The Rhône Valley was born 300 million years ago when the tectonic plates between the Massif Central and the Alps collided. The Massif Central then witnessed significant volcanic activity, which had...Read More
Stretching nearly 150 miles from north to south along the course of the Rhone River in southeastern France, the Rhone Valley is home to a dazzling universe of micro-terroirs. From the shockingly steep granitic and schistose slopes of the Northern Rhone, where a continental climate brings harsh winters and warm summers, comes a benchmark “cool-climate Syrah” style emulated by Rhone-loving winemakers around the world.
And from the milder Mediterranean environment of the Southern Rhone, where the valley opens up to reveal clay-limestone soils, rounded pebble terraces, molasse and sand, come some of the most lauded red blends of France: remarkably complex Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre (GSM) blends, easy-drinking Cotes du Rhone and the prestigious stunners of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. And in white, from the voluptuous single-varietal Viognier wines of Condrieu and floral, nutty Marsanne-Roussanne blends to the garrigue-scented, herbaceous, honeyed white blends of Chateauneuf, the Rhone produces a suite of styles guaranteed to please.
The winemaking history of the Rhone Valley dates back more than 2,000 years to the ancient Greeks, who were already present in Marseilles in 400 BC. The ancient Romans also planted vines here, most famously in Vienne, situated in the northern region, now named Cote-Rotie. The Romans developed earthenware amphorae to transport the wines and developed the technique of terracing the steep slopes overlooking the Rhone River in order to make grape growing possible. Soon, the wines of the Rhone rivalled those of the Italian peninsula. Following the fall of the Roman empire, winemaking in the area came to a halt and would only be revived one thousand years later.
In 1309, the papacy moved their headquarters from Rome to the city of Avignon, and the Popes demanded that the land around the city be planted with vines. During the 65 years and 7 Popes that followed, winemaking thrived in the area. Pope John XXII had a summer residence built at Chateauneuf-du-Pape in Rhone (whose name means “the new residence of the Pope”), while Pope Benedict XII ordered the construction of the Palais des Papes castle in Avignon. So much wine was produced at this time that the Duke of Burgundy was forced to ban the import and export of non-Burgundy wines in the area to protect the local wine trade.
In order to guarantee the quality and provenance of Rhone wine, new regulations were introduced in 1650. The next few centuries saw the region’s wine industry go through several developments, from the challenges brought on by phylloxera to the invention of new viticultural techniques. During the first half of the 20th century, the Rhone Valley played an important role in the establishment of the French appellation system.
During the 1930’s, a visionary winegrower by the name of Baron Le Roy fought for the recognition of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape in France and secured the status of Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) for it in 1933. This made Châteauneuf-du-Pape the very first AOC in France. Baron le Roy also helped to establish and then presided over the National Body for Origin and Quality (INAO), which today remains the body responsible for granting AOC status. Eventually, several other appellations in the Rhone Valley started to receive AOC status and the region diversified in style.
By the 1960’s, the region had largely recovered from the challenges of phylloxera, two world wars and an economic crisis, and by the 1980’s, Rhone Valley wine producers had adopted modern technologies both out in the vineyard and in the winery. By the 1990’s, the wines of the Rhone were receiving praise from American wine critic Robert Parker, which helped boost their reputation internationally. Several winemakers began making old vine bottlings and single-vineyard wines, with more new French oak barrels used in the aging process and longer extractions leading to thicker, denser wines. Cote-Rotie and Hermitage in Rhone France stood out as the most sought-after appellations of the Northern Rhone, while Chateauneuf-du-Pape remained the undisputed leader of the Southern Rhone.
Today, many winemakers have chosen to adopt a “minimal intervention” approach, replacing chemical treatments with “greener,” more sustainable solutions in the vineyard, relying on native yeasts for fermentation at lower temperatures in the winery and aging in less new French oak. Most recently, the Rhone wine industry has braced itself for the challenges of climate change, investing significantly in research on how to adapt the winemaking to changing conditions.
The second largest wine growing region of France in Europe, the Rhone Valley is home to more than 175,400 acres of vineyards in total, divided between 30 different AOC appellations, producing over 400 million bottles of wine each year. The region is home to more than 6,000 producing estates, which includes more than 1,800 private wineries and over 100 cooperatives.
The Rhone wine region is situated in the southeast of France, stretching north to south almost 150 miles along the Rhone River, from Lyon to the Rhone River Delta near the Mediterranean Sea. The valley of the Rhone River is home to a wide array of micro-terroirs, including different mesoclimates and soil types. This translates to a wide range of grape varieties cultivated here. The Rhone Valley is divided into the Northern and Southern subregions by a 25-mile gap between the towns of Montelimar and Valance. The Northern and Southern Rhone differ not only in climate and terroir, but also in the preferred winemaking styles and grape varieties cultivated.
The Northern Rhone and its Wines
The Northern Rhône is around 40 miles long and is responsible for only 4-5% of all wines produced in the Rhone Valley. Here, we find a continental climate, characterized by harsh winters and warm summers. This climate is influenced by the Mistral wind, which blows cold air from the Massif Central. The vineyards of the Northern Rhone stand out for their very steep slopes, which are terraced in order to prevent the erosion of the soil and to allow for vineyard workers to access the vines more easily.
Only one red grape variety is permitted in the AOC vineyards here: Syrah. The red wines of the Northern Rhone are benchmarks for the “cool-climate Syrah” style, which is now imitated by winemakers around the world. Some appellations allow red wines to be made only of Syrah, while others allow for up to 20% white grapes to be blended in (either Viognier or Marsanne and Roussanne). In actuality, the process of blending red and white grapes is only popular in Cote-Rotie.
The prestigious appellations (or “crus”) of the Northern Rhone producing red wines from Syrah, from north to south, are Côte-Rôtie, Saint-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage and Cornas. The red wines from these appellations are known for their signature aromas of black and blue fruit, black pepper, green olives and smoky bacon. Cote-Rotie Syrah wines are characterized by delicious raspberry, truffle and violet aromas, while St. Joseph Syrah shows dark berries and hints of licorice. Syrah wines from Cornas tend to be spicy, chocolatey and earthy in style, while prestigious Hermitage Syrah wines express red fruit, wildflowers and leather on the nose.
The white wines of this area are made from three grapes: Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne. The appellations of Condrieu and Chateau-Grillet are especially well known for their benchmark Viognier wines, which are luscious and full-bodied with heady aromas of apricots and yellow flowers. White Marsanne and Roussanne blends are produced in Saint-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage and the lesser known Saint-Peray, where both still white wines and traditional method sparkling white wines are made.
The Southern Rhone and its Wines
As the Rhone River heads toward the south, the valley widens and the climate becomes more Mediterranean, characterized by mild winters and long, hot summers. Rainfall is significantly less abundant and some irrigation is permitted in order to help prevent drought, which otherwise poses frequent challenges. The landscape is covered with a Mediterranean vegetation of “garrigue,” a kind of wild resinous herb, notes of which can often be found in the wines from the Southern Rhone Valley. Here, the Mistral wind is especially fierce, blowing at an average speed of 60 mph. While this wind can damage or even uproot vines, it also blows away moisture, which prevents fungus from settling on the vines.
While Syrah is the flagship grape of the Northern Rhone, Grenache is king in the south, although wines of the Southern Rhone are almost always blended from several grape varieties. Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre wine grapes to form GSM blends, and Cinsault, Carignan and Counoise are often common. The most popular white grape varieties are Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, Bourboulenc and Clairette.
The Southern Rhône is home many more appellations (or “crus”) than the North, the most famous of which is Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the very first appellation of France to receive AOC status. Chateauneuf-du-Pape is best known for its complex red blends, which contain up to 19 grape varieties (10 red and 9 white). Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines (like the Chateau Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape, Rhone) tends to be very full-bodied red wines types with intense aromas of spicy dark fruit, beautifully balanced by a fresh acidity and minerality. The whites are classic “warm climate white wines,” with rich aromas of stone fruit, melon and honeysuckle. This appellation is also famous for its iconic terroir of smooth, rolled river stones called galets.
Other appellations of the Southern Rhone include Vacqueryras (producing Grenache-dominant red wines with red fruit, violet, licorice and pepper aromas), Gigondas (producing mostly full-bodied, aromatic and earthy reds), Lirac (best known for structured and elegant reds with black truffle and cocoa nuances rounding out deep red fruit aromas), Tavel (producing rosé wines with red fruit and stone fruit aromas that tend to be more intense than Provence rosés), and Beaumes de Venise (producing the famous sweet wine “Muscat de Beaumes de Venise” along with some deeply spicy red wines).
Cotes du Rhone wines
The Cotes du Rhone AOC appellation covers 171 communes in both the Northern and Southern Rhone subregions and, accounting for over two-thirds of the Rhone Valley’s wine production in volume, is technically the region’s largest AOC. This AOC is typically granted to wines that do not qualify for a more prestigious appellation, which means that most Cotes du Rhone AOC wines are produced in the Southern Rhone. Cotes du Rhone wine can be either red (dominated by Grenache), rosé (also dominated by Grenache) or white (made with mostly Grenache Blanc). These wines tend to be easy-drinking, fruit-forward bottlings, meant to be enjoyed in their youth.
The appellation of Cotes du Rhone Villages AOC covers wines produced in specific villages of France’s Rhone Valley, whose terroir has been identified for its higher quality. These villages can be found mostly in France’s southern Rhone, around the town of Orange. Within the Cotes du Rhone Villages, a list of 20 villages can add their village names to the title, as an indicator of terroir of origin.
The Die (Diois) District Appellations
Not included in either the Northern Rhone or Southern Rhone subregions is the Die district in the east, in the foothills of the French Alps. In fact, this region is home to some of the highest vineyards of France (at altitudes of 2,800 feet). Winemakers based here produce still white wines under the Coteaux de Die appellation, as well as sparkling wines under the Clairette de Die and Cremant de Die appellations. Some red and rosé wines are also produced here.
Rhone Valley wines come in a wide range of styles and thus pair with a wide range of dishes.
Northern Rhone red wines are made from Syrah in a big, bold style. Along with a core of black and blue fruit, these wines present spicy nuances and a firm tannic structure that softens over time. These wines range in aromas from rustic and meaty, with notes of warm leather and bacon fat to elegant and floral with savory notes of black olives and peppercorn. Northern Rhone Syrah wines from the prestigious appellations of Cote-Rotie, Hermitage and Saint-Joseph tend to have a remarkable aging potential of several decades, developing notes of stewed fruit and chocolate over time. These benchmark Syrah wines will pair beautifully with an earthy Moroccan lamb tagine, braised beef short ribs, a stew of wild boar or French onion soup.