The Rhone Valley – one of France’s top wine producing regions, which some superlative wines, which match up to the very finest from Bordeaux or Burgundy, albeit in a very different style. The second largest wine-producing region after Bordeaux, it is famous for its rich, bold , fruit-laden reds, which account for over 85% of total production, with Rose accounting for a further 9%.
The Region And Its History
The Rhone Valley is one of the oldest wine producing region in France, dating back to pre-Roman times. The wine region follows the path of the Rhone river, which originates in the Alps, and covers an area of around 250km, from Lyon, down to the Rhone Delta, near Marseilles, where the river flows into the Mediterranean.
It is effectively split into 2 clear sub-regions, the Northern Rhone and the Southern Rhone, with a gap of around 40km between Valence and Montelimar. The sub regions differ in terms of the land, the climate and most importantly the grape varieties grown and the styles of wine produced.
Travellers to the South of France, will frequently follow the route of the Rhone valley, and can see at first hand, how the region begins with a narrow range of winegrowing areas, on the steep slopes above the Rhone River, and then broadens in to a far more wide-spreading region, close to Avignon.
Rhone wines vary tremendously in style; Syrah is undoubtedly the king of the region, making intense, powerful, satisfying reds in the northern Rhone, a pure expression of the style, as a single varietal. In the Southern Rhone, the wines tend to be a blend of varieties, and whilst the rich, full-bodied style continues with such wines as Chateauneuf, this area also produces lighter, fruitier red styles, from a mix of varieties, as well as some delicious Rose.
The only link between the 2 areas, is simply the Cotes du Rhone appellation, which covers all red, rose and white wine in the entire region.
This covers the area from Lyon to Valence, where the river widens. It only produces 5% of the total production of the Rhone, but is responsible for some of the finest red wines in the world, and is home to some of the best known and prestigious wine names, such as Cote Rotie and Hermitage.
Clinging to the steep, stony slopes of the Rhone Valley, the wines from the Northern Rhone are almost entirely pure Syrah, in the truest expression of its style – bold, intense, perfumed, spicy,with a sumptuous richness, but a steely backbone. There is a small, but important production of white wine in the Northern Rhone, again, highly premium, and the area is the original home of the Viognier grape, now seen increasingly, as a stand alone grape variety throughout New World countries.
The Viognier is often blended with the other white grapes of the area, Roussanne and Marsanne.
The difference in landscape and vineyard locations in the northern and southern Rhone is dramatically different. In the north, you need to peer upwards to see the vines, clinging to the steep slopes of the hills; in the south, the land is flat, and the vines at eye level. The soil is covered by large, smooth, tightly packed stones, which retain the heat of the sun, but also act as a filter when it rains. It also helps resist the impact and the fury of the famous Mistral wind, which blows through the southern Rhone valley from the north.
It is here that 95% of the Rhone’s wines are produced, ranging from the prestigious Chateauneuf-du-Pape, to more humble Cotes du Rhone Villages. The majority of the wines are red, more suited to the hot, Mediterranean climate, but unlike the northern Rhone, most of the wines are blends of different grapes, with Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre, being the dominant ones ( the recent popularity of Australian GSM wines are based on this blend of grapes). Styles of wine veer from the intense and full on power of Chateauneuf, to quite silky, lighter Cotes du Rhone styles, where the fruity, low tannin Grenache grape dominates.