The Rhône Valley is home to some of the best wine, not just in France, but the world. Côtes du Rhône may seem an omnipresent feature in the UK wine market today. However, Rhône Valley wines, which have been a staple of French cafés for centuries, have only really garnered international acclaim in relatively recent history.
This is not to say that Rhône Valley wine is the new kid on the block. In fact, Etruscans introduced wine to the Rhône Valley in around 500 BC. Then, the Romans came. Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder even described the Rhône Valley wines as excellent way back in the 1st century AD, (MacNeil 236).
The tie that binds the Rhône Valley wine region together is the Rhône River. In fact, the Rhône Valley wine region is composed of two disparate areas – the Northern and Southern Rhône. Another key link is the presence of Le Mistral, (a famously harsh wind in the South of France), which is known to batter the vineyards of the Rhône Valley.
The Rhône river begins life in the Swiss Alps. From here, it passes down through the Jura Mountains. Next, it takes a deep southern turn just after the city of Lyon. It follows this winding course until it eventually spills out into the Mediterranean.
It is this area between Lyon and the Mediterranean ocean that makes up the Rhône Valley wine region.
The North-South Divide
As we mentioned, this North-South Divide defines the Rhône Valley wine region in a tangible sense.
Broadly speaking, the Northern Rhône is smaller, cooler, built on ancient soil, in impractical steep vineyards. The best vineyards are set in hand-built stone walls. This is due to the ancient and loose granite and slate soil. These walls are the only things preventing this soil from tumbling down the hills, ripping the old vines with them. Despite the walls, this still occasionally happens. In these instances, vintners gather the soil in buckets and replant it at the top. This exhibits the winemakers commitment to producing high-quality Rhône Valley wine.
It is also more prestigious. Appellations such as Côtes-Rôtie and Hermitage often command huge price tags, with Hermitage actually being France’s most costly wine of the 18th and 19th century, (MacNeil 242).
In contrast to this, the South occupies a much larger area and is undoubtedly still produces some outstanding wines. Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Côtes du Rhône and Tavel are a few examples of this. The Southern Rhône Valley wine region is also hotter than the North, due to the proximity to the Mediterranean. It also tends to have vineyards spread out over flatter ground, further away from the Rhône river.
Now, let’s look at some key appellations in the world of Rhône Valley wine.
Northern Rhône Appellations
The name of this Rhône Valley wine appellation translates to ‘roasted hillside’. This is certainly accurate as some of the sun-baked slopes are at a 60 degree incline! The appellation produces purely red wine, from Syrah grapes.
Côtes-Rôtie is actually the story of two main hills. The main slopes in Côtes-Rôtie are Côtes Brune and Côtes Blonde. Supposedly, these were named after the daughters of a former aristocratic lord of the region, (one brunette and one blonde). Côtes Brune is more powerful and tannic. Côtes Blonde is more elegant and racy. While it’s more than likely that this is apocryphal, it can be a helpful tool for remembering the two key plots in this region, (MacNeil 239).
Hermitage & Crozes-Hermitage
This is another historical region, which has been fetching princely sums for several hundred years. Thankfully now, great examples of this appellation can be found that won’t break the bank. A testament to the quality of this region comes from the fact that Bordeaux wines used to be ‘Hermitaged’. This meant that Hermitage Rhône Valley wines were added to Bordeaux blends, (even First Growths), to secretly improve the quality, (MacNeil 242).
Crozes-Hermitage is larger and less acclaimed than Hermitage, with most of the vineyards being planted on flat terrain. This is in contrast to the hills and Hermitage.
However, both make similar styles of wine. They’re primarily Syrah. Both allow for small amounts of the white grapes Marsanne and Roussanne but rarely choose to. Indeed, Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage Blanc are rare wines, made from these two white grapes.
Another appellation to look out for in terms of Northern Rhône Valley wines is Condrieu. Condrieu is a small region, which sits at the corner Rhône river. This is how this particular Rhône Valley wine region found its name. Coin de Ruisseau translates to ‘corner of the brook’ in French, (MacNeil 241). Although, it distinguishes itself by being the largest white wine region in the Rhône Valley wine region.
Condrieu wines are 100% Viognier. They are strong, aromatic wines with bundles of stone, tropical and citrus fruit flavours. While they are often remarkable quality, there is a relatively small amount of French Viognier produced each year. Less than 300 acres exist in the Rhône Valley wine region.
Southern Rhône Appellations
Now, we move onto the southern Rhône Valley wines. There is no better place to start than Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The region, which translates to ‘Pope’s New Castle’ stems from its proximity to the city of Avignon. Avignon was home to the Pope in the 14th century.
This may be the region which is most well-recognised and respected in the world of southern Rhône Valley wine. It is productive as well. The 8000 acres which make up this region produces more wine than the whole of the Northern Rhône Valley wine region, (MacNeil 251).
Unlike Northern Rhône Valley wines, Châteauneuf-du-Pape only came into its own after the 1970s. Before that, the majority of the harvest was sold to Burgundy to bolster the alcohol content of those wines, (MacNeil 251-252).
Now, quality-minded producers harness the smooth rocky soil to produce deep and earthy reds. While Syrah still plays a role here, Grenache is the most prominent grape in Southern Rhône Valley wines. Be sure to keep an eye out for Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc as well. This is produced in much smaller quantities but this white wine, (which is generally a blend of Grenache Blanc, Clairette and Bourboulenc), is rich, full-bodied and buttery.
A somewhat tangential point, which still points to the care and attention taken by these diligent winemakers, is the 1954 Municipal Decree. If you’ve ever wondered if French farmers weren’t making sure that sufficient guidelines and laws were in place to protect their vineyards, the 1954 Municipal Decree will help to clear that up. It reads: “Article 1. — The overflight, the landing and the takeoff of aircraft known as flying saucers or flying cigars, whatever their nationality is, are prohibited on the territory of the community.”.
That’s right! In the midst of a boon in UFO sightings and hysteria they were quick to make sure no aliens were going to come and take their vines. Nothing is getting past these lot.
Côtes Du Rhône
This appellation will be what most people associate with Rhône Valley wines. Indeed, Côtes du Rhône makes up 70% of all Rhône Valley wine production. However, much of it is considered ‘table wine’. That is not to say bad, but instead they are considered everyday drinking and approachable wines, more than long term ageing potential and high price tags. This is part of the reason that Côtes du Rhône is often a staple on the menus of French cafés.
While this view of Côtes du Rhône as table wines could be considered true, there are nuances to it. A further denomination within Côtes du Rhône is Côtes du Rhône Villages. These wines are generally an indication that the wine is more intense and complex than a Côtes du Rhône. Around 20% of all the vineyards in Côtes du Rhône Villages are considered a superior quality, (MacNeil 257).
Another Southern Rhône Valley wine region to look out for is Tavel. In terms of location, it is less than 10 miles from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, just across the Rhône river. Many may turn to Provence when they think of French Rosé. However, Tavel is a fantastic alternative.
What’s interesting about this region as well is that it only produces Rosé wine. You can’t find red or white wine here. All grapes are used to create this unique and enticing Rosé. These wines are generally lead by Grenache but there are 9 Rhône grapes in total which can be used in this Rhône Valley wine. The colour can vary anywhere from pretty Salmon pink to a deep colour, that almost resembles Vimto.
The Grapes of Rhône Valley Wine
Next, we can move on to the grapes that make these great Rhône Valley wines. You may have picked up on a few key grapes already. Syrah typically makes up all Northern Rhône Valley red wines. Whereas, Grenache leads the Southern Rhône Valley wines.
By law, across the Rhône Valley wine region, 27 different grape varieties can be used, (MacNeil 236). In actuality, only a handful are only ever utilised.
Beyond Syrah and Grenache, the following red wine grapes most often found in Rhône Valley wines are Carignan, Cinsault and Mourvèdre.
Similarly, for white wines, there are a number of options. Yet, almost all white wine will be made using the following: Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, Clairette, Bourboulenc and Viogner.
The key factor behind Rhône Valley wine is not just the grape variety, but rather the method of production that is used with the grapes. The vast majority of Rhône Valley wines are made through blending. Single varietal wines are somewhat a rarity. Instead, winemakers opt to blend a number of different grape varieties in their wine. This seeks to maintain consistency across vintages, while also further adding complexity and intensity.
If you’ve got a craving for some Rhône Valley wine, then we have a recommendation for you! Try Willi’s Wine Bar – Paris.
Willi’s Wine Bar were somewhat trendsetters, bringing high-quality Rhône Valley wine to Paris, long before it was as fashionable as it is now. The Côte-Rôtie and Gigondas offerings on the ‘By the Glass’ menu were outstanding. Options then extend on for many pages with the ‘By the Bottle’ options. There will no doubt be something for even the most particular patron.
If you’re looking to learn more about this wonderful establishment, then you can read our full review here.
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MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. 2nd ed., Workman Publishing, 2015.
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