You may have heard of the Rhone Valley in France; however, if you’re thinking of this as one place serving similar wines you’d be very mistaken.
In France‘s Rhone Valley you’ll find 98% of the wines are either red or rose, although there are a few whites here and there. As stated above, Northern and Southern Rhone are extremely different from each other in climate, soil, grape varietals, terroir and soil, leading to very different wines.
While the Northern Rhone’s steeply terraced hillside and granite soil mixed with stone, shingle and clay and produces only a few grape varietals — mainly Syrah and Viognier — and sells single varietal wines, Southern Rhone is much flatter and is known for its blends of many different grapes. It’s also worth pointing out that despite the fact Northern Rhone is much smaller in size — it makes up less than 10% of the Rhone Valley — you’ll typically get a much better quality, with everything being done by hand as machines can’t maneuver the terraced landscape. Vines are also situated closer to the river, with a continental climate, great sun exposure and shelter from bitter mistral winds.
In Southern Rhone, the climate goes between continental and Mediterranean, with mild winters and hotter summers. Unlike in Northern Rhone, they’re barely protected from the mistral winds, although after the vines suffer they’re often cooled down which allows for a higher acidity, as well as an intensity in flavor due to the ice the wind produces (similar to ice wine).
If you want to differentiate Northern and Southern Rhone in terms of grapes, Northern Rhone is Syrah and Southern Rhone is largely influenced by Grenache. That’s not to say that other grapes don’t grow in either of these areas, but these are the dominant varietals.
Northern Rhone: The Wines
In Northern Rhone there are six types of wines you’ll find. First is the Côte Rôtie, meaning “roasted slope,” which is made with Syrah that offers characteristic notes of raspberry, spice, coffee, truffles, violet and chocolate. With a decadent description like that, there’s no wonder Côte Rôtie tends to be expensive, but worth it.
Next is Condrieu, which only permits the use of Viognier grapes and, interestingly, almost went extinct at one time due to its low yielding tendency and easily destructible nature. At its peak, Viognier produces delicious notes of peach and honey; however, if the grapes are picked when too ripe the wine loses its acidity and will have a bubblegum scent.
Another wine you’ll find in Northern Rhone is Cornas, where only Syrah is produced. The wine is leathery and earthy, reminiscent of a fine Bordeaux. Keep in mind, this wine is meant to be aged for seven to 10 years, at which point it will open up and reach its full potential.
Saint-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage and Hermitage are all wines that make use of Syrah, Marsanne and Roussanne, and are typically of very high quality. Interestingly, in Victorian Times Hermitage was “the wine of the world.” It needs a minimum of 10 years in a cellar, although reds can be aged for 50+ years and whites for 25+. While this wine is a bit pricey with bottles starting at $60, you’ll literally be savoring a bit of French heritage. Note: Don’t get this confused with Crozes-Hermitage, which is typically ready to drink when released.
Southern Rhone: The Wines
While Northern Rhone is known for having the higher quality wines, Southern Rhone still has its fair share of noteworthy options. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the most southern appellation in Southern Rhone, growing Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Clairette, Grenache Blanc and Cinsault. It is the reds produced here that are often considered synonymous with Southern Rhone, veering from the typical high alcohol, very sweet, low acid, easy-drinking wines that come from a Mediterranean climate, but instead tend to be dense, bold, earthy and often gamey and wild from the Mourvedre. Some of the best producers in this region include Domaine du Pegau, Font de Michelle and Chateau Beaucastel, to name a few.
Côtes du Rhône and the Côtes du Rhône Villages is the largest appellation of the Rhone, making up 4/5 of the region. While they make a number of great wines — mainly in dry form — because this area is not a single place, but instead is very spread out, you’ll get an array of terroirs and qualities. Some of the top quality Côtes du Rhône wines include Rasteau, Chateau Beaucastel and Jean-Luc Colombo.
In Vacqueyras and Gigondas, Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre are the main grapes. Despite having the same grapes and being located near to each other, the wines of these appellations do differ slightly. While Vacqueyras are bold and lean toward Syrah, Gigondas tend to be more rustic and almost chewy with a focus on Grenache and lots of raspberry, spice and leather.
In Lirac you’ll find these grapes, as well as Cinsault. The wines here are typically full-bodied reds offering decadent flavors of cocoa and dark fruits. And for those who enjoy rose, Tavel is the place for you. Using Cinsault and Grenache, the appellation produces a high alcohol rose wine with notes of berry and spice and a bone-dry finish. If you’re used to mass-produced roses — I’m looking at you Beringer White Zinfandel — you’ll be very surprised by this wine.