France’s Rhône valley produces some of the world’s most sumptuous wines, both white and red. In fact the Rhône wine region comprises two discrete vineyard areas whose landscapes, soils, climates and even grapes vary significantly, resulting in distinctly different wine styles. The northern Rhône’s reputation is founded on the holy trinity of appellations contrôlées Condrieu, Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie. The exotic, perfumed white Viognier grape and dark, peppery Syrah hold court here, while in the hot, sunny south, generous-hearted Grenache reigns supreme in wines brimming with baked damson fruit and warm spice. Solo or blended with Syrah, Mourvèdre and other local grapes, Grenache reaches its apogee in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.read more
The Rhône valley and its wines – history and geography
Wine has been made in France’s Rhône valley since Roman times and viticultural tradition is strong across the entire Rhône region. The Rhône valley is effectively two separate wine regions – the northern Rhône and the southern Rhône – each with their own distinct geography, climate, soils and of course wine styles. The northern Rhône wine region lies between the towns of Vienne and Valence. The meandering valley is narrow and steep-sided here, forging its path through granite hills, and vines compete for space with oak forests and peach orchards. The focus here is on the production of fine quality grapes yielded in tiny quantities from high, sun-exposed terraced vineyards tended by hand. The southern Rhône is quite different and much more expansive, a provençale idyll with its gently rolling hills carpeted with olive groves and vineyards, luminous sunlight and scents of wild thyme. At the heart of the southern Rhône just beyond the Roman town of Orange lies the famous wine village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the popes’ summer residence when the papacy was based in Avignon in the 1300s. Clearly, the popes knew where to go for proper refreshment, and the wines of Châteauneuf have since achieved worldwide renown. The vineyards of the southern Rhône stretch out in all directions from Avignon, south-west beyond Nîmes towards the Languedoc, east into the Vaucluse département, to the slopes of the mighty Mont Ventoux and the Lubéron.
Rhône valley wines – key styles and wines
While the Rhône wine region is often associated with fruity Côtes du Rhône reds, there are many different wine styles available, from everyday-drinking vin de pays to complex appellation contrôlée wines. While the northern Rhône produces primarily ‘fine wine’ in small quantities given the limited vineyard area, the southern Rhône is more expansive, giving wines of greater quantity and at many different levels of quality and price. Other than still red and white wines, the Rhône offers rosé, sparkling and fortified wines too.
The Rhône valley – red wines
For everyday drinking, the Rhône has many reasonably-priced vin de pays and minor appellation contrôlée wines to offer red wine lovers, particularly from the southern Rhône, such as the Vin de Pays du Gard or Côtes de Ventoux. Côtes du Rhône, the Rhône’s catch-all appellation contrôlée style, are typically decent juicy-fruit red wines, but as these are produced by a huge number of growers from over 40,000 hectares of vineyards, quality and style differ significantly. Côtes du Rhône-Villages tend to be slightly better quality wines with more depth and structure, if there is a village after the name – such as Cairanne, Vinsobres or Saint-Maurice – quality is likely to be even better. It pays to know the grower and we are very pleased with our herby, plum-rich Côtes du Rhône from Vignobles Gonnet, made from grapes grown just outside the official boundaries of Châteauneuf-du-Pape .
For those wanting to experience some of the world’s most impressive wines, look no further than the Rhône valley. The northern Rhône boasts two of the world’s most renowned, rare and expensive red wines; Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage. Côte-Rôtie means ‘roasted slope’ in French, and its 200 hectares of vineyards are planted on vertiginous slopes high above the river Rhône near the village of Ampuis. Made from the Syrah grape, sometimes with a dash of white Viognier thrown in to soften the blend, Côte-Rôtie can give lovely, perfumed wines with rich yet savoury fruit and elegant structure. Further south, the wines of Hermitage are rarer still, with just 131 hectares planted! 100% Syrah , dark, brooding Hermitage is typically more powerful than Côte-Rôtie and considered by many to be the quintessential northern Rhône red wine.
Three other good northern Rhône Syrah appellations are Saint-Joseph, Cornas and Crozes-Hermitage. Saint-Joseph stretches from Condrieu down the west bank of the Rhône, producing similar wines to Côte-Rôtie but lighter. Cornas is closer to Hermitage in geography and style with its dark, rich fruit and muscular structure, though today some growers make fruitier, more accessible styles. Crozes-Hermitage comes from 1,200ha of vineyards in the rolling landscape behind the Hermitage hill. Styles and quality can vary considerably from approachable fruity styles to richer, more densely-structured wines. For a taste of the class of the northern Rhône’s great wines at a far more approachable price, look out for wines labelled Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes: often made by top growers from vineyards that fall just outside appellation boundaries, these can be a real find.
The southern Rhône ’s star appellation is Châteauneuf-du-Pape, covering over 3,000 hectares of vines. While Grenache is the lead grape variety, Châteauneuf can be made from up to thirteen different grapes, though typically Grenache will dominate, with Syrah and Mourvèdre in tow. The best Châteauneufs are rich, deeply satisfying wines, packed with baked damson fruit, spicy liquorice and dried herbs. The southern Rhône also boasts a number of other high quality appellations, particularly those north-east of Châteauneuf, such as the well-priced Gigondas and Vacqueyras , which show dark, ripe fruit, spice and good structure.
The Rhône valley - white wines
The Rhône valley does not make much white wine at all, but when it does the results can be stunning. While there is little cheap white wine (though some Côtes du Rhône or Lubéron made from Viognier and Marsanne can be delicious), the Rhône’s best white wines are often made from small, hand-tended vineyards in risibly low quantities which can therefore be expensive. The most celebrated white wine of the Rhône valley is made from the perfumed white Viognier grape in the tiny northern Rhône appellation of Condrieu, whose hillside vineyards and most talented growers can bring this notoriously fickle grape teetering to the brink of the sublime. The best Condrieu are heady with jasmine scent, smooth textured and weighty with succulent white peach flavours, yet elegant too. Viognier is sometimes fermented in oak barrels to enhance structure and aromatics, though this must be carefully managed to avoid overpowering Viognier’s natural charms. Viognier is also the grape of Château Grillet, a single domaine with its own appellation and über-aristocratic status, however while the site has great potential, Condrieu , though expensive, currently offers better value for money.
Marsanne and Roussanne are the Rhône’s other principal white grapes, giving textured wines with attractive honeysuckle aromas and citrus/stone fruit flavours from northern Rhône appellations Hermitage, Saint-Joseph and Saint-Péray, while Roussanne is joined by Grenache Blanc, Clairette and other local grapes in southern Rhône’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc. While Hermitage is the rarest, finest and most ageworthy, with floral aromas developing nutty depth with time, Châteauneuf blanc is best appreciated young, when its honeysuckle scent, citrus-peel flavours and creamy, almond notes are to the fore.
The Rhône valley – in a nutshell
The Rhône valley is essentially two wine regions, the northern and southern Rhône, with contrasting geographies, climates and wine styles.
Côtes du Rhône vineyards account for over half those in the entire Rhône valley.
Hermitage, Côte Rôtie, Condrieu and Châteauneuf-du-Pape are among the world’s most prized wines.
The northern Rhône’s wines represent only 5% of the Rhône’s entire production.
The Rhône valley makes delicious pink wines, the best of which comes from Tavel , the only appellation legally bound to make only rosé wines.
The Rhône valley produces attractive sparkling white wines from Saint-Péray (made from Marsanne and Roussanne grapes), Clairette de Die and Crémant de Die (from Muscat grapes). Two famous fortified wines called vins doux naturels are made in the southern Rhône, the white Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise (from Muscat grapes) and red Rasteau (from Grenache ).
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