Rhône Valley Wine Guide: One of the Most Historic Wine Regions in France

Rhone Valley Wine Region

Both cultural and natural history have combined to make the Southern Rhône Valley wine region one of the most fascinating regions of France. Viticulture as we know it arrived in the south of France with the Phoenicians in the 4th century BC, but it was the Romans who established the vineyards and reputation of the area using the Rhône Valley wine region as their highway through France.

While they were establishing trade routes along the river, the Romans also planted a few vineyards as they went, and today the banks of the Rhône River are lined with vines.

The Rhône Valley, situated between Provence and the Languedoc, stretches 125 miles from Vienne to Avignon. The northern vineyards, known simply as the Northern Rhône, include Côte Rôtie and Hermitage. In the south, grapes ripen more fully, and therefore the alcohol content of the wine is high. The southern vineyards produce Côtes du Rhône, including Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines, which are strong in alcohol and taste and dark in colour. Though technically Côtes du Rhône wines can be from vineyards anywhere along the river, 80% are blended from grapes in southern vineyards. Syrah, with its smoky, blackberry flavour, is the great grape of the Rhône Valley wine region.

South of France Wine Map

As the Rhône River progresses southward, the valley widens and the climate changes. The Rhone Valley wine region is distinctly more ‘Provençal’ with a Mediterranean influence in culture and climate. The summers are long and warm, and the winters are mild; rainfall is less than in the north and the famous Mistral Wind is a major factor. Another unique characteristic of these wines are the nuances of Garrigue – the wild resinous herbs that cover the landscape.

Soils and grape varieties are diverse. The vineyards produce mainly reds; big, sturdy and beefy, that are perfumed and often magnificent. Designed for ageing, they need a long time to mature. The whites also have a distinctive vigour of their own. The rosé from Tavel is probably the best known of all rosé wines.

While cooperatives and merchants are important, many of the Rhone Valley wine region’s best wines are produced on small, family-run estates. For centuries, Rhône reds were used to improve the appearance and colour of wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy.

Wine experts - river Garonne cruises

The basic appellation here is the Côtes du Rhône, a generic term for the red, white and rosé wines produced in the Rhône Valley wine region encompassing almost 56,400ha (140,000 acres), making it France’s second biggest wine region after Bordeaux. The Cotes du Rhone AOC accounts for about two thirds of Rhone Valley wine production.

Within this there is a wide variation of quality and style. Sandy soils are mixed with ex-alpine limestone or Mediterranean deposits and sunny slopes with cooler areas. Some Côte du Rhone wines are extremely ordinary, but even this portmanteau appellation has its treasures. Full bodied reds dominate, but the luscious whites and thirst-quenching rosés are well worth seeking out.

The Roman legions knew about the great wines from Gigondas. With its hot climate, abundant sunshine and the Dentelle Mountains to protect vineyards from the Mistral, the predominately red wines from the area are full, earthy and aromatic are dominated by the Grenache grape.

Named after the Latin for “Valley of the Rocks”, the Vacqueryras lie next to Gigondas. The wines are Grenache dominant with aromas of small red fruits and violets that age into notes of liquorice, pepper and spice.

Higher altitudes and variety of soil types in Vinsobres result in red wines that are dark and inky with black cherry, jammy fruit and lots of tannin. Only reds are produced here, from Grenache and Syrah or Mourvedre.

This is another ancient region, settled by the Greeks and home to the famous sweet white wine “Muscat de Beaumes de Venise”. The vineyards are planted on steep hillsides that are terraced with man-made walls of local river rocks called ‘restanque’.

Another Rhone Valley wine region famous for its sweet ‘Vin Doux’, Rasteau has been producing its famous Grenache-based fortified wine for hundreds of years.

Low rainfall and plentiful sun have made the region of Lirac a prime vineyard area for two thousand years. This is where the term “Cote du Rhone’ was first marked on barrels for export – a guarantee of authenticity still used today.

Lirac produces wines that are aromatic, structured and elegant with black fruit, truffle and cocoa notes in the reds, deep berry red fruits in the Rosés and fresh, aromatic whites.

Located just south of Lirac, Tavel’s vineyards date back to the Greek era in the 5th Century BC. The most famous rosé in France, it was a favourite of both Louis XIV and Honoré de Balzac. This bronze-coloured wine is the only rosé that improves with age. Good Tavel is fragrant and fruity, rich and peppery, full-bodied and bone dry.

Burgundy Wine Autumn Vineyards

During the middle ages, the south of France was a popular holiday retreat for the Popes and they loved the refreshing rosé wines that came from this region – so much so that they decreed that nothing else should be produced. To this day, Tavel is synonymous with Rosé. In fact they have dubbed themselves “Le Roi des Rosés” – “The King of Rosés”.

The vineyards are planted with nine varieties in three distinct soil types:

Sharp, flat slabs of limestone called Vestide; pebbly soils called Vallongue; and Olivet, a mixture of sand and stone.

Each contributes its own influence to the wines, creating Rosé with a deep pink hue, lots of red fruits, berry and stone fruit flavours.

The most famous of the AOC’s of the Rhône Valley wine region is Châteauneuf-du-Pape. This was the very first AOC to be recognized when the system was instituted in 1936. Its name comes from a fascinating period in Catholic history when the Pope moved from Rome to Avignon.

The vineyards are planted with 14 varietals (18 if you count the variations) at four levels of altitude as the land rises from the Rhone River. Fortunately, of these 18 there are just 3 varietals that define the style – GSM. These are Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre and they hold the secret to Côtes du Rhône wine. France, however, isn’t the only place making GSM ‘Rhône blend’ wines. You can find them in California (particularly Paso Robles), South Australia and even Spain.

The majority of Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines include Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Counoise, Muscardin, Terret Noir, Vaccarèse, Piquepoul Noir, Roussan, Picardin, Bourboulenc, Piquepoul Blanc & Gris, Grenache Blanc & Gris and Clairette Blanche & Rosé grapes – a véritable cocktail.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape is from the Rhône Valley wine region

The soils are varied with the largely recognised, rolled river stone or “Galets’ left behind millennia ago by the ancient glaciers.

Over 90% of Côtes du Rhône wines are warm, rich, fruity reds made primarily from the Grenache grape. They are generally thick and robust with aromas of spicy dark fruits balanced with acidity and minerality.

Whites make up just 6% of production. They speak of the warm southern climate – honeysuckle, stone fruits and melon, backed with refreshing minerality.

Producers are entitled to blend a minimum of 13 of the authorized and controlled grape varieties. Some grapes are optional; some are compulsory.

The Côte Rôtie, a series of “roasted slopes” with its hills bathed in sun, produces a warm, robust, full-bodied, richly coloured, red wine with complex berry flavours and a smoky note. Harsh and dark purple when they are young, these wines become softer and develop an excellent bouquet with age, browning slightly in colour. Syrah is one of the two grape varieties that dominate the Rhone Valley wine production. Wines of Côte Rôtie are often considered the best Côtes du Rhône.

Famous Rhône Valley wine

The wines of Condrieu are the best white wines in the Rhône Valley wine region. Made wholly from the Viognier grape variety, they are dry and full-bodied, with a perfume of peach blossom, apricots and violets. The area also makes some late-harvest sweet wines from “noble rot” grapes and is home to the smallest appellation of France, Château Grillet.

Crozes-Hermitage is a large appellation — almost 2500 acres across 11 villages north and south of Tain-l’Hermitage. Ninety percent of the wines are full-bodied reds, made mainly from Syrah grapes.

Hermitage wines can be powerful tannic reds or full-bodied herb and peach-scented whites. Richly tannic Syrah grapes are the only grapes used for the complex, long-lived, inky-black reds of the area. However, wines are often made from a blend of grapes selected from several sites. They are packed with flavours of raspberries, blackberries, pepper and smoke. Aging gives them a gamey complexity. Rhone Valley wine has been produced here since before 71 AD, when Pliny made note of them.

Lirac is made from a combination of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault grapes, producing a medium- to full-bodied, smooth and spicy, rich and peppery red wine.

St-Joseph wines range from basic Côtes du Rhône to wines that are close to Hermitage in character. They are generally soft, fruity and medium-bodied. Less intense than Hermitage, these blackberry reds are ready for drinking relatively early.

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