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Wine Regions / Aug 15
A region made up of craggy, granitic slopes and fields of large stones, all of which are whipped regularly by intense winds, may not seem like the most hospitable environment for anything to grow, let alone grapevines. Welcome to the Rhône Valley!
Despite its seemingly less than inviting terroir, winemaking in the Rhône dates back more than 2,000 years, and today it produces more AOC wine than any other region in France other than Bordeaux, and has many celebrated appellations.
Located in southeastern France, the Rhône Valley follows the Rhône River starting in Lyon as it winds its way down towards the Mediterranean Sea. This spans 150 miles (240km) with vineyards lining both banks and encompassing a wide variety of soils, terroirs, and wine styles, although the overwhelming majority of the wine produced is red. Helpfully, the region can be largely divided into two major parts, north and south, that differentiate the wines in terms of both geography and style.
One of the major distinguishing factors between the two zones is that the Northern Rhône specializes in certain grapes, while the wines of Southern Rhône are largely blends. It’s worth noting that there are some outlier regions that fall outside these two major areas, including those around Die which make sparkling under the appellations Clairette de Die and Cremant de Die, as well as some still wines.
We'll get to know the two major sections momentarily, but both are influenced by the famous mistral winds that reach speeds over 90 kilometers (56 miles) an hour. While the mistral might regularly take out a few vines, the grapes also greatly benefit from the winds. The winds are strongest near the coast and they blow away cloud cover, ensuring many bright sunny days to help ripen the grapes. They also help moderate the temperatures and keep the grapes healthy as the air circulation greatly reduces the risk of disease and pests to the vines.
Already feeling thirsty? Browse our selection of the best organic and biodynamic wines in the region.
The Rhône River has been an important artery for trade and transit for thousands of years, and as such, many groups have been drawn to the area throughout history and left their mark. The Greeks were the first to plant vines in the region around 400 BC in Marseilles. In 71 AD, Pliny the Elder wrote about the excellent quality of the wines being made by the Allobroges Gauls from Vienne. The Romans also began to have an influence on the region beginning around the first century AD and they helped to expand and refine wine production. They’d taken the region from the Gauls and expanded vineyard plantings near Vienne, the area that is now Côte-Rôtie. They also built retaining walls creating terraced vineyards, built wineries, and introduced the practice of storing and transporting wine in amphorae.
The collapse of the Roman Empire dealt a major blow to the wine industry that set it back for hundreds of years, as winemakers were suddenly cut off from the extensive trade networks that had existed during their rule. Nonetheless, the influence of the Greeks and Romans can still be experienced throughout the region in the ruins they left behind, buildings and structures that still remain, and in the names they gave places in the region, including the name Rhône itself which originated with the Greeks. Thanks to these groups, the Rhône Valley has some of the oldest vineyards in the world.
The next major boon to wine production in the region came in the 14th century when the Catholic Church moved the papacy from Rome to Avignon and became home to seven successive popes. Pope John XXII, the second of the seven, decided to have a summer residence built in the Southern Rhône in the area we still call Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The popes loved great wine and they spent a lot of time and money revitalizing the vineyards of the region. The quality shot up and the wines became world-class once again. Bottles of Châteauneuf-du-Pape still bear the emblem of the papal tiara and key to this day.
The Northern Rhône has the upper hand in terms of prestige. The famed crus of Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, and Cornas are all found here, while St. Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage can offer great value, such as the deliciously fresh Domaine Combier Crozes-Hermitage Laurent Combier. All of the red wines of the Northern Rhône are based on Syrah. In some areas, it can be co-fermented with a little white wine, the most notable example of which occurs in Côte-Rôtie where a splash of Viognier is added to elevate the fragrance of the wine and to help stabilize the wine’s color. Some white wine is produced in the Northern Rhône as well. Condrieu and tiny Château-Grillet are appellations dedicated only to white wines made from Viognier, while Saint-Péray makes still and sparkling wines from Marsanne and Roussanne. Alain Voge makes beautiful examples of both.
Volcanic activity three-hundred million years ago around the Massif Central created the craggy terrain of the Northern Rhône with its super steep slopes. In order to grow vines here, the hillsides require terracing, which must be regularly maintained due to erosion. You’ll find a wide variety of soils throughout, but granite is the rock the region is best known for.
Further inland, the climate is more continental with hot summers and cold winters. The mistral does affect the area, but the shape of the region and its steep hillsides help to shield the vines. The hills have another important role to play. Vines planted on the eastern, southern, and southeastern slopes enjoy excellent exposure to the sun, which allows the grapes to ripen fully and develop their deep flavors and powerful structure.
The Southern Rhône takes the lion’s share when it comes to production. It is a much larger area overall and produces close to 95% of the region’s wines. Where there are 8 AOCs in the north, the Southern Rhône has 23, the most famous of which is Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Gigondas and Vacqueyras are also highly regarded, and there are many others producing wines of excellent value. The Domaine Montirius Vacqueyras Garrigues is one such example and also happens to be biodynamic.
Where the north focuses on just one red and small set of white wines, the south makes blends from a wide set of grapes. The appellations permit different varieties, but there are 27 different grapes (15 red and 12 white) planted in the Southern Rhône. When it comes down to it though, Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre are the star red grapes and form the basis of most blends, typically with Grenache in the lead. From this combination, we get the term “GSM blends.” The wines can vary in style from bold and powerful, to more easy-going in the case of many Côtes du Rhônes.
White wines make up only a small percent of the production, but permitted grapes include Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, Ugni Blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Picpoul, and increasingly Vermentino (known locally as Rolle). The Domaine Richaud Cairanne Blanc is a perfect example, blending several of these grapes. You will also find some rosé wines, and this is actually the entire focus of Tavel AOC. Try the Domaine de la Mordorée La Dame Rousse Tavel for a lovely example. Fortified wines are also made from Grenache and Muscat.
The Southern Rhône is much flatter than the Northern Rhône. It’s arid and enjoys a warm Mediterranean climate, although it also gets the full force of the mistral—you can see the effect on the region’s gnarled old bush vines. You’re likely to encounter lots of garrigue, the typical scrub mix common to southern France of lavender, rosemary, thyme, and other shrubs, which often scent the wines. There are wide areas of rocky terrain made of large, rounded stones called galets—Châteauneuf-du-Pape is famously covered by these rocks. Of course, the region is so large that you will find a variety of other soils throughout.
It’s helpful to know that there is a hierarchy to the Rhône’s appellations.
Côtes du Rhône is the region’s base level AOC, and it covers both the north and the south, although the grand majority comes from the latter.
Côtes du Rhône Villages AOC is the next tier up, coming from villages recognized for producing wines of consistently higher quality.
Then there are the named Côtes du Rhône Villages, from communes that have earned the right to add their name on the label.
Finally, the crus sit at the top of the region’s quality pyramid. There are now 17 in total (with the more recent addition of Cairanne), with 8 in the north and 9 in the south. These include all the famous names we’ve already mentioned like Hermitage and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, as well as others like Rasteau and Lirac that are well worth discovering. There are excellent wines to be found at all levels of the pyramid, especially when you search out quality-conscious producers working through sustainable means.
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