Wine Regions of the Rhone Valley
The Rhone Valley is divided into two ends, the north and the south. The narrow “Northern Rhone” strateches from Vienne (about 30 mins south of Lyon) to Valence, about 75km in total. The “Southern Rhone” is much larger and covers most of the broad ancient riverbed surrounding the ancient city of Avignon.
One of the key climatic influences of the region is the Mistral wind. This is a cold, ferocious wind which blows down from the alps and through the Rhone Valley. It typically blows at 80km/h for about 150 days each year. It can be very destructive, uprooting vines and bending those which survive. However it has a number of benefits for winegrowing - it clears away clouds leaving clear bright skies and abundant sunshine, and it wicks away moisture from the grapes, meaning moisture-loving fungus and rot is not an issue for the region’s farmers. When there are changes in the wind, like a few years ago, it wreaks havoc with the region’s weather and crops suffer as a result.
The Quality Pyramid
There are 4 levels of appellations in the hierarchy of wine quality in the Rhone valley. These are:
- Cotes du Rhone AOC - accounting for 50% of the valley’s production, this entry level generic appellation covers the broadest area.
- Cotes du Rhone Villages AOC - a generic appellation covering wine grown in vineyards around key designated villages in the valley. Can be a blend of many villages, and the villages aren’t named.
- Cotes du Rhone (named) Villages AOC - these wines hail from vineyards surrounding a single village (there are 21 recognised villages). These are higher quality wines.
- The Crus - these are named appellations without the “Cotes du Rhone” prefix. These are the highest quality wines with the most restrictive winemaking practices. There are 8 Crus in the north and 9 in the south.
The Northern Rhone accounts for 4-5% of the wines from the region. It boasts a continental climate, with hot summers, cold winters and rain throughout the year. The most striking feature, and the most critical for wine quality, is the hilly terrain. Steep hillsides rise on the north and west of the Rhone River, with terraced vineyards covering the generally south facing slopes. The aspect helps grapes ripen in what is otherwise a cool region a long way from the equator.
The Northern Rhone Valley is the birthplace of Shiraz (known here as Syrah). Some of the most famous shiraz appellations are here, including Cote-Rotie and Hermitage.
There are 8 Crus in the Northern Rhone Valley.
Translated to the “roasted slope”, Cote Rotie is home to some of the steepest vineyards in all of France, and is one of the most famous Syrah appellations in France (along with Hermitage further south). Syrah is leading grape variety and it thrives on the well draining granite soils as it soaks up the sun on the south-east facing slopes. The steep slopes protect the vineyards from the cold Mistral wind from the north, helping the vines ripen. Viognier is also grown, and the appellation is the birthplace of the Syrah Viognier blend made famous in Australia by Clonakilla. Viognier can be up to 20% of the blend, though most Chateaux use below 5%.
These wines will age gracefully for decades. While young, these wines can be fruity with raspberry and black currant flavours, along with bacon fat, white pepper, smoke, violet and chocolate characteristics. With age, they take on additional flavours of olive tapenade and grilled meats. The Viognier adds floral dimension.
Condrieu and Château Grillet
Condrieu was once the only place you could find Viognier vines, and it’s still regarded as the true home of the variety. A winemaker in the mid-20th century took a liking to the variety and decided to plant it on the steep terraced vineyards on the north bank of the Rhone River. It took decades for the wines to attract the attention they deserve, but now these are some of the more coveted french white wines.
Condrieu wines are exclusively Viognier. The tiny vineyard of Chateau Grillet (it’s own appellation) falls within the bounds of Condrieu, itself not a large appellation with only 110 ha planted.
These rich and luscious white wines are not cheap, but they are something special. You’ll find apricot and honey aromas, with a rich mouthfeel and rich flavours of lime, papaya, tangerine and rich toasted notes of gingerbread and macadamia. The bouquet is sometimes sweet, though the wines are most often dry, and usually with low to moderate acidity and so best drunk young.
A small red wine appellation on the west of the Rhone River appellation, surrounding the town of Cornas and producing the richest and most tannic Syrah in the Northern Rhone. These wines are deep, earthy reds with flavours of chocolate, blackberry jam, black pepper, smoke and charcoal. Most producers recommend a decade of cellaring before approaching their wines, though some more recently are experimenting with modern techniques to deliver wines more approachable in their youth.
The Crozes-Hermitage appellation is the largest in the Northern Rhone. Don’t get it confused with the appellation of Hermitage - the nearby but much smaller and higher quality Syrah appellation. The appellation of Hermitage sits on the hill of Hermitage (more on that later), while Crozes-Hermitage surrounds the hill on 3 sides and is predominantly made up of low-lying sandy soils. The differences in the wines are pronounced. Crozes-Hermitage produces tart, light-to-medium bodied red wines made from Syrah with minor parts Marsanne and Roussanne. You can find good value here from names like Jaboulet and Chapoutier.
Perhaps the most famous Syrah appellation in the world, Hermitage has built a mythical reputation on a single hill overlooking the town of Tain-l’Hermitage on the Rhone valley. In 1224, a weary and injured knight returning from the Albigensian Crusade was granted the right to build a home on the hill. He built a chapel and lived out his days in complete solitude, hence the hill was named ”Hermit’s Hill” or “Ermitage”. There is a small reconstruction of the chapel which sits on the crest of the hill today.
Located on the east of the Rhone River, the south-facing hill enhances the ability of the vines to ripen fruit this far north by increasing sun exposure and shielding the vines from the cold wind from the north. The area’s red wines are revered as one of the world’s best expressions of Syrah, with round and full bodied wines perfectly balancing fruit, spice and tannin. These wines will reward those who can hold them for 5-10 years before opening, but can age far longer. If you can wait that long, you’ll find aromas and layered flavours of blackberry, black currant, licorice, coffee, candied cherry and smoke.
The region also produces whites using Marsanne and Roussanne, though these are much rarer and harder to find. Real estate on the hill is phenomenally expensive, and the reds so revered, that it makes much more sense for winemakers to focus on their red wines.
The wines from Saint-Joseph are some of the best value reds in the Northern Rhone. The appellation of Saint-Joseph covers about 60km of rolling hills on the western bank of the Rhone River. It’s also the largest valley appellation in the North, so quality varies based on aspect and soil quality. Generally, the steeper the vineyard the better the quality.
Like most other appellations in the north, these wines are Syrah dominant red wines with a little Marsanne and Roussanne blended in. They range in flavour from rich and fruity (dark berries and spice) to savoury (think olive tapenade, pepper and grilled meats). These wines are an affordable introduction to the reds of the northern Rhone, and will age well over the medium term.
The appellation also produces white wines made from Marsanne and Roussanne. These are medium bodied wines with flavours of citrus, pear, quince and honey.
This is the second white-only appellation in the north (the other is Condrieu). It produces rich white and sparkling wines from Marsanne and Roussanne. The southernmost appellation in the Northern Rhone, the vineyards are on steep slopes on either side of a deep valley to the west of Valence. Expect still white ranging from clean and refreshing with citrus flavours to rich and round with oak-fermentation characters of quince and butterscotch. Chateaux use the traditional Champenoise method to produce sparkling wines made mostly with Marsanne.
South of the town of Valence, the narrow valley through which the Rhone River flows widens out into a broad flat valley floor. The temperature increases as you go further south, but the Mistral winds keep the grapes cool and allow for fruit ripeness and balancing acidity. The Southern Rhone still grows Syrah, but Grenache takes all the glory. There are 9 Crus in all, with the most well known being Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Welcome to the birthplace of the GSM blend.
Beaumes de Venise
An ancient wine region first planted by the Greeks and home to a famous sweet white wine known as Muscat de Beaumes de Venise. The appellation also produces reds made with Grenache and Syrah. Vineyards are planted on steep terraced hillsides north-east of Avignon at the eastern edge of the Valley.
To the north of Beaumes de Venise, Cairanne is the newest AOC appellation in the Rhone, having been granted AOC status in February 2016. It produces red and rose wines from Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, and white wines from Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Marsanne, Roussanne, Bourboulent and Viognier. Red wines are medium-bodied and structured, and you can find some good value GSM blends here.
One of France’s most famous appellations and the highest quality in the southern Rhone Valley, Châteauneuf-du-Pape translates to “new castle of the pope”. The castle in the commune of Châteauneuf-du-Pape was built during the Avignon Papacy from 1309 to 1376 and was home to a number of Avignon popes, but quickly fell into ruin and was used as a source of stone for the commune after the Papacy returned to Rome.
The famous red blend from Chateauneuf can be made by blending up to 13 different grape varieties. Most are Grenache dominant, and the Grenache/Syrah/Mourvèdre now famous in South Australia was born here. Some chateaux insist on growing all 13 varieties and including all in their red blend, though many would be in very small quantities.
The soils of Chateauneuf are varied, but the most recognisable element are the gallets - river stones ground flat by thousands of years of water flowing over the wide flat Rhone riverbed. When the river receded, it left large patches of land covered in these rocks. They act to trap heat, which they radiate throughout the night to keep the grapes warm and help them ripen. The Mistral wind is also a key winemaking influence here, keeping the grapes dry and free from rot and rot.
With Grenache playing the lead role in these wines, they usually burst with ripe fruit flavours of strawberry, raspberry and plum, dark spices and hearty tannins. With age, these wines take on a dusty leather, game and herbaceous character. The locals call this herbaceousness “garrigue” after the local scrubland grown of lavender, rosemary and sage. These red wines can age gracefully for decades.
About 7% of the wine made in Châteauneuf-du-Pape is Blanc, or white. It’s made by blending the white grapes from the 13 allowed in the region, principally Grenache Bland, Clairette and Roussanne.
Bottles of Chateauneuf are often adorned with a pair of crossed keys, either on the label or, more impressive, in the glass. These keys are the coat of arms of the Avignon Papacy. Only wines which satisfy the rules of the appellation are allowed to show the coat of arms on their bottle.
Gigondas (and Vacqueyras, which you’ll read about below) are two high quality appellations on the eastern side of the valley. These areas produce good quality and great value red blends using the same grape varieties as Chateauneuf. They are usually made for earlier drinking, and show off the region’s summer heat through ripe and luscious Grenache blends with jammy flavours. Perfect for a weeknight when you’re just looking for a really enjoyable wine which won’t break the bank.
On the western banks of the Rhone River just north of Avignon, the Lirac appellation is another great value source of southern Rhone reds. It produces structured and elegant red wines with black fruit, chocolate and berry fruits, as well as refreshing, aromatic whites.
Most famous for it’s sweet Vin Doux, Rasteau is located north east of Avignon near Cairanne and Gigondas. The famous sweet Grenache wine has been produced here for hundreds of years.
Tavel is an ancient winegrowing region, dating back to the Greek period of winemaking in the 5th century BC. The region was a popular holiday destination for popes in the middle ages, and they enjoyed the rose wines produced here so much that they decreed that the region could only produce rosés. The rule still stands, and the region is synonymous with high quality rosé. Expect wines with deep pink hues and lots of red berry and stone fruit flavours.
Named after the Latin for “Valley of the Rocks”, the Vacqueryras lie next to Gigondas. Another great value source of Grenache dominant blends, you’ll find red berry, licorice and pepper flavours in this region’s wines. They are usually lighter in body than Chateauneuf and Gigondas.
A tiny appellation surrounded by vineyards classified as Cotes du Rhone Villages, Vinsobres high altitude produces inky GSM blends with jammy fruit and black cherry flavours and strong tannins.