Wines of the Rhône Valley

by Chris Cree

With its location in the sunny south of France and beautiful Mediterranean climate, the Rhône region is well situated to producing wines that range from some of the best values anywhere in the world of wine to some of the most sought after and expensive classics.

The region spans from Vienne, just south of Lyon, for about 200 kilometers south to Avignon, sprawling along the banks of the valley created by the Rhône River. It is composed of two main sectors: the Septentrionale (Northern Rhône) and the Meridional (Southern Rhône), and each of these is broken down into smaller sub-appellations. The South is by far the larger in terms of production, with the North accounting for less than 5% of total Rhône wine production, and overall the Rhône is the second largest wine region in France after Bordeaux.

The north and the south are markedly different from each other in terms of climate, terroir, grapes grown, and wine styles. The Northern Rhône lies at a point where the Mediterranean and continental climate influences converge and is cooler overall. The south is full-on Mediterranean – sunny, dry and warm. The topography is different too, and the north’s vineyards often cling to the steep, rocky, terraced slopes along the narrow river valley. In the south the hills are more rolling, the valley wider. The mix of grapes changes as well, and in the north Syrah is the primary grape for the reds, and Viognier, Roussanne, and Marsanne for the whites.  In the warmer south, Grenache is the workhorse for the Reds, with a host of supporting varieties collectively known as Rhône varietals including Syrah, Mourvèdre and more blended in. The white can be made from a wide range of grapes including Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc, Clairette Blanche, Roussanne and more
The Côtes du Rhône AOC makes up about half the region’s production, the vast majority of which are red although some very good rosé and white wines are made as well. The reds are primarily made from Grenache and Syrah, although a host of grapes is permitted including Cinsault, Mourvèdre, Carignane. They are typically light to medium bodied, fruity with red fruits and spice, versatile, easy to drink and food friendly and generally a great value.

As the wines move up the quality pyramid, the rules and regulations on growing and production become more strict, with lower grape yields allowed and higher minimum alcohol (a measurement of grape sugar levels and ripeness). Next, come the Côtes du Rhône-Villages, similar wines to the above, but from vineyards deemed to have superior conditions and the ability to produce higher quality wines. Also, there are about 20 villages, such as Séguret, that are allowed to be labeled with the name of the village. Many are scenic medieval hill towns with vineyards located on the sloping hills surrounding them, producing reasonably priced wines that are a step up in quality, body, and age-worthiness.

The next step up are the individual Appellations, subregions that produced unique wines based on their specific soils, climate and grape varieties. There are 11 in the south, the most famous of which is Châteauneuf du Pape, made from up to 13 grape varieties that include five white grapes. Grenache makes up the majority of the blend, and most focus on two or three grapes that include Mourvèdre, Syrah in the blends. Grown in soils deposited by the meandering Rhône river over millions of years, they are hearty, full-bodied wines that embody the warm sunny region where they are born. The best can age for several decades, and top cuvees from the best producers can run into the $200-300 range. There is also a small production of Chåteauneuf du Pape Blanc produced, a blend of grapes that can include Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc, Clairette Blanche, Roussanne and more.

Gigondas is another well respected AC in the south, located in the hills of the eastern edge of the region near the jagged peaks of the Dentelles de Montmirail. Similar to Chåteaunuef in grapes composition, it is a perhaps a slightly more rugged, rustic variation on the theme that typically sells for less money, and the top producers are well worth seeking out.

The eight northern appellations are located on both banks of the Rhône. On the western steeply terraced side of the river is Côte Rôtie, producing solid, age-worthy wines such as Guigal’s super expensive La Landonne, La Mouline and La Turque that can start at about $300. Hermitage lies on the right side of the river with world renowned Jean-Louis Chave making one of the most sought after red wines in the world in the steep granite soils of the massive hill above the town of Tain l’Hermitage. His white Hermitage made from Roussanne and Marsanne grapes is equally if not more sought after, and both will set you back hundreds of dollars – if you can find them.

Condrieu and Chåteau Grillet are white wine only appellations on the west bank just south of Côte Rôtie, producing lovely perfumed and aromatic wine from the Viognier grape grown in steep terraced vineyards. Cornas, Saint Joseph on the left bank and Crozes Hermitage on the right are regions that were somewhat sleepy and overlooked but have now come into the spotlight for their exceptional Syrah based reds, as well as a much smaller production of white. They have been traditionally less expensive, but top cuvees from the hottest producers (Voge, Clape, Vincent Paris to name a few) are becoming more costly and very difficult to source.

The wines of the Côtes du Rhône are generally incredibly versatile, food friendly, and for the most part extremely affordable. With a couple of great vintages in the cellar, especially the stunning 2015’s, it is an excellent time to explore the amazing variety of wines from one of the world’s top wines regions –  from everyday affordable to some of the world’s top classics for the cellar – Cheers!

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