The Rhône Valley has been a hub of wine culture since ancient times and is just as popular today. Come explore this superb region and learn why:
“There’s no place like Rhône.”
Viticulture as we know it arrived in Southern France with the Greeks in the 4th century BC. But it was the Romans who really established the vineyards and reputation of the area using the Rhône as their highway through France (and planting a few vineyards along the way).
Wine Quality Levels in Côtes du Rhône
The wines of the Rhône Valley are divided into four levels:
Côtes du Rhône AOC
Accounting for 50% of the valley’s production, this is the ‘entry level’ classification. Most are red blends based on Grenache or Syrah and the vineyards are planted on a variety of different soils. Production rules are not as strict as other levels but wines must have a minimum of 11% alc. and be made from the 21 sanctioned grape varieties.
These wines are easy drinking, food loving wines that are perfect for everyday. The white blends and rosés are equally delicious too, even if a little harder to find.
Côtes du Rhône Villages AOC
The next step up the wine ‘pyramid’, the village wines are a bit more complex with lower yields and slightly higher alcohol. These wines are great for aging.
Côtes du Rhône (named) Villages AOC
Keep an eye out for labels bearing one of the eighteen villages that are allowed to declare their names. In no particular order:
- Massif d’Uchaux
- Plan de Dieu
These eighteen distinctive regions – 8 in the north and 10 in the south – truly express their individual ‘terroir’ and are responsible for a miniscule 20% of the Rhône’s production.
- Beaumes des Venise AOC
- Gigondas AOC
- Châteauneuf-du-Pape AOC
- Lirac AOC
- Tavel AOC
- Rasteau AOC (changed in 2009)
- Vacqueyras AOC
- Cornas AOC
- Condrieu AOC
- Château-Grillet AOC
- Côte-Rôtie AOC
- Crozes-Hermitage AOC
- Hermitage AOC
- Saint-Joseph AOC
- Saint Péray AOC
- Diois AOC
What the Rhône Valley Region is Like
The Rhône Valley was created during the last ice age as the Rhône Glacier carved its way south through what is now France. Today, the Rhône River begins in the Alps and meanders for 505 miles to the Mediterranean Sea.
The vineyards are located on both sides of the river between Vienne and Avignon, just south of Lyon. The Northern and Southern Rhône are unique, each with vastly different geography, climate, soils and grape varieties, but share one thing in common – the Rhône River.
THE NORTHERN RHONE
The Northern Rhône is a mere 40 miles long and is responsible for a tiny 4-5% of all the wines from the region. The climate is ‘Continental’–hot summers, cold winters and precipitation throughout the year.
Probably the most striking feature is the steepness of the hillsides. The vineyards are terraced to keep the soil from eroding, retain the warmth of the sun and make life a little easier for the vineyard workers!
This is the birthplace of Syrah and where many wine lovers find it reaches its height of expression – full bodied, savory, and elegant.
THE CRU VINEYARDS OF THE NORTHERN RHONE
The “Roasted Slope” is home to some of the steepest vineyards in all of France.
Syrah loves the well draining granite soils and soaks up the sun on the south facing slopes. Wines from here can be pricey but worth it – raspberry, violet, truffles and chocolate are just some of the delicious descriptors!
Condrieu and Château Grillet
Condrieu (Con-dree-euh) and the tiny vineyards of Château Grillet are best known for the luscious wines of Viognier. This is the home of Viognier and at one time was the only place to find it. Again, not the least expensive of wines but something to savor – heady apricot, floral notes and a rich honeyed mouthfeel. I like to call it the ‘cashmere sweater’ of white wines!
The largest of the Northern AOC’s, St. Joseph is home to Syrah and the white varietals Roussanne and Marsanne. The whites are fresh with subtle fruit and floral notes, while the Syrah is lovely and perfumey with dark berries and a bit of licorice. Great with everyday meals, they are eminently drinkable and can be enjoyed without years of aging.
This may be the smallest red AOC in size, but wines from Cornas are big and powerful!
Spicy, earthy, chocolatey and deep, these are wines made for aging, if you can resist!
Only white and sparkling wines from Marsanne and Roussanne in this AOC! The vineyards lie on extremely steep slopes on either side of a deep valley, creating a slightly warmer microclimate, giving us zesty sparklers made in the traditional Champenoise method. The still whites are equally refreshing – terrific before a meal.
The biggest area in terms of production, Crozes-Hermitage often lies in the shadow of the famous ‘Hermitage’ AOC that it surrounds.
Wines are produced from Syrah, with Marsanne and Roussanne, and range from easy drinking to cellar worthy.
Look for famous names like Chapoutier, Jaboulet and Cave de Tain.
Famous the world over, the wines from Hermitage come from the small vineyards overlooking the village of Tain-l’Hermitage.
Most of the production is Syrah and the wines really need some time to show their true character – round and full bodied with red fruits, wild flowers and leather. The whites are harder to find and were once the favorite of the Russian nobility.
The Diois (Dee-wah) is an isolated region about 30 miles east of the Rhone River.
It’s notable in that it has the highest vineyards in France (2800 feet). Most of the production is in sparkling wine; Crement de Die, but is now sanctioned for still wines of red, white and rose.
THE SOUTHERN RHONE
As the Rhône River progresses southward, the valley widens and the climate changes. The 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 player. Another unique characteristic of these wines are the nuances of Garrigue – the wild resinous herbs that cover the landscape.
A wind so miserable it’s named “The Mistral”
The Mistral is more than just a cold fierce wind that blows from the Northern seas, it’s an important part of the culture of southern France and Provence. Mistral winds blow at an average speed of 60 mph (hurricanes start at 70!) and do so about 150 days of the year, mostly from winter to early spring. The bad part is that they can be very destructive, damaging or uprooting vines, but they have a good influence too. The winds are always followed by clear bright skies, providing abundant sunshine for the vines. They blow fungus-loving moisture from the grape clusters and, in summer, bring welcome cooler temperatures.
If Syrah is the big boy of the North, Grenache is the King in the South and forms the foundation of the area’s popular blends. You’ll also encounter Mourvedre, Cinsault, Counoise, Carignan, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, Clairette, Bourboulenc and a host of minor players.
Côte du Rhône AOC
This is the largest AOC and accounts for two thirds of Rhone production. Full bodied reds dominate, but the luscious whites and thirst quenching roses are well worth seeking out.
The Roman legions knew about the great wines from this area! With its hot climate, abundant sunshine and the Dentelle Mountains to protect vineyards from the Mistral, the predominately red wines from Gigondas are full, earthy and aromatic.
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 licorice, pepper and spice.
Higher altitudes and variety of soil types 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.
Beaumes de Venise
This is another ancient region, settled by the Greeks and home to the famous sweet 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’. In 2005, the region was sanctioned for still red wines from Grenache and Syrah that are full of deep fruits and spice.
Another 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 Roses and fresh, aromatic whites.
Located just south of Lirac, Tavel’s vineyards date back to the Greek era and the 5th Century BC.
During the middle ages, the south of France was a popular holiday retreat for the Popes and they loved the refreshing rose 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 Rose-in fact they have dubbed themselves “Le Roi des Rosés” – “ The King of Roses”.
The vineyards are planted with nine varieties in three distinct soil types:
Sharp, flat slabs of limestone called “Les Vestide”, pebbly soils “Vallongue:” and “Olivet”, a mixture of sand and stone. Each contributes its own influence to the wines, creating Rose with a deep pink hue, lots of red fruits, berry and stone fruit flavors.
The most famous of the AOC’s of the Rhône Valley is Châteauneuf-du-Pape. This was the very first AOC to be recognized when the system was instituted in 1936.
The vineyards are planted with 14 varietals (18 if you count the variations!) at four levels of altitude as the land rises up from the Rhone River.
The soils are varied with the most famous being the large, rolled river stone or “Galets’ left behind millennium ago by the ancient glaciers.
Red wines are the most plentiful; Grenache and Cinsault with Mourvedre, Syrah and other sanctioned reds, producing wines that are full and aromatic with spicy dark fruits balanced with acidity and minerality.
Whites make up a small 6% of production but are worth trying. They speak of the warm southern climate – honeysuckle, stone fruits and melon, backed with refreshing minerality.
Check out wines from these ‘satellites’ too:
Costières de Nimes
Slightly cooler thanks to sea breezes from the Mediterranean, this area produces whites, reds and roses that are big on fragrance, lower in tannin and very quaffable.
Originally recognized as Coteaux de Tricistan in 1973, this region was allowed to change its name in 2012. Seems there was a nuclear power plant in the area with the same name that had a little meltdown in 2008; not a marketer’s dream!
Whites, reds and roses and home of Truffles!
Côte du Luberon
With a more Mediterranean influence, the sunny hot weather produces wines that are deep and bold, with lots of black fruit, leather and licorice.
Côte de Ventoux
Named after famous Mount Ventoux, this region gives us bold wines that really show their terroir – reds with lots of pepper, spice and dark fruit, aromatic whites and full bodied rosé. Native garrigue and lavender are major influences.
Côte de Vivarais
Located in the northern section of the southern Rhone, The Côte de Vivarais produces robust Syrah and Grenache dominant blends, deep roses and fresh mineral-driven white wines.
About the Author: Hilarie Larson
“I love talking, writing, reading, learning, and teaching, about wine. It started to completely consume my life about ten years ago when I went to work in a winery and I’ve never looked back. I adore vino so much I even married a winemaker.
Hilarie Larson comes to us with lots of passion for wine and French wine in particular. You can find her at Northwinds Wine Consulting in Temecula, CA
- CSW – Certified Specialist of Wine
- A Certified Sommelier with Court of Masters
- Certified Master-Level Provence Wine Educator
- BIVB Ambassador of Burgundy Wine, from École des Vins de Bourgogne
- Professional Member Society of Wine Educators
- Member of the French Wine Society
- ‘TIPS’ Certified