Producing incredible Syrah or Shiraz as well as Marsanne and Roussanne white wines, the vineyards in the Rhône Valley follow the Rhône River, travelling 250km through six different French departments and 250 towns. It is the second biggest appellation controlled vineyard in France. The region has 27 different appellations and 27 grape varietals.
Located in the southeast of France, the Rhône Valley is a historic and unique wine region that has not enjoyed the same reverence as Burgundy or Bordeaux but has been creating wines at the same high quality for centuries.
Following the Rhône river from Lyon to the Rhône Delta, the region stretches along 240km of the river. With the variety of climats through the valley, there is a large distinction between North and South Rhône wines. There is a gap of 40km of no vines in the mid section of the valley which has further altered the customs and values driven by the separated winemakers. With the North hosting prestigious appellations of Hermitage and Côte Rôtie, the reputation precedes the wines produced. This has divulged into the northern producers focusing on small productions. While not considered as prestigious overall, Southern Rhône hosts the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation, the vineyards bringing forth rustic and hearty red and white blends, all highly regarded thanks to the host bringing forth the inclusion of the AOC to the region.
As one of the oldest winemaking regions of France, and the world, the Rhône Valley has highly distinct formations and soils to bring out the characteristics of each grape varietal championed here.
Birthed 300 million years ago, from the geological clash between the Massif Central and the French Alps, the rift valley created was flooded by the Mediterranean Sea. The Massif Central brought with it the volcanic elements of granite rocks while the South presented layers of fluvial and calcareous marine sediments. The flooding of the Valley came from the collapse of the massifs as the Alps were pushed upwards. This brought with it the limestone and marl soils. Much later, when the Strait of Gibraltar was closed, the Mediterranean lowered greatly and left a smaller river flowing through allowing greenery to flourish and present the vine growing region we know today with the various layers of soil creating the unique terroir.
During the Greek colonisation of France in 4BC, vines were planted in Marseille, with plantings in Northern Rhône developing in 1AD. Further travel up the Rhône River allowed the town of Vienne to be established as a contender in wine production all through the Roman era. As with most wine regions of the era, the collapse of the Roman Empire crippled the vineyards but was revived by the Church upon the established time of the Middle Ages. Through the 13-14th century the popes of Rome introduced their way of winemaking to every region the French King, Louis VIII, granted them access to.
Yet it was not until 1650 that regulations were introduced, in order to guarantee the provenance and quality. The shift in name then followed later in the mid-19th century, from “Côste du Rhône” to “Côtes du Rhône”, with the term extended to include the vineyards on the left bank of the river. In 1936, the highly regarded reputation of the region, built up over the centuries, was legally established in the district courts of Tournon and Uzès. Baron Le Roy, wine-grower at Châteauneuf du Pape, championed the fight for recognition of the characteristics of Rhône Valley wine, managing to secure Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée status for it in 1933. His presented terms of reference became the model for all subsequent AOC decrees: limits of the growing area, grape varieties, local practices, methods of cultivation, minimum alcoholic content, harvesting period.
Climate & Soil
North Rhone has a plethora of jagged slopes and steep hills that feed into much milder gradients allowing for terraces to be built for plantings. The choice of terraces by winemakers is to make the most use of surface area and ensure every possible section of the useable area is growing vines. Aside from vines there is a range of white or sessile oak trees along with deciduous ones. The soils found are ones of clay, rock and granite.
The climate is considered continental with its mild winters and very hot summers. Rainfall is a common occurrence, with the main Mediterranean influence being from dry southerly wines. Majority of the vineyards face south, therefore not overly affected by northerly winds. and rainfall is relatively regular.
South Rhone, with its flat plains, has a lot more vegetation that adds to the fragrancy of the vineyards and the resulting wines. A nice mediterranean climate is marked with scrubland, lavender, truffles, olive groves, and a range of oak and pine trees. The cypress and poplar trees protect the vines from strong winds blown from the Mistral. The soil is also quite rocky but with a range of limestone and sandy soils blended in.
With the Mediterranean climate, the summers are hot and dry, with the potential for violent storms. During winter there is not often rainfall and snow is rare.
With 27 unique varietals allowed to grow in the Rhône Valley, the 5,000+ producers have brought the best blends and single grape wines to the table. 79% of wine produced in the Rhône Valley is red, with 15% being rose and only 6% as white wine.
The northern wines are primarily done in small batches and acutely focused on Syrah (only accepted red grape) for all of their red wines, and Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne for whites. These varietals thrive in the continental climate of the hilly North, with granite filled soils, as most vines have been planted within close proximity to the Rhône river and enjoy the moist and cool air. Northern Rhône produces only 5% of the total wine production in the Rhône Valley.
With the remaining 95% of wine production occurring in the South, there are less region-specific wines and follow a less prestigious path. More than 15 red wine grapes are allowed for the making of red wine, with the most popular red grapes being Grenache and Mourvèdre. These wine producers are slightly more adventurous and take on a wider variety of grape types producing a myriad of wines, each presenting the effects of the soil layers on each varietal. Grenache and Mourvedre are varieties blended with Syrah for a GSM blend, establishing a distinct flavour for the South. The flatter southern vineyards are accustomed to a Mediterranean climate with its more rocky and sandy soils.
There are more than 23 unique appellations in Southern Rhône, and 8 appellations in Northern Rhône.
Côtes du Rhône Villages appellations:
Chusclan ~ Gadagne ~ Laudun ~ Massif d'Uchaux ~ Plan de Dieu ~ Puyméras ~ Roaix ~ Rochegude ~ Rousset-les-Vignes ~ Sablet ~ Saint-Andéol ~ Saint-Gervais ~ Saint-Maurice ~ Saint-Pantaléon-les-Vignes ~ Sainte-Cécile ~ Séguret ~ Signargues ~ Suze-la-Rousse ~ Vaison-la-Romaine ~ Valréas ~ Visan
Crus of the Rhône Valley:
Beaumes des Venise AOP ~ Cairanne AOP ~ Château-Grillet AOP ~ Condrieu AOP ~ Cornas AOP ~ Côte-Rôtie AOP ~ Crozes-Hermitage AOP ~ Gigondas AOP ~ Hermitage AOP ~ Lirac AOP ~ Rasteau AOP ~ Saint-Joseph AOP ~ Saint Péray AOP ~ Tavel AOP ~ Vacqueyras AOP ~ Vinsorbes AOP
Vallée du Rhône:
Châtillon en Diois ~ Clairette de Bellegarde ~ Clairette de Die ~ Costières de Nîmes ~ Coteaux de Die ~ Côtes du Vivarais ~ Crémant de Die ~ Duché d’Uzès ~ Grignan-les-Adhémar ~ Luberon ~ Ventoux ~ Vins du Diois