Rhone Valley

Vallée du rhône

The Rhone Valley

One of the oldest wine regions of France, the Rhone valley is home to some of France's most legendary wine appellations. After the Roman Empire fell, the wines and vineyards were largely forgotten, until their renaissance during the 14th century 'Avignon Papacy', and today their reputation has matured.

It is the region of two c...

Vallée du rhône

The Rhone Valley

One of the oldest wine regions of France, the Rhone valley is home to some of France's most legendary wine appellations. After the Roman Empire fell, the wines and vineyards were largely forgotten, until their renaissance during the 14th century 'Avignon Papacy', and today their reputation has matured.

It is the region of two climates! Continental and Mediterranean, or, simply, north and south. These climatically different areas produce very different wines. Lovers of elegant, but still powerful wines should travel north, whereas admirers of fuller bodied, strong wines will prefer the south.

Syrah, Grenache noir, Carignan and Mourvédre dominate the red grape varieties, and Viognier, Roussanne Clairette and Marsanne the white.
The terroir here also plays a key role in creating such exceptional wines. The soils are pretty light, composed of granite and slate with certain variations, from sandy granite soil to chalky, and again to iron-sand.

Continental Rhone

The Rhone River flows south, down from the Alps and through the city of Lyon. The vineyards of the Rhone Valley follow the river from the town of Vienne, in a very narrow band, mostly on the right bank, down to Valence. This is the northern part of the region, and some of the most prestigious wines are produced here. Although situated south, the altitude if the terraced vineyards is significant enough to cool the vines during the summer evenings. This means that there are white grape varieties that produce unique wines, such as Viognier, that are both powerful and refreshing. The altitude is also exposed to the minstrel summer wind, which is helpful for drying the vineyards if it rains. Yet the great deal of sunshine per year here does allow many red grapes, especially Syrah, to reach advanced ripeness.

Côte Rôtie

The “roasted coast” is at the tip of the region and the river here is often more of a rapid. Viticulture, on the steep terraced vineyards, can only be done by hand, ensuring top quality grapes. This appellation is in direct competition with Hermitage as to who produces the best Syrah wines in the world. It is one of Frances’ oldest wine districts, as vineyards here were first planted by the Romans. Legend has it that a Medieval Count Maugiron split his estate between his two daughters, one brunette the other blond, giving the names to the Côte Brune (brunette) and Côte Blonde. Wines from the Côte Brune tend to require longer to reach drinking maturity but can age for decades.

Condrieu and Château Grillé

These two appellations are directly south of Côte Rôtie, and both exclusively make white wines, produced from Granite-terroir Viognier. Viticulture here is also only practised by hand, and wines are extremely powerful, rich, very well balanced, age really well and are best drunk 3 to 4 years after bottling. The 3.5 hectare appellation of Château Grillé was for a long period the smallest appellation in France, and only one winery exists: Château Grillé.

Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage

Stemming from the French word for hermit: ermite, the hill of Hermitage is the oldest wine producing zone in northern Rhone. It was around 120-100 BC when Roman settlers first cultivated vineyards on the steep slopes around the town. But the name is given thanks to an old crusader, Gaspard de Sterimberg, who, whilst full of remorse from the Holy land, stopped on his homeward journey and settled here as a hermit. Some claim that the Syrah was brought here from Crusaders travelling back from Persia, although no historical evidence can prove this. Red Hermitage is complex, deep and has long tannins. These tannins often mean the wine required 4 to 5 years after bottling before drinking and the acidity allows long aging potential. The 130 hectares of the appellation are divided into 4 areas, three for Syrah: Les Bessards, Le Méal, and Les Greffieux, and 1 for white-producing Marsanne and Roussanne: Les Murets. Vineyards around the north, west and south of the hill are part of the Crozes-Hermitage appellation, which produce slightly lighter versions of red and white wines from the same grapes. 

Cornas and Saint Péray

At only 70 hectares, with only red wines from Syrah, Cornas is a pretty small appellation, but thanks to the south facing hillsides, some of the wines produced here have great finesse. In Saint-Péray, only white wines from Marsanne and Roussanne are made, and although quite complex and rich, they are unable to match the powerfulness of their northern counterparts.

St Joseph

This appellation is nested in-between Château Grillé and Cornas, and stretches over only 50kms. Syrah here is often blended with Marsanne and Roussanne for reds, and the latter two are used for whites. Recent years have seen these wines improve greatly, thanks to winegrowers re-cultivating the abandoned slope terroir, which gives the wines more richness and complexity.

Mediterranean Rhone

The landscape in southern Rhone changes a great deal and the vineyards stretch out up to Provence in the east and Languedoc in the west. The vines are warmed by the Mediterranean breeze and surrounded by lavender fields, olive trees, thyme and rosemary. The Roman aqueduct of Pont du Gard, the Papal Palace of Avignon, are just two of the historic monuments that remind us of the richness of history here. The wines, of course, change drastically compared to northern Rhone, and the volume of wine increases radically. A Mediterranean climate replaces the cooler continental climate, providing longer hotter summers, and the soils are richer in chalk. Syrah is replaced by Grenache as king of the red grapes, and a host of other grape varieties are added to those used in northern Rhone: Cinsault, Muscardin, Grenache-blanc, Picpoul, Terret Noir, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Muscat Blanc à Petit Grains, etc…

Châteauneuf-du-Pape

One of the heavyweights of French wine, and not just in terms of reputation. Deep, long, powerful, complex, elegant, tannic, just a few adjectives to describe the wine from this appellation. Back in 1309 the Papal residence in Rome was transferred to Avignon, after a conflict between Rome and the French crown, and Châteauneuf du Pape castle (The Popes’ New-Castle) was built north of Avignon. Vineyards were planted around it and today there are just over 3000 hectares of vines on soils dominated by large round pebbles that reflect heat back onto grape bunches during the evening. No less than 13 grape varieties are permitted for these wines, yet the majority of them are red wines with a dominance of Grenache.

Lirac and Tavel

Once the favourite wine of many a Pope, only Rosé wine is produced in Tavel, and generally they are deep and dry wines with enough structure to class them as gastronomical Rosés. Lirac, is also heavily dominated by Rosé wine production, yet some white and reds are also made. Both appellations are allowed a number of grape varieties, but it’s Grenache that takes top spot.

Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise and Rasteau

Both known for their Vins Doux Naturels VDN, otherwise known as fortified wines. Port and Sherry are made the same way with distilled-wine added to the wine during fermentation once the alcohol level is at 5%. This stops the process and creates sweet wines with a higher alcohol degree. Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise is made mainly with Muscat-Blanc-à-Petit-Grains, although Muscat-Rouge-à-Petit-Grains is also allowed. Not to be mixed-up with the Loire Valleys Muscadet, both Muscats are very aromatic grapes that make extremely fruity and floral wines. Red fortified wines made from Grenache are produced in Rasteau, and dry reds from here were once classed as Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages before the appellation became one of the Cru appellations of the region, as is Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Gigondas and Vacqueras

Just like Rasteau, these two appellations were once part of the Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages. The wines produced here tend to have a lot more structure and are heavier than the other Villages wines, so it was naturel to separate them. Gigondas is unique as the vines are on the slopes of the Dentelles de Montmirail, a small chain of mountains between Provence and Rhone, with a dominance of chalk in the soil. Vacqueras is at the foot of these small mountains and whereas Gigondas consists of red wine mainly from Grenache, Syrah and Mourvédre, Vacqueras is more similar to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, with over 10 types of grapes that are blended to make reds and whites.

Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages

The generic appellation of this region is Côtes-du-Rhône. There are however some areas that deserved a slightly different distinction thanks to the quality of wines produced. These areas, surrounding a village, often have specific soil types or climates, and today there are currently 18 villages that produce, mainly red, Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages. Once again, Grenache is the dominant grape.

Clairette de Die

In-between north and south Rhone, isolated like an island is the appellation of Clairette de Die. Clairette is the common name given to the grape variety that is used here, along with Muscat-Blanc-à-Petit-Grains, to make ancestral method sparkling wines. This method produces fruitier wines with a lower alcohol content of 7-9 degrees.

Other Appellations.

Other areas in the Rhone valley produce red, white and rosés that can often surprise you for their value-for-money. Coteaux de Tricastin, Luberon, Ventoux, Costières-de-Nîmes, Grignan-des-Adhemar, Duché d’Uzès and Côtes-du-Vivarais mainly produce reds that can be light or full-bodied from either blended grapes or a single grape type, and in Clairette de Bellegarde only white wines are made, exclusively from Clairette.

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