The Rhône Valley wine region was once the hidden secret of France, where a select few fell in love with these powerful, elegant, and exotic fine wines. Not today, however, the top vineyards of the Rhône are producing increasingly widely distributed wines of world-class. The established and increasing number of Rhône premium wines are some of the most exciting and expensive wines in the world! Plenty of good value wine is made here too, two-thirds of all wine made throughout the Rhône Valley is generic AC. Generally, in red wine country, a small amount of powerfully scented and rich white wines are made. There is something for everyone in this most beautiful and fascinating wine region.
The Northern Rhône
The Rhône valley region is divided between the Northern and Southern Rhône, where the corresponding wines are quite different in style. The northern and southern parts are very different geographically. The Northern Rhône stretches south down the narrow valley of the River Rhône, from the town of Vienne in the north to Valence in the south. Côte-Rôtie is the first significant appellation we come across; some of the finest, finesse-driven wines of the Rhône are made here. Syrah is the main grape; often, a little Viognier is blended in with the Syrah, which gives the wines a beautiful soft fragrance and texture. Syrah has a distinct peppery character and warmth; red berry fruits and spice are often found on the nose. The vineyards of Côte-Rôtie lie on extremely steep terraces, not an easy place to grow grapes. Those poor pickers! There are 200 hectares under vine, with several superior sites or crus identified. The best wines come from the center of the appellation. In great years, these wines are quite sublime, elegant soft reds that develop great complexity as they age.
Immediately south of Côte-Rôtie, the vineyards of Condrieu continue on the western bank of the river. The soils here are composed of granite and sandstone rather than schist, as is the case further north—perfect conditions for that uniquely perfumed, white variety Viognier. Widely planted further afield, from the Languedoc to Australia, the variety has recently enjoyed a renaissance with wine drinkers. It is not an easy grape to grow, but the best examples from the region are stunningly aromatic, vibrant wines.
The most extensive appellation in the north is Saint-Joseph. It encompasses the southern part of Condrieu and runs right down the western bank of the river to the borders of Cornas, just to the north of Valence. The reds are produced again from Syrah, while the whites are a blend of Marsanne and Roussanne. The best wines come from the gravel-based soils close to the river. Further south, we arrive at the great hill of Hermitage and its wines, dark, brooding, and powerful, perhaps define the essence of classic Northern Rhône reds. There are many fewer producers here than at Côte-Rôtie and a mere 131 hectares of vineyards. The hill is split up into seven different crus with varying soil types. The Syrah is joined by whites based on Marsanne and some Roussanne again; the best examples can live a long time. Hermitage is a wine that needs time, as young examples often are quite closed; it needs at least 6-8 years to show its hand.
Surrounding the hill of Hermitage are the vineyards of Crozes-Hermitage. The same grapes are used, but the vineyard area is much larger and encompasses over 1200 hectares of vines. The best are very good and considerably less expensive than Hermitage. To the south end and on the west bank of the river opposite Valenceare is the appellation of Cornas, which borders southern Saint-Joseph, and immediately to its south Saint-Péray. Cornas is a dense, powerful Syrah. It has more in common with Hermitage than Côte-Rôtie. A wide range of styles is produced, from the traditional, lightly oaked wines to the modern style, seasoned with new oak barrels. At their finest, these are dark fruited, intense, and extremely long-lived expressions of Syrah.
The Southern Rhône
While the North meanders down a narrow river valley, giving it its unique environment, the Southern Rhône covers a much greater area and is extensively planted with vines. The north’s total vineyard area is less than 2,700 hectares, whereas the whole region’s total is over 75,000 hectares. The climate is significantly warmer in the south; Grenache is the main variety to be found here. The most famous region in the south is Châteauneuf-du-Pape. This is a sizeable appellation with over 3000 hectares of vineyards. The main grape of Châteauneuf is Grenache, but there are 13 permitted varieties in the red blend, a number of them white. Syrah and Mourvèdre are also significant in lending structure and grip. The soils are varied, with clay, gravel, and stone all playing a role. The best Châteauneuf is a rich, heady, and exotic wine that lends itself to aging. The best will easily continue to improve for a decade or more. The white can be good, floral, and nutty, in general, designed for early drinking.
Côtes du Rhône is the largest appellation in the Rhône valley. 16 villages can append their names after the appellation name. Among these are Cairanne, Rasteau, Sablet, and Venise. This is the best place to find value in the Rhône region, as the better wines express vibrant, complex fruit and subtle herbal flavors. Outside of these 16 villages, there are several thousand hectares of vines producing good straight Côtes du Rhône-Villages. Several good wines under both this appellation and the humble Côtes du Rhône label are now being produced. There are also two regional specialties, which have their own appellations. Muscat de Beaumes de Venise is a floral, grapey fortified Muscat. Rasteau is a fortified, sweet red wine produced from Grenache that can develop fascinating notes of burnt toast and caramel as it ages.
To the west of Châteauneuf-du-Pape are the appellations of Lirac and Tavel. The latter is for rose only, Lirac for both rose and, of greater importance, Grenache-based reds planted in the limestone-rich soils. Towards the outer extremities of the Rhône are four other appellations. To the north of the Côtes du Rhône Villages sector, west and east of the river Rhône, are the Cotes du Vivairs and the Coteaux du Tricastin. To the south in the Vaucluse are the Cotes du Ventoux’s vineyards, where considerable progress has been made in the last few years. Immediately south again, on the borders of Provence, is the Côtes du Luberon. Some exciting reds and whites are beginning to emerge here in addition to decent wines from the Vins De Pays classification in the Northern and Southern Rhône.
If the Loire Valley provides us with delicious, soft, and first quenching summer wines, then the Rhône valley is the King of winter drinking. Intense, heady, and rich reds perfect for those cold evenings. What could be better than rich game served with Gigondas, with a Muscat to finish? Not forgetting the rich aromatic whites to start the evening. For those who love stunning scenery, beautiful historic towns, and wines at their fullest and richest, well then, you have come to the right place!