Wouldn’t it be great to take a river boat cruise down the Rhône River? There are many quaint towns with world-class restaurants and festivals happening throughout the year. Best of all, great views of the vineyards and changing topography from northern to southern Rhône.
I have written many articles about Rhône Valley wines. I have shared the rich history of the region, it is one of my favorite examples that there is no separation of church and wine. I have even provided some important statistics and grape information of the region. Today, we will go deeper into France’s second largest wine producing region. We will begin in Lyon and follow the Rhône River south to explore the crus of the Rhône Valley.
Our virtual journey begins in Northern Rhône. Many of the vineyards in Northern Rhône lie upon the steep slopes of the River between Vienne in the north and Valence in the south. This area of the Rhône Valley is narrow and steep. The climate here is moderate continental with temperatures noticeable cooler than in southern Rhône.
The cooler climate provides ideal growing conditions for Syrah, and in much smaller percentages, Viognier. In fact, due to the cooler temperatures and fierce Mistral winds, Northern Rhône is the furthest north Syrah can grow and ripen successfully. Therefore, the most prized vineyard sites are planted on steep slopes facing the south to maximize sun exposure and aid in grape ripening. These wines tend to be deep in color, have medium to high tannins, and contain notes of dark fruit, flowers, pepper, and cured meats. Oak use varies from new, small barrels to large older barrels depending on the winemaker’s style.
Viognier makes a full-body white wine with low acidity. It’s characteristically aromatic with vibrant white floral notes, stone fruits, citrus, and melon. Because of its low acidity it is a tricky grape to grow. Its aromatics develop late in the season so it needs time to develop. It must also be handled carefully during harvest to avoid it developing oily characters that alter the aromas. It is often aged in new oak but must be done carefully to avoid overwhelming its inviting aromas. Marsanne and Roussanne are also grown in Northern Rhône and are usually blended together.
Most of the wines in the Northern Rhône come from one of the eight cru appellations. Here is a brief look at each:
- Côte-Rôtie AOC: means “roasted slope,” it is the most northern appellation in the Rhône Valley and is situated around the town of Ampuls; extremely steep hillsides with terraced vineyards; only red wines made from Syrah, but up to 20% Viognier may be added; highly prestigious and expensive wines.
- Condrieu AOC: northern most white wine appellation in the Rhône Valley; all Viognier, which almost disappeared in the 1950’s, thanks to dedicated winemakers it saw a Renaissance in the 1980’s, today at 110 hectares it sets the benchmark for Viognier.
- Château-Grillet AOC: at only 3.5 hectares it’s the smallest AOC in the Rhône Valley; it produces only white wine from Viognier that are somewhat mythical because of the cru’s small production
- Saint-Joseph AOC: majority of wines crafted here are from Syrah, but Marsanne and Roussanne are also made; the wines vary in quality with the best coming from grapes grown on the terraced vineyards near Tournon, which can be similar in style and flavor to Hermitage; some of Northern Rhône’s lightest bodied red wines are crafted from grapes grown in the more fertile flatter sites on the valley floor, these wines are made using some elements of carbonic maceration.
- Crozes-Hermitage AOC: the largest of the Northern Rhône vineyards; reds from Syrah and whites from Marsanne and Roussanne are made here; style and quality varies depending on vineyard site from lesser expensive easy drinking to fine wines with long age-ability.
- Hermitage AOC: located on the steep southern-facing slope behind the town of Tain-l’Hermitage; it is divided into a number of “named” sites that vary in steepness and aspect, giving the wines subtle differences in body and style; traditionally the best Hermitage wines are comprised of a blend of these sites; these are generally the fullest bodied of the Northern Rhône reds and age well.
- Cornas AOC: means “burnt earth” in old Celtic, southern most of all northern red wine crus; warmest; southern facing slopes form an amphitheater that protects the vines from the Mistral; Syrah only, deep in color, full-bodied, similar to Hermitage;
- Saint Péray AOC: the 75 hectares of vineyard lie at the foot of the slopes of Crussol Chateau upon the “Colline de Crussol” or limestone spur; it is the southern most of all the Northern Rhône vineyards; it is solely a white wine cru crafted of Marsanne and Roussanne, and 1/3 of the wines made here are sparkling.
The vineyard area of Southern Rhône is much larger and produces a wide range of wines from inexpensive high-volume to premium wines. The terrain is flatter and many, but not all, of the best vineyards contain stony soil aiding in absorbing the sun’s rays to warm the vineyards and aid in ripening. In Châteauneuf-du-Pape these stones are called galets and completely cover the soil.
The climate is Mediterranean with mild winters and warm dry summers. Drought can be an issue in the Southern Rhône. Furthermore, the lack of natural barriers means the Mistral winds of Northern Rhône pick up speed in the South, extensive damage to vineyards can be an issue. Windbreaks are used in some vineyards to protect the vines. Grenache is often bush-vine trained low to the ground to aid in wind protection while also benefiting from the warmth of the soil. Syrah is more easily damaged so trellising styles are used to offer it support.
Southern Rhône is a land of blends. Dozens are grape varieties are permitted in the wines. However, Grenache dominates most of the Southern red wines and is by far the most widely planted grape. Additionally red grapes include Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Carignan, and many more. White grapes are in the minority in Southern Rhône; however, they still produce many lovely white wines. Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc notably join Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne.
Côtes du Rhône accounts for more than half the entire production of wines, mainly reds, in the south. The quality and style of these wines varies widely. Many are fruity, approachable and well-priced. Within the Côtes du Rhône, a number of villages have obtained a higher designation and are permitted to be labeled Côtes du Rhône Villages. These wines must adhere to more stringent regulations on minimum alcohol levels, maximum yields, and observe a greater percentage of their blends from Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre. If 100% of the wine comes from the named village that village may list its name on the label. These are the best wines below the crus.
Southern Rhône contains nine crus. Here is a brief look at each cru:
- Vinsobres AOC: elevated to cru status in 2006; “sober wine,” applauded for the dedication of its passionately innovative winemakers that traveled and brought back new ideas and passion; wine crafted mainly of Grenache and Syrah
- Rasteau AOC: elevated to cru status in 2010 due largely in part to the dedication and skills of the appellation’s winemakers; wines must contain 50% Grenache Noir, Syrah, Mourvèdre are blended, Carignan may also be included
- Cairanne AOC: sun-drenched hillsides with the smell of garrigue in the air; warm dry climate, produces red, rosé and white wines from a large selection of Southern Rhône grapes.
- Gigondas AOC: one of the most long-standing crus, highly revered, red wine only leading with Grenache Noir, adding Syrah, Mourvèdre, followed by all other red grapes approved by the Côtes du Rhône
- Vacqueyras AOC: dates back to the 1st century BC from Roman relics found; terroir leads to wines that are full-bodied, yet delicate and balanced; predominately red wines with Grenache Noir leading production at 97%, followed by Syrah, Mourvedre and other reds; white are produced here as well utilizing Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc, Roussanne, Marsanne, and Viognier.
- Beaumes des Venise AOC: here grapevines and olive groves intermingle Tuscan style, soil types date back to the Jurassic era; cru status was officially granted in 2005; this red wine region is also known for its delicious dessert wines, Muscat Beaumes-des-Venise
- Châteauneuf-du-Pape AOC: this is where the AOC concept was born; rich in history and wine, this is the most prominent of the Southern Rhône crus and the largest of all the crus in the Rhône Valley; quite diverse in aspect and soil types, though the vineyard areas are notably flat; grape varieties range up to 13, allowing for wide diversity in the wines produced; Grenache Noir dominates and some wines produced are even 100% Grenache; a small amount of white wines are also crafted; quality is key when buying wines from CDP, not all the wines are made with care.
- Lirac AOC: the southernmost cru in the Rhône Valley and likely the least well-known; wines have been cultivated here since ancient times and it was allotted cru status in 1947; due to the variety of soil and Mediterranean climate Lirac produces red, rosé, and white wines.
- Tavel AOC: the only Rhône Valley AOC to produce only rosé; fuller in body than Provence rosé, intensely flavored and some are even capable of developing complexities when properly aged in the bottle.
I wish I could share with you notes of a wine from each cru. I have not been so lucky to taste wines from every one of them. What I can share with you today is four wines beginning in the north in Condrieu, traveling down the Rhône River through Crozes-Hermitage, Rasteau, and ending up in Beaumes-De-Venise. Here are my very brief notes:
2015 E. Guigal Condrieu AOC Viognier Rhône Valley France ($50): dazzling nose of honeysuckle, ripe pears, nectarines, honeydew melon, crushed stone; focused and linear with surprisingly pronounced acidity for a Viognier, mineral driven palate with ripe fruit notes, truly dazzling; left me wanting more.
2015 Jean-Luc Colombo ‘Les Fees Brunes’ Syrah Crozes-Hermitage Rhône Valley France ($20): unique and highly approachable wine for such a young age; inviting aromas of dark fruit, spice, black pepper, and cured meats; full-body, modern style; balanced; I adore Northern Rhône Syrah but they usually need years to age, this one makes these wines accessible through palate and price to a wider audience.
2015 Domaine de Beaurenard Red Rasteau AOC Rhône Valley France ($19): a blend of 80% Grenache Noir, 20% Syrah; deep brooding wine with notes of ripe dark fruit, dried roses, smoke, spice, and subtle garrigue that I adore; full-body, bold yet elegant, ripe tannins that are well-integrated rich and earthy; a lovely wine that is also approachable.
2015 Paul Jaboulet Aine ‘Le Paradou’ Beaumes-De-Venise Rhône Valley France ($16): crafted by one of Northern Rhône, and all of the Rhône Valley’s, most prominent wineries; 75% Grenache, 25% Syrah; dark and bold with notes of slightly baked black fruit, dried violets, licorice, baking spice, smoke, trailing bacon fat; rich and round on the palate, full-bodied, integrated yet youthful tannins; fun to drink.