Rhone

Often classified as one of the three best regions in France (along with Bordeaux and Burgundy), the Rhône Valley is a very large, warm region known in the wine world for its variety of earthy red wines. Rhône wine is produced mainly from Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre. Wines in which all three are blended are known as GSM blends, and have become popular across the world. Some regions of the Rhône use only Syrah.

Bordeaux wines are stereotypically classified as full-bodied styles, while Burgundies are considered light and elegant (though this is not always true). The wines of the Rhône are considered to be medium-bodied. Known for their bright, vibrant flavors of spice, brought on by the warmth of the climate, Rhône wines also tend to have flavors of dark fruit, herbs, coffee, and earth.

Terroir is moderately important in the Rhône, although not as much as in some other regions. There’s a great amount of diversity among the wines, but producers and governments haven’t found it worthwhile to do any classifications of the wines. As a result, no Rhône wines are officially given high status, and reputation tends to determine prices, making the appellation similar to Western wine regions. Despite its size and the high number of inexpensive wines produced there, the Rhône is widely considered a quality-oriented region. But it’s also one of the best bargain regions in the world, with many world-class wines costing under $50. However, there are also some expensive boutique cuvées, mostly in the northern part of the Rhône.

Red wines here are so well-known that the region’s white wines are often glossed over. In fact, white wine in general has been rapidly dropping out of popularity in recent years. However, most critics consider white Hermitage at least as good as the red, which is saying something since red Hermitage is indisputably world-class. The Viognier-based whites of the Condrieu appellation also have critical acclaim.

Just like Bordeaux’s, the Rhône’s wine styles have been replicated all across the world. Rhône styles are most often found in Australia, where the majority of Syrah and GSM blends in the world are manufactured. Syrah tends to make much different wine in Australia than it does in the Rhône, but GSM blends from the Rhône and Australia often have the same warm, spicy flavors. The Rhone Rangers association in the United States is an organization whose purpose is to bring Rhône grapes to California, Washington, Idaho and Virginia; the mission has apparently been successful, with many good Rhône styles now produced in North America.

History

It is not known exactly when the Rhône got started as a wine region; it is likely to have been in the 3rd or 4th century B.C. There is some speculation that Syrah originated in the region, but ampelographers (analysts of grapes) seem to concur that no grapes at all originated in the Rhône. The first attempts to make wine in the region were made by the Greeks, and ended in failure because of the overly warm climate.

It was not until around the time French wine in general was beginning to develop, that the Romans began to succeed in their efforts to make good wine in the region. Still, there were numerous viticultural difficulties and the rise and fall of empires proved more important anyway. However, in the 14th century French wine began to boom, and with a convenient location for export on the Rhône river, the eponymous region began to see success.

By the 17th century, the Rhône had reached its current high status as a wine region. Regulations were put into effect to guard against wine fraud, which was becoming common at that time. In the late 19th century, Châteauneuf-du-Pape became the first wine region to draw up specific regulations governing the kind of wine produced there. Châteauneuf’s regulations were so complete that one of the rules even banned the flying of unidentified flying objects over the vineyards.

In the last century or so, Rhône wines have collectively taken their biggest qualitative step yet, and are now in the same league as the greats of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Two factors have helped the Rhône to become even more competitive within the last decade: the fact that many wines are reasonably priced, and the fact that reds are coming more into favor across the world. The Rhône is one of the best places for well-valued reds, and so the region is becoming even more successful into the 21st century.

Climate and Viticulture

The general Rhône climate can be described in one word: hot. To put it simply, the appellation’s location in the deep south of France makes its weather extremely balmy, almost as balmy as that of Provence. Of course, there are many warmer wine regions in the world, but there are probably no others that are this successful.

One major factor redeems the Rhône Valley’s hot climate: the river. All the great vineyards are situated along the Rhône river, which provides the maritime influence that changes good wines into great wines. However, the influence of soil is not to be underestimated: the schist and granite found here is also highly influential in the wines produced. There is great diversity in soil among the vineyards.

Grape Varieties

Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre are by far the most common red grapes here. When they are blended together, the result is known as a “GSM blend”. However, these are not the only grapes in the Rhône, and they are not always blended together. Carignan, Cinsaut, Picpoul Noir, and Terret Noir are four other grapes that are often used in the reds. In the northern Rhône Syrah is the main grape, producing many varietal wines, whereas Grenache is the most common in the southern Rhône.

There are fewer white grapes. In the northern part of the Rhône only three are used: Marsanne, Roussanne, and Viognier. Marsanne and Roussanne are the source of Hermitage Blanc, while Viognier is used to make Condrieu. In the southern Rhône, the same grapes are used along with Bourboulenc, Carignan Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul Blanc, and Trebbiano.

Major Producers

Of course, there are a number of famous producers in the Rhône. There are many boutique producers in the region, who routinely receive high ratings from critics for their limited-production, high-price cuvées. Here are some of the most widely praised, exclusive producers:

  • Château de Beaucastel
  • Domaine Henri Bonneau
  • Le Clos du Caillou
  • Jean-Louis Chave
  • E. Guigal
  • Paul Jaboulet
  • Jamet
  • Maison du Chapoutier
  • Château du Pegau
  • Château Rayas

However, the majority of people reading this site will be looking for producers of inexpensive Rhône wine. The fact is that there are simply too many to list. We can, however, list a few large producers whose wines are reasonably priced and commonly exported, as well as of generally high quality:

  • Domaine Jean-Luc Colombo
  • Delas Frères
  • E. Guigal
  • Perrin & Fils
  • Tardieu-Laurent

Subregions

  • Costières de Nîmes: Costières de Nîmes is the only Rhône appellation that cannot be classified as part of the Côtes du Rhône or the northern or southern parts of the Rhône. The reason for this is that the appellation geographically belongs to the Languedoc-Roussillon! Made an AOC in 1986, it was part of the Languedoc until 2004, when authorities decided the wines were more Rhône-like in style. Elegant, medium-bodied, and classy, the red and rosé styles are made from Syrah and Mourvèdre and often furnish a pleasant woody, spicy flavor.
  • Côtes du Rhône: This is effectively the Rhône AOC, working as a container region for the wines that are not produced in specific geographical appellations. Some examples are indeed low-quality, but due to this perception a number of tremendous bargains exist in the appellation. The majority of these wines are fruity, spicy reds made from Grenache, but dozens of styles exist here. There are high levels of good producers, especially in the warmer, more southerly Côtes du Rhône-Villages.
    • Die: The Die region, located entirely within the Côtes du Rhône appellation, encompasses three appellations of its own, the only AOCs within Côtes du Rhône. The most prominent, Clairette de Die, is for sparkling wine, while Coteaux de Die and Châtillon-en-Diois are designated for still wines. While not exceptional, these wines can be quite good.
  • Northern Rhône: This is a landing page for the seven AOCs of the northern part of the Rhône wine region. The wines of the northern Rhône are much more prestigious than those of the southern Rhône, although they also have more austere flavors and higher prices.
    • Condrieu: The famed Condrieu, where varietal Viognier is brought to top levels, is the Rhône’s answer to the Loire’s Vouvray and Burgundy’s Montrachet. Exclusive although not overly expensive compared to much of their competition, the unusual, distinctive white wines are shaped by the one-of-a-kind soil of the appellation.
      • Château-Grillet: The exclusive Condrieu region contains an even more optimum appellation known as Château-Grillet. A monopole owned by the eponymous producer, it is one of the few world-famous single-producer vineyards outside of Burgundy. Less than 1,000 cases of pure, brilliant Viognier are produced here every year.
    • Cornas: Made in a hot climate from varietal Syrah, the darkly colored wines of Cornas provide rich, cooked, liqueur-like flavors. Underrated due to the immense prowess of the wines of neighboring appellations, these wines offer reasonable prices and highly consistent quality.
    • Côte-Rôtie: The world-famous Côte-Rôtie appellation produces many of the world’s best warm-climate wines every year. Although fog and rain are common, the appellation is very hot because of the way the sunlight bakes the slopes of the vineyards. In fact, Côte-Rôtie translates to “roasted slope” in English. The wines made are known for their fresh, ripe red fruit flavors and subtle nuances of minerals and herbs. Mixed in with the Syrah, Viognier can often create delightful floral scents. Despite the commonness of the practice of blending together red and white grapes, no white wines are made.
    • Crozes-Hermitage: Crozes-Hermitage is a region with a troubled reputation. Size and the consequent overproduction are the main problems; however, the good side is that many Hermitage producers make a second wine here, and the appellation’s wines are improving. Strong, dense varietal Syrah makes up the red production, while good whites are made from Marsanne and Roussanne.
    • Hermitage: Hermitage was classically considered the best appellation of the northern Rhône, but in recent decades Côte-Rôtie has caught up in many ways. However, Hermitage is still one of the best appellations in France, with the best wines generally reaching world-class levels. Many serious believers think that Syrah makes its best wines here, and indeed, they combine richness, power of flavor, and subtle texture in a way that few other Syrahs can replicate. White Hermitage, made from Marsanne and Roussanne, is only made in tiny proportions to the red, but is considered either equally good or better!
    • St-Joseph: St-Joseph occupies a similar market segment to Cornas and also makes similar wines, with rich, black, concentrated flavors that are exorbitantly powerful in the first few years of age. However, the best St-Josephs become more mellow and intriguing with cellaring.
    • St-Péray: This appellation is the dark horse of the northern Rhône, producing Champagne-style fizzes that are similar neither to the reds nor to the whites of the rest of the region. Most wines are of medium quality, but there are a few good ones.
  • Southern Rhône: With a dozen official appellations, the southern Rhône has nearly twice as many subregions as the northern Rhône. The wines are less high-quality, but are also less expensive and easier to drink. The south’s main asset is Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which combines quality and quantity in an unrivaled way.
    • Beaumes de Venise: Beaumes de Venise is a good appellation for both the fortified wine made within its borders (known as Muscat de Beaumes de Venise) and Grenache-based red wines.
    • Châteauneuf-du-Pape: The great Châteauneuf region is famous for its combination of quality and quantity. French for “the Pope’s new castle”, if you were wondering, the historical appellation was the first to be officially regulated. The high number of wines produced means competition, which drives down prices; in fact, Châteauneuf-du-Pape contains a substantial portion of the world’s wine bargains. Some of the wines are nothing more than well-valued. But the best examples, made mostly from Grenache, are absolutely great, able to compete with the top cuvées of the northern Rhône, and at a much lower price.
    • Côtes du Luberon: A large appellation, with wines made generally from Grenache. The wines are rarely better than simple Côtes du Rhône, but are inexpensive and can provide fun, spicy flavors.
    • Côtes du Ventoux: The large, historical appellation of Côtes du Ventoux generally makes reds from the “Rhône Five” (GSM, Cinsaut, and Carignan) that are typical Rhône styles.
    • Côtes du Vivarais: This small, decade-old appellation is for reds from Syrah and Grenache, as well as some good rosés and whites. The fresh wines are best drunk young.
    • Gigondas: Fat, earthy, really characterful wine is made from Grenache here; some supplementary varieties are blended in, but for the most part Grenache gives this wine its definitive character. While they usually aren’t world-class, the wines of Gigondas are very consistent; by comparison, Châteauneuf might have more great wines, but they also have more bad ones!
    • Grignan-Les Adhemar: Formerly Coteaux du Tricastin; these are mostly good, simplistic reds.
    • Lirac: This appellation for red Grenache has a cool climate and a long history. Nestled between famous appellations, Lirac makes easy-drinking, sweetly fruited reds and some good rosés and whites for bargain prices.
    • Rasteau: Rasteau produces varietal Grenache fortified red wine that is completely unique and as a result quite coveted. The dry reds made are classified as Côtes du Rhône.
    • Tavel: Tavel is the best region in the Rhône for rosé, having been making pink wine for centuries. Made mostly from Grenache and Cinsaut, these bright, well-flavored rosés are easy to drink and can age as well.
    • Vacqueyras: Underrated, spicy wines, similar to those of Gigondas. Vacqueyras wines remain rather unpopular considering their good pedigrees and low prices, but they are gaining in market share. Warm, with lots of spice and herb flavors, the wines are less powerful but more elegant than those of Gigondas. Almost entirely red Grenache; however, there are a few good white wines.
    • Vinsobres: Vinsobres was just recently made into an AOC; up until 2006, it was a part of the greater Côtes du Rhône. The distinctively aromatic wines are based on Syrah, which is unusual for the southern portion of the Rhône, and are already becoming popular.