The Rhone Valley, France
This region of France was only known by the most
serious wine lovers until the early 1980s. An explosion of popularity
led to enormous price increases as demand grew. Unquestionably wines
of great quality originate in this region; however of late too many
poor examples seem to be available.
Warm to hot in the South, the Northern Rhone is
cooled by the Rhone River and the steep hillside vineyards. None
steeper or more spectacular than those of the Cote Rotie. The famed Mistral winds also play a role in reducing spring frosts and keeping the climate cool and dry.
In the North Syrah rules, sometimes tempered by
the fragrant white grape Viognier. Further to the south, as the
temperature rises, Grenache takes on an increasing importance.
The White grapes are primarily Marsanne, along
with Roussanne in the better wines.
Chateauneuf de Pape allows 13 varieties, reds and
whites, to be blended to make this often exquisite wine. Chief among
these are the important grapes listed above and the red wine grape
The Rhone Valley is long and wide. To even touch
briefly on each village would be too much for this primer, so I will
try to pick out the more important areas North to South.
Cote Rotie - This northern
most region is made from Syrah with the occasional touch of Viognier
for elegance. There are 2 parts of the Cote Rotie, the Cotes Blonde
and Brune. It is said that they are named after 2 daughters, and that
the slopes retain the characteristics of these daughters. All poetry
aside, it is common for the two slopes to be blended together as
Blonde et Brune.
Condrieu - Home of
Viognier. The white wines from this area on the next hill down river
from Cote Rotie can at their best be full of perfume and tart
complexity. At their worst (too often Ch. Grillet, the most famous
Condrieu) they are oxidized and lacking any flavor or charm, but
selling for outrageous prices.
St-Joseph - Syrah with a
touch of the white grape Marsanne on occasion, this wine is often as
good (bad?) as its kin Crozes-Hermitage. Oddly this wine is made from
a group of noncontiguous vineyards running for miles down the valley.
A small amount of decent white wine is also made.
Hermitage - In the running
with Cote Rotie as the best red wines of the Rhone. The Syrah grape
as usual may have a small amount of white wine added to it. Rich and
flavorful this is everything a great Syrah can be. Prices are often
better than Cote Rotie, but it is wise to look for an older vintage
when you can. The Whites can be exceptional and again are made from
Marsanne and with luck a percentage of Roussanne as well.
Crozes-Hermitage - A huge
area on the hills that surround Hermitage. Referred to as the poor
man's Hermitage, this is a disfavor, to Hermitage. The wines of
Crozes, and the similar wines of St-Joseph are too often light,
almost beaujolais in style. When made with more traditional methods
the Syrah of the region can be elegant and flavorful, while still
Cornas - Richer and almost
always better than Crozes or St-Joseph, this is the wine to look for
if you want Syrah without the cost of Hermitage or Cote Rotie. Given
proper time to age, this wine can yield remarkable results.
Saint-Peray - Great White
wines when you can find them.
Chateauneuf du Pape - One
of the most famous wine names in France. Due in large part because of
the wine labeling revolution that started here and later became the
basis of the Appelation Controlee system. CdP still leads in the
labeling front, allowing only Estate Grown wines to bear the glass
embossed seal of the town on their bottles. High in alcohol and easy
to enjoy, this remains the best known of the Rhone wines.
Tavel/Lirac - The great
Grenache based Rose wines that so few other Roses have ever matched.
Never expensive and best enjoyed as young as possible.
Gigondas - Grenache with a
minimum of 15% Syrah and/or Mouvedre as well as a little of the 11
other allowed Cotes du Rhone varieties. Considered a 'Super Cotes du
Rhone' it was the first of the Cotes du Rhone Villages to be elevated
to AC status. Some good to very good, but never great red wines can
be found from this village.
Cotes du Rhone / Cotes du
Rhone-Village - Blended wines , not only of
the14 grape allowed grape varieties, Grenache being chief among them,
but blended from village to village as well. Of varying quality, they
are best when made by the traditional barrel fermented techniques and
not the newer carbonic maceration technique (which is how Beaujolais
is made, and why everything made this way tastes like
Armed with the above regions and an idea of the
price, you can get a good idea of what is in the bottle. Price as
always is the determining factor. Beaujolaised wines (made in the
style of Beaujolais - my own term) are the cheapest and the most
common. The white wines, being more rare than many of the reds, often
fetch the highest prices.