Picking grapes on the terraces of Côte-Rôtie requires buns of steel and perfect balance – or a monorail.
With the vineyards in the appellation reaching a gradient of 60 per cent, workers must help one another on the steepest parts. One producer, however, transports his grapes down the slope by France’s only vineyard monorail.
Celebrating its 10th year in operation, Gilles Barge rides up and down on his Swiss-made track collecting his freshly picked bunches.
The Rhône's northernmost appellation was founded by the Romans, and became renowned for its high-quality wines. However, it only narrowly survived World War I: in the summer of 1914, many of the growers who managed its 300 hectares (740 acres) left for the battlefield. Many died or were injured and, with few children born, decades went by without sufficient hands to work the vines.
The wine estates were overtaken by bushes and undergrowth, while cherry orchards and potatoes competed for the land. The appellation was reduced to 70 hectares (172 acres) until the 1970s, when a group of winemakers, including Étienne and Marcel Guigal, started to resurrect the vineyards.
Barge was one of them. “We are in the most difficult place to work in France. But if vines have been planted here for 24 centuries, there must be a good reason to make wine here,” explains Barge, who chairs the local union of winemakers.
Indeed, syrah reaches its apogee on the steep hillsides (côtes) that rise up sharply from the banks of the river Rhône to heights of 1150ft (330m). They form 10 narrow ridges, each separated by a narrow tree-lined gully. The vineyards bask in the sun – hence the name Côte-Rôtie, meaning roasted slope – creating rich and ripe expressions of syrah.
In the past four decades, the appellation has fulfilled its potential and land is now in demand.
“It took 40 years to reach the 285 hectares today,” notes Barge. "In a few years, there won’t be any more room for planting."
The appellation has attracted fewer foreign buyers than Bordeaux or the southern Rhône’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape, for example, but it has developed an international reputation due to the quality of its wines and the reach of producers including Guigal and Chapoutier. Indeed, Guigal's wines from La Mouline, La Landonne and La Turque attracted the wine world's attention and are now highly prized.
Brice Eymard, head of economic research at the region's wine-trade body Inter-Rhône, says the appellation sells its wines easily in both France and abroad thanks to its “prestigious image.”
You’ll struggle to find a bottle of Côte-Rôtie for less than $30, but that reflects the high production costs of working the difficult land. Barge says he has to justify the high selling price by making high-quality wines that have a true sense of place. “Otherwise, the consumer will go elsewhere.”