Regional Showcase: Rhone Valley

Discover the birthplace of Shiraz and the GSM Blend


The Rhone Valley grows a wide range of native grape varieties and is the spiritual home of a few particular grapes, like Viognier, Syrah and Grenache. Read more about these varieties below.


Bourboulenc is a white grape grown widely in southern France. It’s allowed in many appellations, including Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Costieres de Nimes and Tavel, though it rarely makes up more than 20% of the blend. It’s native to the Provence region in Southern France. It’s wines are moderate in alcohol with aromas of citrus and smoke. If grown along the coast it can take on a saline minerality. It’s rarely seen on it’s own.


Cinsault is native to the south of France, where it is grown widely in the Languedoc-Roussillon region. It’s also widely grown in South Africa (where it’s known as Hermitage), Southern Italy (Marrouquin) and Australia (where it’s sometimes called Black Prince).

Cinsault is a parent to the South African red grape Pinotage. Abraham Izak Perold, the first Professor of Viticulture at Stellenbosch University, created Pinotage in 1925 by crossing Pinot Noir with Cinsault, known in the region as Hermitage, and the grape’s name is the combination of the two.

It produces reds which are soft, fruity and aromatic in their youth and are surprisingly long-lived. You’ll rarely see it bottled as a straight varietal wine in the Rhone Valley, instead it plays a minor blending role.


Clairette, whose name means “light wine”, is a white grape and one of the oldest grapes in southern France. It’s grown widely in numerous appellations in the south, including the southern Rhone. Here, it often plays a major role (30-50% of the blend) in white Châteauneuf-du-Pape blends, and minor parts in red blends to add freshness. It’s a straightforward, crisp, easy drinking white wine.


Counoise is a very old variety native to the southern Rhone Valley, where it is a minor but appreciated blending component in red wines, including Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Some of the more prominent producers, including Chateau de Beaucastel, include Counoise in their red wine, where it contributes spice, alcohol and acidity to the blend. It is produced in varietal wines in other parts of the world, but not in France.


Grenache is a red grape native to Spain and grown across much of the wine world. It’s known by various names, including Garnacha (Spain), Cannonau (Sardegna), Granaxia (Italy) and Abundante (Portugal). It is France’s second most planted grape variety after Merlot.

Grenache buds early and ripens late, and so thrives in hot dry climates. It will be likely to maintain its popularity in a world experiencing climate change and increasingly common droughts in wine-growing regions. Regions like Spain, Southern France, warm areas in Italy and South Australia are well suited to producing great quality Grenache.

In the Southern Rhone Valley, Grenache plays the leading role in the region’s famous Grenache/Syrah/Mourvèdre (or GSM) blend. Many of the most famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines use this blend, albeit with varying proportions of each grape.

Grenache tends to produce ripe fruit sweetness in wine, even when the wine is fermented to dry (i.e. no residual sugar). In the dry vineyards of the Southern Rhone Valley it produces high alcohol wines which range from spicy to herby, deeply coloured, with prominent tannins in their youth.


Roussanne is a white grape grown widely throughout the northern and southern Rhone Valley. It produces white wines with refreshing acidity and a perfume reminiscent of herbal tea. It’s more ageworthy than it’s frequent blending partner Marsanne, but is more susceptible to fungal diseases and less productive, so it’s planted much less. It’s most famous wines are full bodied white blends from the appellations of Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Saint-Peray and Saint Joseph. It’s also allowed in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape blend, unlike Marsanne.


Marsanne is a white grape grown in the northern Rhone Valley where it’s produced as varietal wines and also frequently blended with Roussanne and, less frequently, Viognier. It is a key component in white blends in Saint-Peray, Saint-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage and Hermitage. It produces white varietal wines which are deeply coloured, full bodied, low to moderate acidity and with flavours ranging from honey and honeysuckle to pear and almond. High quality Marsanne can age gracefully for the medium term.

While common in the northern Rhone, it was virtually unknown in the 1930s when the appellation rules for Châteauneuf-du-Pape were written and so it excluded from Chateauneuf.


Primarily valued as a blending grape, Mourvèdre is also known as Monastrell (in its native eastern Spain) and Mataro (in Australia, USA and other parts of France). It has been grown in Spain at least as far back as the 1300’s. Throughout Europe, most Mourvèdre is grown within 80km of the Mediterranean sea, where winters are mild and summers are long and hot.

While common in the Rhone Valley, it is more widely planted in Southern France in the regions of Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon, where it’s authorised for several appellation blends.

Mourvèdre frequently has an intense aroma of blackberries. In the Southern Rhone Valley, it plays an important structural role in GSM blends including Châteauneuf-du-Pape, contributing tannin and colour.


While technically allowed in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Cote-du-Rhone and other southern Rhone appellations, Muscardin plays a very minor part. As of 2008 there were less than 20 Hectares planted. Some Chateau pride themselves on including all possible varieties in their blends, and so labels like Clos des Papes, Château de Beaucastel, Font de Michelle and Roger Sabon still have a few vines growing. It’s light in colour and high in acidity, making it a good blending grape for rich and full bodied reds.


Used occasionally to add acidity to the Châteauneuf-du-Pape blend, Picardan is an old and exceedingly rare variety grown in Provence as far back as the 1500’s. As of 2008, there was less than 1 hectare planted in all of France, and it plays a minor role in the region’s wines.


There are three colour mutations of the Picpoul grape - Noir, Blanc and Gris - with the first two still widely planted but the last near extinction. Confusingly, the name Piquepoul has been given to several distinct and unrelated white or red grape varieties under various spellings of the name.

Picpoul Noir and Picpoul Blanc are grown in the Rhone and are permitted as minor blending components in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Picpoul Noir produces pale alcoholic but aromatic wines and is far less planted than the more successful Picpoul Blanc.

Picpoul Blanc produces high acid wines making it an ideal blending component to bring freshness to both red and white blends, and it is also produced in a varietal wine in the eponymous Picpoul di Pinet appellation on the Mediterranean coast (not within the Rhone Valley). These wines have aromas of citrus fruits.


Syrah is the old world name for the grape we know as Shiraz. In the past it has sometimes been known as in Australia as Hermitage (think Penfold’s Hermitage), presumably from the famous appellation in the northern Rhone Valley by the same name.

Native to the Rhone Valley, it is the natural cross of two now obscure varieties - Mondeuse Blanche and Dureza. The archetypical old-world Syrah hails from the northern Rhone Valley appellations of Côte Rôtie and Hermitage.

The exceptionally concentrated, long-lived reds grown on the granite soils of Hermitage represent the most ‘manly’ style of old-world Syrah, varying from one vineyard to another based on the precise soil type and aspect but usually with a glossy texture and luscious but bone-dry fruit. Crozes-Hermitage is a lesser, earlier maturing Syrah appellation situated on the lower slopes around the hill of Hermitage and the plains surrounding it.

The steep, terraced south-east-facing slopes of Côte Rôtie (translated to ‘roasted coast’) represent almost the northern limit of Syrah cultivation and, in part because a small proportion of Viognier is often co-fermented with Syrah, this is old-world Syrah at its purest, most refreshing, lighter and more ‘feminine’.

Syrah is also grown throughout the Saint-Joseph appellation on the western banks of the Rhone between Côte Rôtie and Hermitage, but this large area has too widely varying a landscape for generalisations.

While hot and dry like Australia, the northern Rhone Valley produces Syrah with tertiary characters of olive tapenade and grilled meats, on top of the familiar fruit characteristics common to Australian Shiraz.

Terret Noir

Terret Noir is an old Languedoc variety which is in decline as vineyards are increasingly replanted with more hardy varieties less susceptible to mildew and sunburn. Total plantings in France are now less than 200 ha. It’s technically allowed as a minor blending contributor in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape blend but you’ll rarely see it, and never as a varietal wine.


Vaccarèse is the name for the grape variety Brun Argenté in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It is a very minor, dark skinned grape grown in the southern Rhone and also under the name Camarèse in Chusclan, on the west of the Rhone valley north of Avignon. In Châteauneuf-du-Pape, it’s so rare that it’s only a couple of producers in Chateau-neuf-du-pape, like Chateau de Beaucastel and Domaine du Pegau, who cultivate it and include it in their blends. There are only 12 hectares grown across France in 2008.


Viognier (pronounced “Vee-ohn-yeah” is a bold white wine native to the south of France. It’s notable for its bold aromas of peach, mango, tangerine and honeysuckle, and it’s sometimes enhanced by oak fermentation to add creamy rich textures with hints of vanilla, nutmeg and clove. It’s often light on acidity and so it’s best drunk young or within a few years of harvest. The wines are also often noted to have an oily texture on the palate. Viognier is also sometimes blended into reds in the northern Rhone, but is only allowed in small percentages.

Vines hand low over the old river stones in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The stones absorb heat during the day then radiate that heat overnight to keep the grapes warm.

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