Most people have some degree of familiarity with the Rhône wines of Southern France. They have typically heard of Grenache, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, or Côtes du Rhône. However, many people may not be aware of some of the other red wine regions, such as Vacqueyras, that can produce amazing reds for great value. This blog will try to explain a little about the history and basics of the southern Rhône and the wines that come from the Southern Rhône Valley region. Hopefully this will inspire you to discover and enjoy the Rhône as much as I do!The Rhône Valley is a wine region in southeast France and is named for the Rhône River that runs through the region on its way to the Mediterranean Sea. The Rhône River separates the Alps from the Massif Central, an elevated and mountainous part of southern France. The north is mountainous ancient granitic rock. The south is partially an ancient seabed with calcareous clay and limestone. The river has deposited sand, flinty pebbles, and clay silt as well. This gives growers a wide variety of different soils and terroir to choose from in the Rhône. And given the range of soils as well as the variance of elevations in the region and the diversity of available grape varieties, styles of wine vary greatly from big, long-aged Syrahs to bright and cheery rosés.Rhône wines are some of the most ancient in France. Evidence has suggested that the Greeks were growing grapes in the fourth century BCE in Marseille and in the first century BCE in the northern part of the Rhône Valley. A good deal of the success was due to the presence of sandstone clay deposits allowing the Greeks and Romans to easily make their earthenware jars, amphorae or dolia, which were used to transport wines as well as the famous roman fish sauce.The Romans had a lasting impression on the area. They established many of the towns and vineyard sites that still exist today. At the height of the Roman Empire, the Rhône Valley wines were rivaling those from Italy in terms of quality and production. Yet after the fall of the empire, the export markets for Rhône wines dried up and great interest wasn’t renewed again until the Catholic Church rediscovered the amazing wines of the Rhône in the middle ages.As with many wine regions in France, the Catholic Church has had a role in forming the wines made in the present day and establishing some of the best vineyards. In the late 13th century, the French king Louis VIII granted a parcel of land to the Catholic church around the town of Avignon called Comtat Venaissin. Also in the late 13th century, riots and general unrest ushered in a chaotic time for Rome. Politically speaking, the church had lost the respect and control of the nobles around Rome to the point where they no longer granted military protection. Following the election of French bishop Clement V to the papacy, he moved the papacy to the Southern Rhône region around the town of Avignon. A general rumor at the time was that the goal was to cozy up to the King Philip of France for political power. Regardless of the explanation, this ushered in the Avignon Papacy that lasted from 1305 until 1378. While this blog is not about Châteauneuf-du-Pape (French for “new castle of the Pope”), it is worth noting that the church ushered in a renaissance of Rhône wines and invigorated the region. The quality summarily increased, vineyard sites were replanted, and the export markets began to grow again.Even though the popes eventually moved back to Rome, the Rhône was on the map and the wines were firmly established. Trade was flourishing due to the high reputation of the wines, and local ports were busy. Due to increased popularity, local wine regulations were introduced in 1650 to guarantee provenance and quality. First known as Côste du Rhône, the famous name of Côtes du Rhône was established in the mid-18th century and validated by the courts in 1936.Baron Le Roy, a grower in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, championed the establishment of a governing body to maintain and regiment wine appellations. The Baron also successfully lobbied for the first AOC in the Rhône in 1933. The terms and limits he set forth became the standard for all subsequent AOC regions (appellation d’origine contrôlée, or controlled area of origin). To this day, the entrants follow limits on growing area, grape varieties, local practices, cultivation methods, minimum alcohol content, and harvest periods. Baron Le Roy later became involved in the founding of the INAO (Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité), the governing body that eventually took over the governing of all AOC regions and entrants, and presided over it from 1947 to 1967.The Southern Rhône accounts for nearly 95% of the total Rhône wine production, and the majority of that is red. Most of those are wines based on blends with Grenache as the star player. The popular blend is called a GSM, as it consists of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre, and Cinsault is frequently included as well.Côtes du RhôneThe Côtes du Rhône is the largest appellation and the base designation for wines for the entire Rhône. While it’s possible that a Northern Rhône Syrah could be de-classified down to the Côtes du Rhône level, it is more than likely to be a Grenache-based wine from around one of 17 different villages or a blend of all the villages intended to achieve a certain style. Usually lower in price than the more prestigious regions, the quality for the price is very high. A great example that we like is:Guigal Cotes du Rhône Rouge 201190 Points. “A perennial favorite, it’s reassuring to see that the quality continues to remain high even from Guigal’s least expensive cuvee. Red fruits—cherries and raspberries—marry easily with hints of clove, cracked pepper, black olive and espresso. It’s round on the mid-palate, showing more focus and ample length on the finish.”– Wine Enthusiast90 Points. “Deep ruby. Smoky cherry and blueberry aromas display very good clarity and a touch of cracked pepper. Showing its Syrah component, with sappy black and blue fruit flavors sharpened by a spicy nuance. A sexy floral note comes up on a gently tannic finish that lingers with very good persistence. As usual, this wine punches well above its category and should reward at least another four or five years of patience.”– Antonio Galloni’s VinousCôtes du Rhône-VillagesImagine a large pyramid: at the bottom of the pyramid is the base (and obviously the largest part)—this is the space reserved for Côtes du Rhône. The next level up is referred to as the village level. As of 2016, there are 17 villages or communes, and the label must bear the name of the village as well as the title Côtes du Rhône. In this case, Seguret is that village. If it is a blend from more than one village, the village names will be left off and just “Villages” will be present.A great example we like is:Domaine de Mourchon Côtes du Rhône Villages Seguret Grande Reserve 201193 Points. “In the same ball park and another incredible effort from this producer, the 2011 Côtes du Rhône Villages Grand Reserve is a blend of two-thirds Grenache and one-third Syrah that was aged in 60% barrel and 40% tank. Awesome on all accounts, with a thrilling bouquet of raspberry liqueur, crushed flowers, spice, licorice and herbs de Provence, this medium to full-bodied beauty has no hard edges, beautiful purity of fruit and a heady, lengthy finish that pumps out loads of fruit while staying fresh and clean. It’s a superb effort that should not be missed.” – Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate90 Points. “This is solid, with a nice core of crushed plum, blackberry and boysenberry fruit, lined with lightly briary tannins and framed by a graphite note on the finish.” – Wine SpectatorGigondasSome of the communes and villages have been awarded their own AOC designations or named areas, and these make up the next-highest level in the quality pyramid. Gigondas is made from at least 50% Grenache, and compares to its more famous cousin Châteauneuf-du-Pape in a lot of ways including soil type, ageing, and winemaking.A great example we like is:Famille Perrin Gigondas Clos des Tourelles 201294 Points: “Ratcheting the quality level up a notch, the 2012 Gigondas Domaine du Clos des Tourelles comes from a property, purchased in 2008, that’s located just outside the village of Gigondas and that’s completely enclosed by a stone wall (hence the use of Clos in the name). It’s also the only wine not vinified at the Famille Perrin winery (which is located just north of Beaucastel) and is vinified in Gigondas. Serious on all accounts, with stunning aromas of sweet black and red fruits, bouquet garni, dried flowers and dusty soil notes, it hits the palate with medium to full-bodied richness, loads of textured and chewy tannin. Improving in the glass, this beautiful Gigondas will benefit from short-term cellaring and have 12-15 years of total evolution. Drink 2016-2027.” – Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate92 Points: “A ripe, silky style, with lush boysenberry and plum confiture notes that glide along, maintaining definition as hints of fruitcake, anise and chocolate move throughout. Drink now through 2022.” – Wine SpectatorVacqueyrasLarger than Gigondas and known to be a bit more rustic, the same rules apply, as does the similarity to more famous regions with better value. This region can have more variable quality due to its size but if you look carefully, you can find some great wines.A great example we like is:Dom. La Garrigue Vacqueyras La Canterelle 201292 Points “Bright violet color. Sexy aromas of black raspberry, cherry compote, potpourri and incense. Supple, pliant and focused on the palate, offering intense red and dark berry fruit and floral pastille flavors that deepen with air. The long, sweet, intensely spicy finish features silky tannins and a suave, lingering suggestion of candied flowers. These vines reportedly range from 80 to over 100 years of age.”– Antonio Galloni’s VinousLirac & CairanneSimilar to Gigondas and Vacqueyras in that Grenache is the star but not as well-known, these regions produce great value wines (but not necessarily cheap). They sit above the village level and are a great choice for lovers of richer, new-world-style wines.A great Lirac we like is:Domaine de la Mordoree Lirac La Reine des Bois 201293 Points “Even better, and a smoking Lirac that vies for the top wine of the appellation, the 2012 Lirac La Reine des Bois has gorgeous crème de cassis, licorice, pan drippings, wood spice and hints of graphite. Offering knockout purity, full-bodied richness and ultra-fine tannin, it tastes like a top flight Châteauneuf-du-Pape and will drink nicely for over a decade.” – Robert Parker’s The Wine AdvocateA great Cairanne we like is:Domaine Roche Cairanne 201290 Points: “A sexy wine made under the auspices of globe-trotting oenologist Philippe Cambie, this 2012 Côtes du Rhône-Villages Cairanne was produced from 40 to 105-year-old vines. The blend was 70% Grenache (aged in concrete) and 30% Syrah (aged in barrique) from yields of 20 to 30 hectoliters per hectare. It exhibits a delicious, up-front, front end-loaded, richly fruity style with lots of raspberry, black cherry, roasted herb, loamy soil and underbrush notes. This corpulent, fleshy red can be enjoyed over the next 4-5 years.” – Robert Parker’s The Wine AdvocateI hope you enjoy your wine travels through the Rhône. There is so much more still that has not been mentioned here, including the amazing whites, rosés and dessert wines to try. Cheers!
The Rhone Valley is one of my favorite wine growing regions in the world. Perhaps part of this reason is because I have the privilege of visiting the area almost every summer. Not only are there delicious warm summers with fields of wild lavender and rosemary wafting to your nose, but there’s some pretty spectacular wine as well.
Two things that make the Rhone stand out to me – diversity and quality. The northern and southern Rhone are so distinctly separate, both in geography and style, that were there not a river to connect them, they would easily be two separate appellations.
I drink more southern Rhone wines by far, which I assume is true for most people. Northern Rhone wines are known for being a bit more structured, age-worthy, collectible and expensive. Thus our value-driven wallets and drink-it-now palates are drawn to the south, where these styles of wine abound. And yet, the northern Rhone has some excellent wines that could be considered great values.
A quick northern Rhone cheat sheet: Syrah is the exclusive red grape, though most regions can blend a small percentage of white grapes into the wines (except Cornas, which is 100% Syrah). Viognier is the exclusive grape of Condrieu, while Marsanne and Roussanne join Viognier in most other northern Rhone white wine blends. Vines are trained high on steep, terraced slopes with granite-based, gravelly soils.
A few gems to look out for in the north:
Crozes-Hermitage – the little step-sibling to Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage is a great way to introduce your palate to the northern Rhone style, at a lower price tag. Guigal and Delas make some excellent examples.
St.-Joseph -Though Cornas is one of the more talked-about regions in the north, I love to find a good St.-Joseph. Sometimes they are a bit less… rustic than a Cornas and more approachable. They can range from great value to slightly collectible (see Guigal).
Southern Rhone cheat sheet:Grenache is the primary red grape, though almost all wines are blends, and include red grapes such as Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault. Whites are more rare, but are also blends, with Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne and Clairette leading the make up of most blends. Vines are often bush trained over flat terrain, with a warmer climate than the north.
Gems of the south:
Yes, I love a great Chateauneuf-du-Pape or a refreshing Tavel or a spicy Gigondas. But a few others I look out for are:
Cairenne – I think Cairenne will eventually be elevated to “cru” status, just as the Cotes-du_Rhone Villages Vinsobres was in 2004. Cairenne, one of the 18 Cotes-du-Rhone-Villages, is totally worthy of a try – it has the depth and complexity of many cru wines from the southern Rhone, but often with a lower price tag. Domaine Alary is a favorite of mine, but most Cairenne labels deliver beyond expectations.
Cotes-du-Ventoux – move over Cotes-du-Rhone, this is where you can find the new values! Offering refreshing and fruit-driven whites as well as rich and fruit-driven reds, this is a region I am watching. Loving that more and more wines are coming in from here.
It is Rhone Week at Wine.com, so it's a good time to stock up.
No matter what your palate, the Rhone most likely has something to satisfy it.