The Rhône region is situated in the Rhône Valley, Southern France. The Rhône river meanders from the Alps to the Mediterranean Sea and has numerous appellations on both sides. 98% of the wines are red or rosé, but if you look closer you will find a few white wines. The northern and southern part of the valley are two completely different worlds worth the discovery.
The origin of the Rhône valley
The Rhône Valley was created during the last Ice Age when the Rhône Glacier carved its way through the landscape. The Rhône Glacier is the source of the Rhône river and the largest one in the Urner Alps.
The first vines were planted around 600 BC. Some say the Greeks brought the Syrah grape variety to France, some credit the Persians who chased away the Greeks and others even claim the honour is left to the Romans. Whatever story may be true, when the Romans left the valley so did the general interest in the wine region.
In the 13th century, the Popes purchased vineyards in the Rhône Valley and moved to Avignon. They changed the tide for good and expanded the production of wine. The first mention of ‘Côtes de Rhône’ was put into writing in the 16th century.
The four main appellations of Côte du Rhône
The basis appellation ‘Côte du Rhône AOC’ covers both the northern and southern subregions of Rhône and almost 80% of the wines produced in the Rhône valley. These easy drinkable red wines have a minimum of 11% alcohol and are perfect to serve on a weekday or at a casual gathering with friends. The appellation is also used by negociants who buy grapes in bulk, which they to bottle, distribute and export at a larger scale, as production rules are less strict.
Next step up is the ‘Côtes-du-Rhône Villages AOC’. These wines have a lower yield than wines from the Côte-du-Rhône AOC and a minimum of 12,5% alcohol. In comparison to the previous AOC, production rules are stricter. Red wines, for example, must contain at least 50% Grenache with 20% Syrah and/or Mourvèdre. A maximum of 20% of other authorised grape varieties is permitted. Based on their terroir, there are 95 communes who may display the AOC on their label but without mention of their village.
The highest level of classification is the ‘Côte-du-Rhône Villages AOC with mention of the village’. 25 of the 95 communes of the communes of the appellation are authorised to append their respective village name on the label. Within the Côte-du-Rhône Villages AOC - with or without mention of the village - you’ll find both fresh and fruity wines as wines perfect for ageing.
The highest level is the Cru, which are 18 distinctive regions with an exceptional terroir. The rules are even stricter and the label doesn’t show a reference to the Rhône. Côte Rôtie, Saint-Joseph, Cornas, Crozes-Hermitage and Hermitage are examples of northern Crus and Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas have their home base in the south.
The land of the Northern Rhône
The north has steep hills and a granite soil with stone, shingle and clay. It’s much smaller than the southern part of the Rhône Valley and makes up less than 10%. It’s even smaller than the Chateauneuf du Pape estate. Only 5% of the wines produced in the Rhône Valley comes from the north.
As machines can’t work the landscape and production is done by hand, the quality of the wines is often much higher. The vines are planted close to the river and enjoy great sun exposure and shelter from the mistral winds.
The grapes of the Northern Rhône
The two main grape varieties planted in the north of the Rhône Valley are Syrah and Viognier.
Syrah is a red grape variety that grows in the Rhône Valley and Languedoc. The wines’ colour is dark, from violet to black as soot. Young wines even have a blue sheen and smell of exotic flowers. The grape is loved for its spicy character and releases a high level of tannins, which results in powerful and complex wines.
Viognier is a white grape variety. For some wines, it is mixed with Syrah to contribute to the colour and bouquet of the wine. Viognier produces full-bodied wines with a soft character and reveals notes of peach, pear, violet but also a level of minerality. Viognier is a difficult grape to cultivate. The grape should only be picked when fully ripe and its yield is often low and unpredictable.
The land of the Southern Rhône
The southern Rhône Valley is much flatter than the north. It has a Mediterranean climate with mild winters and hot summers. The vines are not protected from the Mistral winds that cool down the vines but also gives the wines a higher acidity and an intense flavour.
Its chalk soils with clay or sand have big stones in the upper layers. The stones make it difficult to cultivate the land with machines but they improve drainage and keep the soil warm when the grapes need to ripen. When you visit Gobelet you will see the vines are kept low on the ground by regularly trimming because of this.
The grapes of the Southern Rhône
Besides Syrah, there are two other grape varieties that are common in the south of the Rhône Valley: Grenache and Mourvèdre.
Grenache is one of the most widely planted red grape varieties and is known for its dark colour. His intense aromas remind of black fruit, coffee, spices, roasted nuts, black cherries and even olives. A young wine with a high level of Grenache tastes of strawberries and raspberries, while an older wine will have a more earthy taste. The wines have a high alcohol percentage and after ten years the dark colour will turn mahonie and the aromas will become more complex.
Mourvèdre is a red grape with high demands: it needs a lot of warmth and prefers a clay soil. When the grape can’t enjoy the sun, it will give less alcohol and less taste. It has a very distinctive smell of spices and even animals. The wine is firm and robust with a high level of tannins. It’s the perfect grape to mix with others.
The Rhône Valley offers something for everybody
Whether you are looking for a fine wine to celebrate the weekend or a special occasion: the Rhône Valley offers both high-quality table wines and exclusive ones. Discover our wide range Rhône wines in our online shop. Don’t hesitate to contact us for personal assistance.