Winemaking in the Rhône Valley started with the Greeks 2,500 years ago. However, it was the Romans that put Rhône on the wine map. As a result of Pope Clement V moving his headquarters from Rome up to Avignon in 1309. This became quintessential for winemaking in the area as the Churches appetite for wine in religious ceremonies spurred a rapid growth in viticulture and winemaking.
Today, wines from the Rhône Valley maintain their renown both from the Northern sub-region, including the reds from Côte Rôtie and whites from Condrieu. As well as reds and whites from the Southern sub-regions, among those Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It's also important not to forget what some refer to as “the king of rosé”, Tavel, also from the Southern sub-region.
The two sub-regions of the Rhône have very different climates. In the North the weather is continental with harsh winters and hot summers interrupted by the cooling mistral winds from the Massif Central highlands to the West. In the South the climate is Mediterranean with milder winters and hot summers. The diverse terroirs set the stage for a wide choice of wines from the Rhône Valley(s).
Côte-Rôtie translates to “roasted slope” and that phrase sets the stage for wines from this northern sub-region of the Rhône valley. Running northwards from just south of Valance to Vienne, 30 km south of Lyon.
Summers are warm and the sun generously hits the vineyards on rocky hills. This helps to produce fully ripe grapes and tannic, concentrated wines that develops for many years in the bottle. It is in the Northern Rhône that you find some of France’s most renowned appellations.
In the North it is Syrah among the red grapes that reign supreme. Often, white Viognier is blended into the Syrah with up to 10-20% to add freshness to the wine.
Appellations and styles in Northern Rhône
Beyond Côte-Rôtie, other famous red appellations include Saint-Joseph, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage and Cornas, with Condrieu and Saint-Péray being the stars of the white wines.
The best reds are packed with flavours of raspberry, black currant, violet, chocolate, liquorice and coffee along with savoury notes of olive, bacon fat, white and black peppers, as well as smoke. They are bold and yet – when crafted well – precise with fine-grained tannins.
The best white is often thought to be found in Condreiu, the home of Viognier. If you are looking for high-end Viognier with lush stone-fruit flavours this may be the best place for you to start exploring. If bright acidic whites – while also elegant and aromatic – Rousanne from Saint-Péray could well be your thing.
Also, in Saint-Péray you can find richer and more oily whites made on the Marsanne grape – or why not bring it all together in some of the world’s most elegant white blends from Hermitage and around.
In the North soils are mostly granite and mica on steep slopes causing much erosion and requiring the construction of terraces in vineyards. It really is quite a master piece and probably only Mosel could challenge them for harsh vineyard conditions.
Southern Rhône is separated from the North by a 30-40 km stretch of no wine – at least no vineyards – with winemaking conditions changing rapidly along the way.
Southern Rhône is flatter, summers hotter and winters less harsh – the reason being that Southern Rhône does not receive cool winds of the Mistral from Massif Central.
Southern Rhône is the mother of GSM – the blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre which is famed for its complex red fruit flavours, freshness when young and darker, smoother, toastier mouthfuls when aged.
Appellations and styles in Southern Rhône
The most well-known appellations and wines from Southern Rhône hail of course from Châteauneuf-du-Pape meaning “The Pope’s New Crib”, giving testament to the role of religion as well as the Pope relocating the Catholic church’s headquarters from Rome to Avignon in 1309.
In Châteauneuf-du-Pape Grenache Noir is the leading grape, with the remaining being a mix (mostly) of Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault, with a splash of white (mainly from Clairette, Grenache Blanc and Rousanne) for freshness.
A similar receipt is used for the making of the well-known Gigondas – requiring at least 80% Grenache Noir, and to some extent Vacqueyras, though in Vacqueyras Grenache Noir play a less important role, with the appellation demanding just 50% Grenache Noir in the blend.
Well-made GSMs wines are soft, with spiced berry flavours and a round mouthfeel – with the Grenache Noir providing strawberry, black cherry and herbs, and the Syrah and Mourvedre adding red and dark fruit as well as pepper (Syrah) and meat (Mourvedre).
On the not to miss list from Southern Rhône are the great rosés of Tavel. Compared to most other rosé, those from Tavel have deeper red colours, resulting from Grenache Noir’s thicker skins. Thicker skin gives more colour to the clear juice during winemaking than thin skinned grapes do.
Think for example Pinot Noir in rosé Champagne and Merlot in many Provence rosé – both Pinot and Merlot have rather thin skins, giving less colour. When tasting a great Tavel you will be met with red-currants, rose and minerality wrapped up in a bottle of balance and refreshing acidity.
It is separated into two regions, rather closely connected but displaying a great variety of hallmark white and red wines.What are the most popular grape varieties in Rhône?
Red: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre – together GSM. White: Viognier, Marsanne and Rousanne.What types of food works well with wines from Rhône?
White pairs well with rich and creamy sea foods, grilled vegetables, white meats. Reds for savoury grilled and meat based – Boeuf Béarnaise!