• The Rhône River flows from Lac Léman and Geneva to Lyon, where it is joined by the Saône that flows through Burgundy. The vineyards of the Rhône valley begin just south of this juncture. The northern Rhône produces red wine from Syrah and whites from Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne.

    The northern Rhône and the southern Rhône are geographically close, separated by a 50 kilometer stretch where no wine is produced. Despite their proximity to one another, there are important differences between the two regions. First is the visible difference in the terrain. While the northern Rhône is characterized by steep, terraced river banks, the southern Rhône has gently undulating hills spread out over a broader area.

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  • The main difference between the northern and southern Rhône is the number of grape varieties grown in each. The northern Rhône uses comparatively few grape varieties; Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne, while the southern Rhône has a much wider variety. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the most famous region in the southern Rhône, and its wines are made using thirteen varieties. Some, like Grenache, Syrah, Mouvèdre and Cinsault are well known, but others are less familiar. Counoise is a grape planted in significant amounts. Muscardin produces light but perfumed wines. Vaccarèse is tannic and peppery while Terret Noir is light in body with crisp acidity.

    These are joined in the red wine by several white grapes. Roussanne has the most character. Clairette provides high levels of alcohol, but has soft acidity. Bourbelenc and Picardan are grapes with a fairly neutral character. The final grape is Picpoul, which is allowed by the AC regulations which don't specify which type, Picpoul Gris or Picpoul Noir. This confusion extends to Terret Blanc and Grenache Blanc which are planted alongside the Terret Noir and Grenache Noir but are not considered separate varieties.

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  • Côte Rôtie
    The cliffs of the Côte Rôtie are very steep and vineyards are terraced into the granite slopes. Côte Rôtie is the northernmost appellation of the Rhône. It is usually separated into the subzones Côte Blonde and Côte Brune. The soil of the Côte Blonde is sandier and produces lighter wines while those of the Côte Brune have more clay, giving the wine greater structure. The best Côte Rôties are inky and dark with aromas of violets and blackberries and a characteristic smoke or smoked bacon character very typical of this Syrah. Up to 20% of the white grape Viognier can legally be blended into these reds, but it is rare to find more than 5% in practice.

    Condrieu and Château Grillet
    Condrieu is located just to the south of Côte Rôtie and only produces white wines from the Viognier grape, as does Château Grillet, a tiny AOC just south of the village of Condrieu. These wines are very exotic on the nose, with floral and tropical fruit aromas and flavors, soft acidity and full body on the palate.

    St. Joseph
    South of Château Grillet is a comparatively long stretch of the left bank of the Rhône River where St. Joseph is produced. Here the best vineyards are along the river. Those on the plateau to the west are not nearly as good. Reds are produced from Syrah and whites from Marsanne and Roussanne.

    Hermitage and Crozes Hermitage
    On the other side of the river, Crozes-Hermitage spans a fairly wide area, with Hermitage coming exclusively from the south-facing slopes along a bend in the Rhône near the town of Tain l’Hermitage. This is a tiny area, nonetheless divided into several small climates, such as l’Hermite, which tends to be lighter, and le Méal and les Bessards, which are more tannic and full bodied. The white grapes Marsanne and Roussanne are usually vinified alone in both Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage, and also used for a vin de paille when dried.

    Cornas and St. Péray
    On the west side of the river, Cornas is produced south of St. Joseph. These wines are similar to Hermitage in their full-bodied, tannic character, but they are more rustic and less refined on the palate. It is considered closer to Côte Rôtie and Hermitage in quality than to St. Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage. The final region in the northern Rhône is St. Péray, where a traditional method sparkling wine is made, based mainly on the Marsanne grape.

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  • Châteauneuf-du-Pape
    Châteauneuf-du-Pape is climatically the transition point from northern Rhône to southern Rhône. A bit warmer than the neighboring regions to the north, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is also known for its unique soils - especially its galets, which are large, round stones that cover the ground. These stones gather the heat during the day and reflect it back at night, which helps the grapes ripen.

    White Châteauneuf-du-Pape is made of varying blends of Bourboulenc, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul, and Roussanne.

    Côtes du Rhône
    Châteauneuf-du-Pape is surrounded by Côtes du Rhône, Côtes du Rhône Villages and several crus with their own appellations.

    Basic Côtes du Rhône is similar in general character, but has little of the concentration and depth of flavor of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The wines are lighter, in part because the terroir is not as fine, but also because the yields are higher. Côtes du Rhône is sometimes made using carbonic maceration, a technique that gives deeply colored wines with lots of fruit, but little tannin or structure, but most quality producers stick to traditional winemaking methods.

    Côtes du Rhône Villages wines have a bit more concentration and character because of lower mandatory yields. Names of the more well-known Côtes du Rhône Villages include Cairanne, Rasteau and Beaumes de Venise.

    One addition to the grapes of Châteauneuf-du-Pape is Carignan, a black grape that yields well and gives deeply colored, spicy wine with high alcohol. Clairette Rosé and Ugni Blanc are two more additions, with a maximum of 5% of white grapes in the red wine and 20% in the rosé.

    Other Wines of the Southern Rhône
    Other wines of the southern Rhône with appellations of their own include: Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Lirac. In these areas, the grape blend is limited to Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Clairette. The quality of the top wines can approach that of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Tavel is an appellation for rosé only, usually made from Grenache and Cinsault.

    Other regional appellations in this area include Coteaux du Tricastin, Côtes du Ventoux, Côtes du Luberon, and Coteaux de Pierrevert. These areas are all relatively similar to Côtes du Rhone, and use similar grape blends, as do the main vin de pays appellations: Ardèche, Drôme, Gard, Loire, Rhône and Vaucluse. Northern Rhône producers can use Collines Rhodaniennes, and those around Châteauneuf can use la Principauté d’Orange.

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  • Another type of appellation is that for Vin Doux Naturel or fortified wine. Undoubtedly, the finest and best known of these is Muscat Beaumes de Venise, which is made using Muscat that is cold fermented and fortified with grain neutral alcohol like Port when it has about 125 g/lit of residual sugar remaining. This type of wine is made from Muscat grown throughout southern France, and other appellations include Frontignan, Rivesaltes, Lunel and St. Jean de Minervois. This same process is done with Grenache for the red Rasteau in the Rhône and Maury and Banyuls in the southwest.

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