Exploring Rhone Valley Wines from North to South
What’s the difference between France’s Northern Rhône and Southern Rhône Valleys?
The difference is latitude.
There. My work is done. Of course, I’m just kidding, but let’s start there.
The Rhône River runs in a relatively straight, north-south path by the time it wedges into France from Switzerland near Lyon. While the Rhône is one singular river, it travels through geography and climate adjustments, that have influence over the vineyards.
Northern Rhône Valley
The northern Rhône Valley experiences a cooler climate, and vineyards are knitted along sharp-toothed hillsides with stony soil. The river is down there, and alongside it, the vines are up here. Vineyards are often terraced to lift out of the granite soil and gain intimacy with the sun. Continue reading here for the original contributor blog post by Jill at L’Occasion.
South of France’s gastronomic capital Lyon is Vienne, which is considered the official start of the Rhône wine region. Running from Vienne to Valence, the northern section of the Rhône Valley stretches 65 kilometres (40 miles). With 2800+ hectares of vines under cultivation, the Northern Rhône valley is small compared to many French wine regions, including nearby Châteauneuf-du-Pape. However, the magical combination of steep, terraced vineyards, temperate weather, and adapted grapes results in excellent wines.
There are only a few varietals allowed within the Northern Rhône appellations. Syrah is the only red wine grape with viognier, marsanne and roussanne for white wines. This section of the Rhône Valley includes eight (8) appellations d’origine contrôlée (AOC).
Northern Rhône AOCs
Côte Rôtie has the steepest slopes and sought-after syrah red wines. Jill mentioned in an earlier article that the syrah grapes love this particular sun-baked, south-facing slope.
Condrieu produces exclusively white wines with viognier grapes. The soil of crushed granite and clay, along with enough wind and sun are perfect terroir for these grapes. Some wines from this AOC are suitable for ageing, but not all. Enjoy these crisp, low-acid wines with seafood.
Château-Grillet is both the name of an appellation and the only vineyard within its boundaries. Established in 1936, this AOC estate produces white wines with exclusively viognier grapes.
Saint Joseph is the largest area with some 1,200 hectares of vines of primarily syrah grapes and wines celebrated for their reflection of the terroir. Generally, these wines are modestly priced relative to Hermitage and Côte Rotie production. The Saint Joseph appellation has expanded from just six (6) communes in 1956 to over 100 growers. Although, aficionados feel that the best wines come from vineyards within the original AOC footprint. These wines typically require less ageing than those from Hermitage and Côte Rotie.
Hermitage is a tiny AOC with only 140 hectares of vineyards, but the wines are renowned for their long-lasting qualities. The vines planted in granite soil on south-facing slopes benefit from maximum sunshine and enough breeze. Syrah grapes feature predominately in the red wines, although small percentages of marsanne and roussanne grapes are permitted within the AOC regulations. It is possible to age these robust red wines for up to 30 years. Approximately one-third of the Hermitage production is a white wine with primarily Marsanne grapes.
Crozes-Hermitage, located on the eastern bank of the Rhône, has a large production that eclipses the other seven (7) AOCs in the region. The majority of the output is syrah red wines with about 10% white wines. Experts generally agree that the Crozes-Hermitage wines lack the complexity of those from Hermitage to the north.
Cornas is the smallest of the appellations, with only 131 hectares of vineyards producing exclusively red wines from syrah grapes. Cornas wines are robust, bold and highly tannic, perhaps in keeping with the Celtic origins of town’s name -“burnt land.” The appellation dates from 1938. The vineyards with the best ratings sit on the hillside behind the village of Cornas.
Saint-Péray is the southernmost appellation and may not have the same name recognition as its neighbours. However, this AOC, first established in 1936, produces sparkling and white wines exclusively. Sparkling wines made following the méthode champenoise are roughly 35% of the total production.
Southern Rhône Valley
As the river valley widens and the steep slopes give way to rolling hills, you have arrived in the Southern Rhône Valley. Encompassing vast geography, the Southern Rhône eclipses the north with 95% of the total production. There are many more grape varietals grown, although each AOC dictates the types and amounts permitted within the guidelines. Except for Châteauneuf-du-Pape, most of these appellations include rosé production.
The principal of biodynamic winemaking starts with the philosophy of taking care of the soil. With that in mind, there are no chemicals used on weeds, on the vines, or the grapes. Jill visited the Montirius vineyard, which is certified by BIODYVIN. This group of almost 150 winemakers in France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Switzerland all follow established eco-friendly protocols. Learn more about biodynamic wine in the Southern Rhône.
Domaine Rouge-Bleu is a fully biodynamic vineyard. This agricultural methodology is good for the environment but requires careful oversight by the winemaker – Caroline Jones. As the vintner, she sets vigorous vineyard management standards and rejects the use of chemicals on the vines. The results of their hard work and investment in equipment (a pneumatic press, contemporary tanks, an alternate cooling system, a new pump, and barrel racks) are beginning to manifest in higher grape yields each year. Read more about this vineyard and the owners.
Jill writes about Domaine de Fenouillet and how this vineyard turns Muscat grapes into sweet nectar. It starts with a vendange tardive and botrytis. She has other favourite dessert wines from Provence, including from the neighbouring vineyards in Rasteau.
The vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape were initially planted for the Pope’s wines in the 14th century (Châteauneuf-du-Pape means “new house of the Pope.”) The remains of his summer palace still dominate the countryside. Like many French wines, Châteauneuf-du-Papes are blends of different types of grapes. But unlike other wines, which might use two or three different grapes, in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a whopping total of 13 are allowed. Some are well known, like Grenache and Syrah, while others are more obscure – Bourboulanc or Vaccarèse, anyone?
AOC – Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (controlled geographic designation). The French labelling and quality control system established in 1905. The classification system applies to a wide variety of products, including butter, chicken, lentils and wine. In the case of wine, the AOC designation began in 1935, long after the classification of the Bordeaux Medoc region in 1855. There are 16 villages in the Southern Rhône producing prestigious wines. Additional reading: Wines of Provence Understanding the Colours and Terminology.