The Rhone Valley, has always been the natural route between the Mediterranean and northern Europe. This wine region in Southern France produces numerous wines know for their ability to age.
The Rhone is one of France’s most important wine regions. The Rhone Wine Region is divided into two separate zones. The north, the most prestigious is home to the appellations of Condrieu, Côte Rôtie, St. Joseph, Hermitage, and Crozes-Hermitage. Syrah is king with the exception of the Condrieu and Hermitage, which make big whites from Marsanne and Roussanne.
The South is a much larger region. In the villages of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, and Rasteau, Syrah is blended with Grenache, Mourvedre, Cinsaut, and a host of obscure varieties such as Muscardin, Vaccarese, Terret and Counoise, to produce full-bodied reds overflowing with energy.
Forty million years ago, the Alps were pushed upwards, causing the valley separating the two massive rock mountains to collapse. The Alpine Gulf created in this way was filled by the Mediterranean, which gradually deposited a base layer of hard limestone and calcareous clay. Later as the sea receded lowering the level of the Mediterranean, the Rhone began digging itself a deeper bed, creating fluvial terraces on either side of the valley and mixing the different elements in the hillside soils: sands, clay containing flinty pebbles.
Today, the valley’s soils consists of four different types of rock: granite, sandy silica, limestone and clay. The bedrock plays an essential role in the way in which the growing vines are supplied with water, determining the varied aromas and flavours of Rhone wines.
The Rhône is generally divided into two sub-regions with distinct vinicultural traditions, the Northern Rhône and the Southern Rhône. The northern sub-region produces red wines from the Syrah grape, sometimes blended with white wine grapes, and white wines from Marsanne, Roussane and Viognier grapes. The southern sub-region produces an array of red, white and rosé wines, often blends of several grapes such as in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
The first cultivated vines in the region were probably planted around 600 BC. The origins of the two most important grape varieties in the northern Rhone (Syrah and Viognier) are subject to speculation. Some say the Greeks were responsible for bringing the Syrah grape from the Persian city of Shiraz. Others say the grape came 50 years later when Greeks fled from the Persian king Cyrus I. Yet others say the grape came from the Sicilian city of Syracuse, whence circa 280 AD the Romans brought it and the Viognier grape.
Fact: Extensive DNA typing and viticultural research has led scientists to conclude that Syrah originated in the Rhône region itself.
Regardless of origin, when the Romans disappeared so too did interest in the wine of the region. Rhône reappeared in the 13th century when the Popes and their considerable purchasing power moved to Avignon, at which time the production of wine expanded greatly. The wines were traded to such a degree that the Duke of Burgundy banned import and export of non-Burgundian wines. In 1446 the city of Dijon forbade all wines from Lyon, Tournon and Vienne, arguing that they were “très petit et pauvres vins” – very small and miserable wines.
The name Côtes du Rhône comes from public administration in the 16th century and was a name of a district in the Gard depardement. In 1737 the King decreed that all casks destined for resale should be branded C.D.R. Those were the wines from the area around Tavel, Roquemure, Lirac and Chusclan.
Rhone wines derive their style, richness and originality from the diversity of the region’s grape varieties.
The northern Rhône is characterised by a continental climate with harsh winters but warm summers. Its climate is influenced by the mistral wind, which brings colder air from the Massif Central. Northern Rhône is therefore cooler than southern Rhône, which means that the mix of planted grape varieties and wine styles are slightly different.
Syrah is the only red grape variety permitted in red AOC wines from this sub-region. The grape, which is believed to have originated in or close to the Rhône region, is also widely known as Shiraz, its name in Australia and much of the English-speaking world, and has recently become very popular with consumers around the world. For wines bearing the Cornas AOC designation, Syrah must be used exclusively, whereas other reds from the northern Rhône sub-region may be blended with white wine grapes, either Viognier or Marsanne and Roussanne, depending on the appellation. However, while this is allowed by the AOC rules, blending with white grapes is widely practiced only for Côte-Rôtie.
Viognier by itself is used for white wines from Condrieu and Château-Grillet. Marsanne and Roussanne are in turn used for the whites from Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, Saint Joseph, and Saint Péray.
From north to south the appellations in the northern Rhône are:
Côte-Rôtie AOC – reds of Syrah and up to 20% Viognier.
Condrieu AOC – whites of Viognier only.
Château-Grillet AOC – whites of Viognier.
Saint-Joseph AOC – reds of Syrah and up to 10% Marsanne and Roussanne; whites of only Marsanne and Roussanne.
Crozes-Hermitage AOC – reds of Syrah and up to 15% Marsanne and Roussanne; whites of only Marsanne and Roussanne.
Hermitage AOC – reds of Syrah and up to 15% Marsanne and Roussanne; whites of only Marsanne and Roussanne.
Cornas AOC – reds of Syrah only.
Saint-Péray AOC – sparkling and still whites of only Marsanne and Roussanne.
Northern Rhône reds are often identified by their signature aromas of green olive and smoky bacon.
The southern Rhône sub-region has a more Mediterranean climate with milder winters and hot summers. Drought can be a problem in the area, but limited irrigation is permitted. The differing terroirs, together with the rugged landscape which partly protects the valleys from the Mistral, produce microclimates which give rise to a wide diversity of wines.
A feature of the cultivation of the region is the use of large pebbles around the bases of the vines to absorb the heat of the sun during the day to keep the vines warm at night when, due to the cloudless skies, there is often a significant drop in temperature.
The southern Rhône’s most famous red wine is Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a blend containing up to 19 varieties of wine grapes. Gigondas AOC, on the other hand, is predominantly made from Grenache noir has a more restricted set of permitted grapes. Depending on the specific AOC rules, grapes blended into southern Rhône reds may include Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan and Cinsault. The reds from the left bank are full bodied, rich in tannins while young, and are characterized by their aromas of prune, undergrowth, chocolate and ripe black fruit. The right bank reds are slightly lighter and fruitier.
In Southern Rhone, the climate ranges between continental and Mediterranean, mild winters and hot summers. Unlike in Northern Rhone, they’re not very well protected from the mistral winds, although after the vines suffer they’re often cooled down which allows for a higher acidity, as well as an intensity in flavor due to the ice the wind produces. The growers place stones throughout the vineyards at the base of the vines to capture the heat of the sun during the day to keep the plants warm through the cooler nights.
Southern Rhône appellations:
Côtes du Vivarais AOC
Côtes du Rhône AOC
Côtes du Rhône Villages AOC
Côtes du Rhône Villages
Coteaux du Tricastin AOC
Beaumes de Venise AOC
Muscat de Beaumes de Venise AOC
White wines from the southern Rhône sub-region, such as in Châteauneuf-du-Pape whites, are also typically blends of several wine grapes. Since about 1998 Viognier is increasingly being used and is also appearing as a single varietal.
Côtes du Rhône covers both the northern and southern sub-regions of Rhône.
Typically it is only used if the wine does not qualify for an appellation that can command a higher price. Therefore, almost all Côtes du Rhône AOC is produced in southern Rhône, since the northern sub-region is covered by well-known appellations and also is much smaller in terms of total vineyard surface. This is the most commonly known, produced, and distributed appellation of the region. Produce from vineyards surrounding certain villages including Cairanne and others may be labeled Côtes du Rhône-Villages AOC.
Red Côtes du Rhône is usually dominated by Grenache.