhône) spread across the villages of Saint-Cyr-sur-le-Rhône, Ampuis, and Tupin-et-Semons.

The main village of Ampuis has always been at the core of the region and helped the reputation of the wines to grow during the Middle Ages. Before the Revolution, Côte Rôtie wine was already consumed by the nobility of France, England, and Russia. The vineyard area reached its peak in 1890, when every piece of land touched by the sun was cultivated. During the wars vineyards were abandoned and only really started to recover in the 1970s, when a new generation of vignerons made the effort and contributed to the renaissance of the region. Today, according to the ODG (Organisme de Défense et de Gestion de Côte Rôtie) the vineyard area has regained its original size and is managed by more than one hundred growers.

The Appellation’s Soil Composition 

Côte Rôtie is located on the eastern edge of the Massif Central. This massif was formed between 300 and 350 million years ago. The main rocks are magmatic-plutonic rocks (granites) and metamorphic rocks (schists, gneiss, migmatites). 

In terms of soil composition, we can divide the appellation into three main areas:

Mica schists in Saint-Cyr-sur-le-Rhône, North and center of Ampuis

Dark-brown colour with a significant presence of thick quartz veins. Water in mica schists soils is well-drained because of the abundance of stony elements, but thanks to the many vertical fractures, vines can easily access water reserves in the rock itself.

Gneiss in the South of Ampuis, North and center of Tupin-et-Semons

Rocks with finer grains, richer in quartz and feldspar with less biotite (a group of mica minerals).

Migmatites in the South of Tupine-et-Semons

Formed by the partial melting of metamorphic rocks. Thanks to the presence of biotite, the soil is brown in colour and very friable, consisting of sand and small centimetric pebbles.

The Côte Blonde and Côte Brune

The deep study of the soil and its origins has led to the creation of 73 officially-registered lieux-dits, that are grouped stylistically into two halves: “Côte Blonde” and “Côte Brune”.

There are many legends about Côte Rôtie. One of these explains how the terms “Côte Blonde” and “Côte Brune” came to be. It is said that Seigneur Maugiron, who owned Côte-Rôtie in the 16th century, shared his domain between his two daughters: one was as blonde as wheat (blé) and the other brune like the night (la nuit). When they were married, he gifted them with two of his best slopes. The wines of the two terroirs were tasted for the first time at Château d'Ampuis in 1553.

Blonde or Brune, the chemical composition of these rocks is quite similar. Their distribution can be explained by the way they formed: the pressure and temperatures were higher in the south of the appellation than in the north.

In the Côte Blonde, South of Ampuis, the clay - sand soil known as "arzel", which resulted from erosion is extremely friable and unstable. This cannot be cultivated without being retained by a series of dry-stone walls locally referred to as "cheys". The light-colored soil of this section gives birth to a softer and more restrained style of wine.

Notable cuvées from this section include:

-E.Guigal “La Mouline”
-Stéphane Ogier “But de Mont” 
-Maison Manchès “Les Pimotins”

In the Côte Brune, north of Ampuis, the soil is mainly composed of mica-schist. Thanks to the higher clay and iron content, wines from those parcels have firmer tannins and are generally sturdier in style. The higher proportion of clay provides more stability and the hillside is arranged in narrow terraces called "chaillées" forming a sort of stairway that secures the vines on its relatively flat steps.

Notable cuvées from this section include:

-M. CHAPOUTIER “Neve”
-Yves Cuilleron “Bonnivières”
-Domaine Rostaing “La Landonne”

Also worthy of note is M. CHAPOUTIER “La Mordorée” which is sourced from both the Côte Blonde AND Côte Brune.

Côte brune - Credit : Copyright M. CHAPOUTIER