It’s all about the River
Forming a corridor between the Mediterranean and Northern Europe, the Rhone Valley stretches 813km from the Swiss Alps to the Mediterranean on France’s south coast. The region draws its strength from this powerful river, which shaped the landscape and moulded its character. The wines grown between Vienne and Avignon, between the Massif Central, the Alps and the Mediterranean Sea, draw their strength from the sun and ferocious wind, and from the determination of the region’s many wine-growers to produce high-quality wines while respecting their tradition and their environment. The region is the old-world home of many of the world’s most popular varieties, and wine-lovers can thank the region’s winemakers for famous blends like Grenache/Shiraz/Mourvèdre and Shiraz/Viognier.
A tumultuous beginning
The Massif Central (literally translates to “Central Massive”) is a large granite highland region in central southern France. 300 million years ago, the Massif Central collided with the Alps, creating a huge valley so low it was filled by the Mediterranean sea. Over time, the volcanic activity of the Massif Central produced the granitic soils in the north, which have decomposed over time to the shale soils which drive minerality in the wines of the north. Meanwhile, the ocean deposited hard limestone, marl, sand and rock in the southern end of the valley, which led to a wide, flat riverbed and floodplain when the ocean waters receded. The complex soils of the southern Rhone, including Châteauneuf-du-Pape, were formed in this period.
An Ancient Winegrowing Region
In the fourth century BC, during the Greek colonisation, grapes were grown in Marseille on France’s south coast. In the northern part of the Rhone Valley, wine-growing developed in the first century AD, and the full bodied red wines soon rivalled those of Italy. This period saw the building of the Gallo-Roman villa of Molard, close to the Rhone at Donzère, the most important Roman winery identified to date. Workshops making amphorae developed at around the same time. These earthenware jars were made for ageing and transporting wines, and are making a resurgence in new-world winemaking today.
Archaeological finds from the period, together with historical research, prove that the Rhone vineyards are some of the oldest in the world. The Romans, sailing up the Rhone, founded the town of Vienne and planted vineyards, which soon became famous for their wines. This involved heavy labour, requiring multiple terraces to be built by hand on the steep slopes above the river before vines could be planted, but soon resulted in a flourishing wine trade.
The collapse of the Roman Empire, however, was a severe blow to the development of the industry. Winemakers were suddenly deprived of outlets for its wines, except for the vineyards in the very south supplying the Mediterranean ports, and in the north supplying the city of Lyon. What followed was a long period of very little development, until the middle ages when the church gave fresh impetus to the wine industry.
The Wines of the Popes
In the 14th century, the papacy moved from Rome to Avignon and the popes, great lovers of the local wines, planted extensive vineyards around the city. In all, there were seven Avignon Popes. John XXII had a summer residence built at Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Benedict XII, the third Avignon pope, ordered the building of the Palais des Papes, a large castle within the walls of the city of Avignon.
Later, at the end of the 17th century and for the next 200 years, the port of Roquemaure became a great centre for the shipping of goods by river. “Côste du Rhône” was then the name of an administrative district on the right bank of the river, famous for its wines. Regulations were introduced in 1650 to guarantee their provenance and quality. It was not until the mid-19th century that “Côste du Rhône” became “Côtes du Rhône”, and the term was extended to include the vineyards on the left bank of the river. Their reputation, built up over the centuries, was legally validated in 1936.
The Birth of the AOC
Concerned for the quality of its wines, the Rhone Valley played an active role in the establishment of French wine-industry appellations. In the 1930s, the visionary Baron Le Roy championed the cause. A wine-grower at Châteauneuf-du-Pape, he fought for recognition of the characteristics of this great wine growing region, securing Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée status for it in 1933. The AOC terms he presented became the model for all subsequent AOC decrees: limits of the growing area, grape varieties, local practices, methods of cultivation, minimum alcohol content and prescribed harvesting period.
He also fought for recognition of Côtes du Rhône wines, an ancient, broad appellation which finally received the certification it deserved. Baron le Roy then helped found the INAO (the National Body for Origin and Quality) and presided over the body for 20 years from 1947. The INAO is the body responsible for granting AOC status. Since this time, attaining AOC recognition for their region has been an aspiration for many Rhone Valley winemakers.
The Variability of Vintage
In new-world wine producing countries like Australia, the concept of vintage isn’t front of mind, save when exceptionally poor weather impacts the quality of a vintage. The concept of vintage is much more important to understand when talking about wines from the old world. In areas like France, Spain and Germany and the north of Italy, the weather leads to far more noticeable variations between vintages than in warmer climates in the new-world. The old-world is traditionally colder, and the key determinant of wine quality is fruit ripeness. Ripeness is driven by the warmth in the vineyard. This is why AOC rules often specify a minimum alcohol content, as sugar content (fermented to alcohol) is analogous to fruit ripeness. Cold vintages produce tart wines with higher acidity and tart fruit, where warm vintages produce full bodied fruity wines with strong tannins and balanced acidity.
Climate Change in the Rhone
When we toured the Rhone Valley and talked with winemakers, we were surprised by how many mentioned the effects of climate change on their vineyards and their wines. Multiple winemakers told us they have started to include a higher proportion of high-acid white grapes like bourboulenc in their red blends in an effort to maintain freshness in their wines, as the traditional grapes increasingly show signs of over-ripening in the increasingly warm summers. Others mentioned that their north-facing vineyards, previously viewed as not as valuable as the warmer southerly-facing slopes, are now becoming more critical in their winemaking as they prevent the grapes getting too ripe.
The Rhone is a long-standing wine growing region, having made wine the same way for thousands of years. It’s devastating but inevitable that climate change is going to change how these wines are made. It’s pushing the bounds of viable winemaking land further towards the poles, but hopefully it doesn’t destroy the winemaking tradition of the Rhone.