Rhône Valley Wine Region Guide

From Secret Sips to Global Glamour: Discover the Rhône Valley's Wine Legacy

EXPLORE ALL OUR GUIDES TO FRANCE'S WINE REGIONS

Last updated: January 21, 2024

Introduction

The Rhône Valley wine region was once the secret of France, where a select few fell in love with these powerful, elegant, and exotic fine wines. How times change: these agreeable yet profound expressions of local terroir now boast a fan club stretching from Tokyo to Manhattan. Indeed, the established and increasing number of Rhône blue chips are some of the world’s most exciting and expensive bottles. Today, Côte Rôtie and Hermitage lead the pack in quality and prestige. Yet this is merely the tip of a gigantic iceberg: a wealth of good value wine is made here, too, and two-thirds of all wine made throughout the Rhône Valley is generic AC.

Meanwhile, Rhône Blanc goes from strength to strength, whether you’re drinking in the heady scent of Viognier at Condrieu or marveling at the renaissance of Grenache Blanc and Bourboulenc in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. A good volume of excellent rosé is made here, too – perfumed, concentrated, and innately food-friendly. Throw in a surfeit of hilltop villages, superlative gastronomy, and mesmerizing landscapes into the pot, and the Rhône will have you captivated for life.

Winemaking and regional classifications

Terraced Vineyards Above the Village of Condrieu
Terraced Vineyards Above the Village of Condrieu

If the Loire Valley provides delicious, soft, and thirst-quenching summer wines, then the Rhône Valley is the king of winter drinking. Yet the cepage (and wine style) will vary significantly depending on the appellation and terroir. Thus, there is no such thing as a “typical Rhône wine.”

The noble Syrah grape, however, is the linchpin of every bottle of red produced in the northern Rhône. In several appellations, a certain percentage of white varieties are also permitted in the blend; many growers believe that Viognier and Marsanne/Roussanne add perfume and finesse to their cuvées, albeit some producers reject this practice. Indeed, there is little consensus on the subject of winemaking in the northern Rhône Valley. Certain houses will prioritize freshness and elegance in their wines: this paradigm typically involves picking relatively early in the season and incorporating a certain percentage of stalks in the tank. The wine is often fermented in oak vats or concrete, resulting in a textbook example of Rhône Syrah: a vibrant, medium-bodied red with firm (but ripe) tannins and good acidity. The traditionalists eschew maturation in new barrique but regard it as almost sacrilegious. Of course, the legendary house of Guigal would strongly disagree: its top single-vineyard wines have long been aged in 100% new oak. As always, personal preference is the final arbiter – there is no right or wrong approach to making Rhône Syrah.

Condrieu and Hermitage Blanc producers utilize Viognier (100%) and Marsanne/Roussanne blends to create one of France’s most underrated wine styles. These complex and aromatically expressive whites can rival Grand Cru Burgundy in their depth and structure; after years of apathy, consumers are now starting to appreciate them, and exports are growing. Many of the best examples are carefully vinified in stainless steel at low temperatures, with a reasonable amount of new wood used to enhance texture and mouthfeel. Meanwhile, the best of Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc dazzles with its exotic fruit profile and beautiful ripe acidity.

Of course, any discussion about that venerable appellation must focus on Grenache Noir. This once-maligned grape provides the backbone to the critical mass of reds produced in the southern Rhône, not least in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas. And, like its blending partner Syrah, it will be handled in various ways. Philosophies and approaches run the whole gamut, from entire bunch fermentation to partial/complete destem, from cool vinification in stainless steel to a very warm maceration in ancient wooden vats. You’ll also encounter the same arguments about new oak versus no new oak, but we suspect you’ve heard them before!

Rhône Valley Wine region Map

Rhône Valley Wine Map
Download Rhône Valley Wine region Map

Geography and terroir

Vineyards of Chateauneuf-du-Pape
Vineyards of Chateauneuf-du-Pape

Ensnaring the Rhône River on its 813 km-long journey from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean, the Rhône Valley is one of France’s most spectacular vineyards. The action occurs in the Rhône-Alpes département in southeastern France, bordered by Switzerland to the east and Provence to the south. The wider region has long been divided into the northern and southern Rhône – winemaking philosophies, terroirs, climate, and grape varieties vary significantly. Indeed, the topography of the northern and southern parts could not be more different. The northern Rhône stretches south down the narrow valley of its namesake river, from the town of Vienne in the north to Valence in the south. It enjoys a continental climate, with cold winters and warm summers.

However, the geographical boundaries of the southern Rhône are far more expansive: the vignoble begins just south of Montelimar and extends all the way to Avignon. The climate is fiercely Mediterranean – mild winters and long periods of drought are standard in the 21st century. This can occasionally lead to hydric stress in the summer months. Fortunately, the vines are cooled by the famous Mistral winds from the northwest, which helps to maintain freshness in this torrid climate. But as a rule, generalizations about the Rhône are best avoided. It is far more useful to consider each region and appellation case-by-case basis.

The lowdown

Good, bad, or indifferent, every wine lover has an opinion about the Rhône Valley. It is a region that stimulates debate, investment, and excitement worldwide despite the vineyard’s chequered history as playing second fiddle to Bordeaux. Throw the odd scandal into the mix, not to mention a fierce debate about the value of single vineyards versus blending (and the old chestnut about new oak versus ancient barrels), and the international critic community is hooked.

This is, after all, Europe’s fabled land of superlative Syrah and seductive Viognier, with Grenache now also earning the respect it deserves. Of course, this trio are found outside of the Rhône, yet few winemakers – or indeed appellations – really do them justice. We defy anyone to claim that other regions can rival the finesse and unsurpassed elegance of Côte-Rôtie or the voluptuous energy of Condrieu. The best of the Rhône Valley is genuinely inimitable despite the ubiquity of Syrah in Australia and Grenache Noir in the south of France. Yet, as winemakers will eagerly tell you, you cannot clone authenticity and terroir.

However, you could practically smell the ignominy in the mid-20th century. We tend to forget that consumers were once very sniffy about the Rhone, viewing it as a passable alternative to Bordeaux if the Saint-Emilion barrel had run dry. This prejudice, moreover, was not entirely unfounded: rustic winemaking and lazy viticulture were the twin diseases of the post-Second World War environment, with capital in short supply. But armed with gargantuan ambition and a surfeit of charm, men like Marcel Guigal managed to turn it all around.

Their goals were to:

  • Promote the Rhone as a source of super-premium wine.
  • Dispel the myth that all Rhone is red.
  • Engineer a realignment toward sustainable wine growing.
  • Conquer emerging markets across the world.

Have they succeeded? Mais oui – retail stores and wine lists now showcase this captivating destination’s glorious diversity. The Rhone has every base covered and every price point mapped out. Potent concoctions of Grenache Blanc and Marsanne, Syrah/Viognier blends, and the reliable brilliance of top-notch Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It’s all yours for the taking.

Rhône Valley gastronomy

Visitors to the Rhône marvel at the wealth of culinary options available, from the boisterous bouchons of Lyon to the sedate bistros of Vienne. Suffice it to say, we cannot possibly do every eventuality justice here. Nevertheless, most gastronomes will prioritize the restaurants of Lyon during their trip, and with good reason! France’s third city is a veritable temple de gastronomie, whether you’re slurping oysters at the market or salivating for hours over a 12-course Michelin showpiece. Some of the most popular – and robust – local specialties include andouillette (sausage made from pig’s intestines) and the more prosaic blanquette de veau – mushroom, cream, and white-wine veal casserole. Gastronomes eat your heart out.

A Gastronomic Guide to the Rhône Valley Cuisine: Read more

History

Pont Saint-Bénezet, Avigon
Pont Saint-Bénezet, Avigon

Situated at the crossroads to central Europe and the Atlantic, the Rhineland, and the Mediterranean, the Rhône Valley has played a pivotal role in European affairs for centuries. Remnants of this glorious past are everywhere, including the Gallo-Roman ruins at Vienne (now famous for its jazz festival). Yet this corner of France was inhabited long before the Romans arrived in the last century BC. The Celts, Greeks, Ligurians, and Moors have all passed through here, while commercial, industrial, and banking powerhouse Lyon has been a historical focal point since it was founded in 43 BC. Functioning as a military colony in the Western Roman Empire, this part of France was known as the Three Gauls during the reign of Emperor Augustus. A passionate wine lover, Augustus encouraged vineyard proliferation in the great land expanse between Lyon and Montelimar. Some of the most spectacular terraces were planted in the Roman era, including the legendary climat (vineyard site) of Tain l’Hermitage.

However, Rome faltered in the 5th century AD as rival powers continually undermined its authority, staging incursions into key territories across Europe. History records AD 476 as the day it all collapsed – what followed is often referred to as the ‘Dark Ages.’ It was a time of much bloodshed and upheaval: the Burgundians laid siege to the city of Vienne in 438, although it was retaken by Frankish knights in the 6th century. At this point, the Franks had become the dominant power in Gaul (France), united by Clovis I after his coronation in Reims cathedral. They enjoyed a series of great military triumphs over the Visigoths and Alemanni, while the Moors were eventually pushed back into the Iberian Peninsula. Unfortunately, relatively little is known about the fate of winegrowing during this period, although we can assume it was probably not a significant priority. We do know, however, that jurisdiction for the northern Rhône was handed to Comte Boso of Provence in the 9th century, one of Charles the Bald’s more questionable decisions. Nevertheless, the region became part of the Holy Roman Empire in 1032, as the papacy allied with Charlemagne to create the world’s most successful polity.

During the late Middle Ages, the church took an active role in managing vineyards across the Rhône. Internal schisms in the 1300s forced the papacy to relocate to Avignon from Rome, leading to the most resplendent period in the area’s history. Pope Clement V and his successor built lavish palaces and other architectural wonders and dramatically improved viticulture and winemaking in the wider region. Meanwhile, Lyon became one of Europe’s foremost publishing centers in the 15th century, with several hundred resident printers contributing to the region’s economic prowess. Three centuries later, the city’s influential silk weavers – 40% of Lyon’s total workforce – transformed what had already been a textile center into the silk capital of Europe. At the same time, the wines of Côte Rôtie, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Hermitage, and Condrieu benefited from improved transport links and a burgeoning market for high-quality wines in northern Europe. The Rhône Valley had never experienced such renown and prosperity.

However, the phylloxera epidemic of the late 1800s devastated countless vineyards in the Rhône Valley, causing financial ruin for many growers. This poisonous louse, accidentally imported from the US, could not be killed with any known insecticide or treatment available at the time. The only solution was to regraft European vines onto American rootstock – a major replanting program was initiated in the early 20th century. Yet the great recession and two World Wars led to a catastrophic decline across Rhône Valley, and many vines were pulled up.

Its renaissance occurred in the late 1900s: an increasingly globalized market created new opportunities for premium French wines that could offer heritage and a sense of place. The great Marcel Guigal (and others) seized their moment – the Rhône’s key appellations were presented as rivals to the Cru Classe wines of Bordeaux. Success, investment, and glory soon followed.

Author

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James lawrence

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