Firmly lodged in third place behind Burgundy and Bordeaux in the tier of quality red wine regions in France. Certainly The Rhone Valley is often underestimated. Most importantly it has the soul and terroir focus of Burgundy with the Grand Estates and ability to produce volumes like Bordeaux. But it just doesn’t do either with as much passion and cohesion.
Current thinking is the first plantings were in 600BC. The region now produces 4 million hl of wine per year. Most of it is from large negociants and co-operatives.
The Rhone has two distinct parts: North and South.
Dominated by fine boned, mineral, spicy and savoury Syrah. It has a continental climate with the major influence being the mistral wind which can make or break a vintage depending on when and how it blows. Cote Rotie is the most famous appellation in the north with Hermitage, Saint-Joseph, Cornas and Crozes-Hermitage making excellent wines too. Each appellation has laws which allow the Syrah to be blended (or not) with white varieties Viognier, Marsanne and/or Roussanne.
The best appellations cling to the sides of the hills facing the Rhone River. Many vineyards are terraces and look perilous to work.
Northern Appellations of Note.
Cornas – 100% Syrah and generally earthy, lean, mean, mineral and tough wines when young. They need long aging to show their true charm and quality.
Crozes Hermitage – Not instantly as recognisable or as loved as fellow Northern Rhone appellations like Cote Rotie, Saint Joseph or Hermitage. But as John Livingstone-Learmonth says “terroir is alive and well at Crozes-Hermitage!”. A huge variation in geology as well as grower outlook means the wines are anything from lean, mineral and taut to Barossa style Syrah. There is a handful of fantastic quality wines that rival anything in the Rhone. The next tier down offer great quality and even better value.
Hermitage – The hill of Hermitage may a well be the centre of the world for Shiraz lovers. Sure the Cote Rotie gets more attention. But the dense, dark, brooding and aromatic Shiraz from this hill that slow evolves to become a pretty, lifted, melange of fruits is well worth your time and patience.
Saint-Joseph – The terraced vineyards on the right bank of the Rhone Valley. This appellation is the largest area by land size but second to Crozes in total land under vines. Mostly gutsy reds from Syrah with some Marsanne and/or Roussanne which have a lesser need to age than Hermitage or Cote Rotie. There is also production of charming whites from Marsanne and/or Roussanne.
Cote Rotie – The roasted slope. It is the rockstar region of the Northern Rhone which specialises in Syrah occasionally supported by some Viognier. The traditional wines tend to lean, bony, savoury while the modern wines are ripe, powerful and oaky. Both styles tend to command a high price.
A mélange of whites, rosé and reds. Grenache is the dominant partner here but almost all the wines are blends. The climate is more Mediterranean and the terroirs are far more diverse than the North. Flatter for the most part and the vineyards being in the valleys mean the mistral has a much less marked influence. Chateauneuf du Pape is the most famous appellation allowing up to 15 varieties into the blend. Chateauneuf is close to the town of Avignon famously the residence of the Pope for a time. Gigondas and Lirac are other great red appellations. Tavel is lovely for Rosé and Muscat de Beaumes de Venise makes some lovely sweet wines. The vast majority of the Cotes du Rhone wines come from the south.
Southern Appellations of Note.
Cotes-du-Rhone – The generic appellation of the Rhone Valley. It can produce white, rosé or red wines. They are often blends of a few of the local wines. Quality can range from very low to some that rival the best wines the region. Knowing the good producers is the key to picking a good wine from this appellation.
Ventoux – In the south-east of the Rhone Valley situated on an old volcano is this region which produces whites, reds and roses from the classic Rhone and Languedoc-Roussillon varieties. The great producers make amazing wine but it is home to a lot of easy drinking bulk wine for the most part.
Costieres de Nimes – Part of the Rhone Valley although right on the border with Languedoc and sharing a similar terroir. Mostly reds are Grenache and Shiraz. Whites and Rose are available too. There can be intense wines of amazing value found here.
Cotes du Luberon – The very south-eastern extreme of the Rhone Valley. There is a lot of cheap and cheerful wine here. Reds, white and rose all made with the Rhone/Mediterranean varieties.
Tavel – Situated across the Rhone from Chateauneuf du Pape this is the land of Rose. Perfumed, delicate, mineral, textural. This is the gold standard of rose for the whole world.
Lirac – Often over looked for more well-known neighbours but for one tenth the price Lirac is often a good substitute for Chateauneuf. Lirac wines often don’t have the stuffing for long aging like some of its cousins but makes up for it in drink now appeal and value.
Gigondas – A personal favourite of mine. The very best wines have the denisty and power for Chateauneuf without the price tag, A maximum of 80% Grenache with a minimum of 15% being a combination of Syrah and Mourvedre. They can also have up to 10% of the other Cote du Rhone reds. Some rose is made here too.
Chateauneuf du Pape – The house of the New Pope. Where Grenache transcends its tendency towards mediocrity and because a noble variety. The reds can be a blend of up to 15 varieties with the main three being Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvedre. Some estates use all 15, some use as little as one. With a range of terriors and blending options it is hard to pin down CNDP to one style, so find a producer you like and find out their conspirators. The ability to age here is the same as great Burgundy or Bordeaux. The whites, like the reds, have potential as outstanding wines but definitely on the expensive side.
Muscat de Beaumes de Venise – A sweet, fortified wine in the southern Rhone. This is a famous wine for its freshness and beauty.
Major Rhone Varieties
There are 21 allowed grapes across reds and whites. Grenache is the most planted with Syrah and Mourvèdre second and third.
Grenache/Garnacha – Spain’s gift to the world. We know it as Grenache and I think everyone has a soft spot for it in some way. Almost too exuberant in expressing its sweet red fruits and high alcohol, it often needs a little bit of other wines to add moderation, structure and depth. Much like Abbott and Costello. Despite this the wines of Priorat, Chateauneuf du Pape, Rioja and Aussie GSMs have an amazing ability to age for the long-term.
Shiraz/Syrah – A bit of a chameleon, Shiraz can change how it looks depending on terroir and/or wine maker influence. The Syrah based wines of Northern Rhone are dry and austere while the Shiraz of Barossa is rich and fleshy. A variety that lends itself to long aging but is drinkable at any time of its evolution.
Mataro – Also known as Mourvedre in France and Monastrell in Spain. It is known for making a muscular, tannic, meaty, savoury wine. It is often the backbone of a blend but in places like Alicante, Jumilla and Yecla it is the major, if not only variety in the red wine. Aging can vary depending on winemaker influence.
Cinsault – An important supporting grape in a lot of wines from Southern France. It can tolerate the heat but really needs a dry climate to avoid disease. Makes strong black wines that lack a bit of charm without the help of other varieties. It can really turn it on for textural rosé, especially when an aromatic variety is blended in.
Carignan – AKA Mazuelo, Cariñena and Samsó. This is a French variety that is often used as a bit player in a blend, generally it involves Grenache. Its late ripening can be problematic or a good insurance policy. In a blend it brings dark colour, high acid and tannin.
Viognier – The flamboyantly aromatic white grape that calls Condrieu in the Rhone Valley home. Its apricot kernel, viscous nature and floral lift make for quite an intense white. However it also adds perfume, fixes colour and generally beautifies lean and boney Shiraz in the Rhone and around the world.
Marsanne – A white Rhone Valley variety that offers honeysuckle, florals and a streak of acid. It can be the backbone of a blend that adds its charming characters with age.
Roussanne – One of the grapes, along with Marsanne, that add texture, structure and sobriety to the Rhone Valley’s ostentatious Viognier. Without their flamboyant partner the wines tend to be rich, understated but very well-balanced. In the right hands there is amazing perfume and fruit to be coaxed out.