Jill BarthTasteWines and Spirits of Provence

How to Choose Côtes du Rhône Wines

I am often asked about my “favourite” wine. This is an impossible question and one that I can’t answer. The fact is, I taste so many delicious wines that choosing a favourite seems silly, particularly when things change from vintage to vintage.

But I have a category recommendation that I give everyone because it is ONE of my favourites, and that is Côtes du Rhône. Readers of L’Occasion know that I have a soft spot for these wines — I’ve covered them extensively here and in the wine media. In fact, just last year, I published Côtes du Rhône: Essential French Wines. This piece is structured to help readers understand the different appellations of the region. So check that out for a refresher (and some excellent photos of my trips to southern France, if I do say so myself). Continue reading here for Jill’s photos and her list of wines to try.

Rhône Valley Wines

What’s the difference between France’s Northern Rhône and Southern Rhône Valleys?

The Rhône River runs in a relatively straight, north-south path when it wedges into France from Switzerland near Lyon. While the Rhône is one singular river, it travels through geography and climate adjustments that influence 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. 

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 these eight (8) appellations d’origine contrôlée (AOCs):

Côte Rôtie
Saint Joseph

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. As a result, many more grape varietals are 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.

AOC – Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (controlled geographic designation). The French labelling and quality control system was established in 1905. The classification system applies to various products, including butter, chicken, lentils and wine. In 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.

The principle 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 on the grapes. The Montirius vineyard is certified by BIODYVIN. This group of almost 150 winemakers in France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Switzerland all follow established eco-friendly protocols.


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Jill Barth

Jill is a writer whose characters make wine, love wine, and live wine. Research for her forthcoming novel–the story of a Provençal winemaking family during the Second World War–has afforded her glorious pleasures: meetings with ambitious French vignerons, travel up and down France in bouncy Renaults, overnights in shuttered châteaux, and many hours as a student of wine with a glass to her lips. In this role, she not only enjoys her own relationship with wine but she also indulges in the life of the French winemaking family that inhabits the pages of her novel.

Jill writes about wine, travel and occasionally yoga (she’s a certified yoga instructor). Her fiction has been featured on NPR and has been published in several literary journals.

Her writings can also be found on her blog L’Occasion.

Follow along with Jill on twitter and instagram.

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