A Journey to the Rhône Valley

Syrah is one of the grapes that I am most fond of.  There is no better terroir for Syrah than the Rhône Valley, one of the greatest wine regions of the world.  I am going to take you on a cruise down the Rhône River to explore the crus of the Rhône Valley.  Join me as there is so much to explore and so much to fall in love with in the Rhône.  The Rhône Valley stretches from the city of Lyon all the way into the Mediterranean.  In the north there are vineyards upon vineyards along the banks of the river and along steep hillside and into the rolling hills of southern Rhône.

The entire region produces Côtes du Rhône, one of France’s most approachable, affordable and food-friendly wines.  There are seventeen cru villages within the Rhône region, each with individual characteristics and terroir that merit their own appellations.  Though the region is called the Rhône, it is important to understand that Northern Rhône is distinctly different from its southern counterpart.  The Rhône Valley is a tale of two regions, Northern Rhône and Southern Rhône.  There are obvious differences in the north and south, with unique soils terroir, climate and grape varietals.  So let’s begin by exploring Northern Rhône first, taking a cruise departing Lyon and then make our way down south.

Northern Rhône

The steep hillside vineyards of Northern Rhône run from Lyon to Valence.  Syrah is King in the north. Most of the red wines are primarily single varietal Syrahs, some blend a touch of Viognier to add perfume and structure to the wines. Syrah is to Northern Rhône to what Pinot Noir is to Burgundy.  The whites of the Northern Rhône are primarily blends of Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne. There is a continental climate in Northern Rhône, and is considerably cooler and wetter than its southern counterpart.

Though Syrah is the main grape varietal of the north, the style of wines differ greatly based on the cru villages, terroir and the traditions of the winemaker.  The soils are primarily granitic and schist soils.  The north produces only 10% of the entire regions wines, but are typically of higher quality and higher in price as many are small production and are extremely sought after.  Most of the vines are hand harvested due to the steepness of the slopes.   The red wines of Northern Rhône are typically bold structured, powerful, intense and tannic.  The wines have notes of spice, violets, blackberries, bacon fat, truffles, and distinct white pepper.  The Northern Rhône comprises of 8 main crus that are unique and distinct in styles.

Côte-Rôtie AOC – Also known as the “roasted slope” it is the northernmost of the cru AOC’s.  The vineyards were first planted by the Romans under Caligula.  Syrah is blended with a touch of Viognier.  Côte Brune and Côte Blonde are the most famous sites of the region.  The vineyards of Côte Rôtie are some of France’s most steepest at 55 degrees, thus all grapes are hand harvested.  The wines are some of the most seductive wines of France. Guigal is the most prestigious producer in the region.

Condrieu AOC – Condrieu is most notable for producing white wines.  Condrieu wines are made with 100% viognier.  The wines are big, vibrant, rich, with an oily texture that is signature Viognier.  The narrow terraces of Condrieu are made up of granite  and arzelle: a mixture of decomposed granite, mica, shale, and clay.  These soils impart aromas of peach and apricot that are distinctive to Viogniers from Condrieu.

Château-Grillet AOC – Chateau-Grillet is only allowed to grow one grape and has only one producer in the entire region.  Growing Viognier on only 3.5 hectares, Chateau Grillet is the smallest Rhône appellation and is also a World Heritage Site.  Produced by only one maker, this white wine is elegant with notes of honey, apricot and peach.

Saint-Joseph AOC – Produces primarily medium bodied Syrahs that are more approachable and don’t require long aging.  They also produce whites, with Marsanne and Roussanne.  Some of the best values come from this region.

Hermitage AOC – A legendary cru, Hermitage is a region that produces both whites and reds and is one of the most sought after AOC.  With a perfect location on the left bank with south facing sunny hills perched up above the town of Tain L’Hermitage. It is home to some of the most prestigious wines of the region with the greatest aging potential.  Some notable producers are Chapoutier and Jaboulet.

Crozes-Hermitage AOC – Just behind the hills of Hermitage lie the vineyards of Croze-Hermitage.  It is the largest appellation in the northern Rhône, with flatter land.  The wines are approachable and meant to drunk young as they are lighter in style.

Cornas AOC – Cornas is located on the right bank of the Rhône and means “burnt earth” in old Celtic.  Cornas has a rich history of winemaking dating back to 885.  Only red wines are produced in Cornas.  Wines are a bit more masculine with firmer tannins than other northern Rhône wines and require a bit more time in cellar before consumption.  Jean Luc Colombo and Thierry Allemand are credited for bringing awareness to this region over the last two decades.

Saint Péray AOC – Saint Péray is the southernmost of the Northern Rhône Crus, the wines are all white with one third of the production being sparkling wines.  The sparkling wines are made mainly with Marsanne.  Lying along the southern edge of the Rhône, Marsanne and Roussanne are two white grapes grown on limestone and granitic soils, giving the wines acidity and structure.

Southern Rhône

Cruising down past Valence we begin to approach Southern Rhône.  The South could not be more different than the north.  While the wines of the north are rare and highly sought after, they only make up 5% of the total Rhône production.  The other 95% comes from the South.  The South also produces mostly reds, and are predominantly blends.  Like how Syrah is to the North, Grenache is the signature grape of the south.  Grenache is often blended with Syrah and Mourvedre for added structure.

The climate of the Southern Rhône region is Mediterranean with a hilly to flat landscape.  There are strong mistral wind(50 mph) that comes through the valley, thus the vines are low and bush trained.  The soils are alluvial and covered with galets that allow for heat retention during the day which is dispersed during the cool nights. The wines of Southern Rhône offer great value.  They are concentrated, structured and express wonderful rich fruit characteristics .  Like the North the cru villages are distinctive and have their own charm and personality.

Vacqueyras AOC – In Latin Vacqueryas translate to “Valley of the Rock”.  The wines are mostly red, 50% Grenache is required for red wines of this AOC. The wines are full bodied, elegant and complex, reflecting the unique terroir of the region.

Cairanne AOC – Cairanne is a small hillside village that produces reds, whites and rosés.  The wines require 50% Grenache and minimum 20% Syrah and/or Mourvedre.  The rosés have the same requirement.

Gigondas AOC – Gigondas is unique hillside town that is carved by hand.  Gigondas wines are rich, spicey and concentrated.  The wines are high quality and age worthy.  Only red wine is made in this cru.  The wines are concentrated balanced and refined with 80% Grenache grapes in each bottle.

Chateauneuf du Pape AOC – CdP is the most recognizable cru in the Southern Rhône region.  The grapes were first planted here by the Romans.  Chateauneuf du Pape takes its name from the time when the Pope moved to Avignon in 1309.  There were eight different Popes that resided in Avignon and were there till 1378.  15 grapes are allowed to be planted in the region with strict rules on irrigation, harvesting, and vine age.  The wines of CdP are made in a wide variety of styles.  Many of the wines can be drunk young and many can be cellared for years to come.  The red wines are bold and rich, yet have a sense of elegance and finesse.  5% of the production is Châteauneuf du Pape Blanc. Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc, Roussanne, Picpoul and Picardan are the allowed varieties for white Chateauneuf du Pape

Vinsobres AOC – Vinsobres translates to “sober wines”.  Producing complex, rich, full-bodied wines from mostly Grenache and Syrah.   The wines are balanced and aromatic, made passionately by young winemakers that have bought home new winemaking ideas from their travels.

Beaumes de Venise AOC – The vines in the region were first planted by Greek settlers.  This beautiful village is renowned for their sweet Muscat wines. Their red wines are also of high quality.  The village is reminiscent of a Tuscany, where grapevines and olive trees line the landscape.

Rasteau AOC – Rasteau is a village that is perched high on a hill  This sheltered AOC  has mostly south-facing vineyards with great soil diversity.  The village has passionate wine makers that make high quality wines.  Grenache Noir rules the region, and at least 50% of the wine must contain Grenache.   Rasteau is also known for their Vin Doux Naturel fortified wines.

Tavel AOC – Tavel is a gorgeous village that is draped in pink.  Tavel wines are only available in rosés.  Honoré de Balzac said it is one of the rare roses that age for the better.  The rosé wines are complex, full-bodied with beautiful aromas of fruit and spice.

Lirac AOC – Lirac is the southernmost cru, producing wines that are fresh and delicate.  A wine region that is off the beaten path, yet has been making wines since ancient time.  Lirac is one of the rare crus that produces red, white and roses.

So many villages, so many grape varietals, so many wonderful wines.  The Rhone is full of diversity, history, and wonderful stories.  Once you have had Rhône wines you will come back over, and over, and over again.  The wines are distinct with a sense of place and terroir.  Discover the wines for yourself.  Below is a rich sampling of a few of the wines that represent the region.

Bernard Levet Cote-Rotie “La Chavaroche” 2014 – $60

This wine is made with vines that are at least 60 years old. Levet’s wines are now mostly handled by his daughter Agnes, who has done a supreme job of elevating the winery to the top echelon of Northern Rhône producers.  The wine is a beautiful expression of the terroir of Cote Rotie, with balance, richness and concentration.

Jean Baptiste Souillard Cornas Saint Pierre 2014  – $90

Coming from a traditional wine making family, It was never a question for Jean-Baptiste: even very young he knew he would one day make wine. After his studies with Jean-Luc Colombo and having worked in Burgundy where even modest individual terroirs are revered, he found it sad that so many Northern Rhône wines were blends. That is why he only releases single grape varietals to explore the potential of his land. 2014 is his first vintage.  The wine is made on pure granite at 1150 feet altitude. This wine can age for a long time to come but it currently exhibits classic notes of black pepper, violets, blackberries, olives and bacon fat. Jean Baptiste is a surely a name to look out for.

Domaine Gramenon Vinsobres “La Papesse” 2014 – $48

This Vinsobres is 100% Grenache and 100% Organic. Michelle Aubery-Laurent has been producing great wine without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides or fungicides for thirty years. She does this not because it is fashionable, but because she believes it is right for her and her vines. The wines she produces are intense, aromatic, and refined.  This beautiful wine is made with vines that are old (60+) and grow in clay/limestone soils.

Domaine Romaneaux-Destezet (Hervé Souhaut) Saint Joseph Blanc 2016 – $32

Hervé Souhaut bought the property in 1983 and has deep passion and respect for the land, making natural wines with no additives.  Hervé has five hectares of ancient vines ranging from 50 to 100 years old in Saint-Joseph. This beautiful wine is 100% Roussanne from gorgeous south-facing slopes. The wine is truly a grand example of a Northern Rhône white that is ageworthy but also approachable now.

++Wines were provided as media samples, all opinions are my own.

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  1. Pete Barker says:

    Have you reviewed any of the syrah, petit syrah, and counoise wines from Eric Glomski’s winery at Page Springs Cellars (Cornville, AZ)? How do these compare with Rhone productions?

  2. Now that’s a cruise I’d be happy to take! Great selection of wines.

  3. Thank you for that journey down the Rhône Valley. I would love to explore this region in more detail. In the meantime, I will look for some of your wine suggestions.

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