The Rhone Wine Region

Wine Tours of the Rhone

Rhone Wine Tours

What is often referred to in shorthand as 'the Rhone' consists of two distinct regions, the Northern Rhone and the Southern Rhone, and I deal with them separately here.

Northern Rhone

The Northern Rhone
  • Northern Rhone is tiny compared to the southern end – only 5% of all Rhone wine is produced here.
  • The wine region starts about 30 kms south of Lyon and extends 90 kms further south to Valence, following the Rhone river.
  • The vineyards are on steep and rocky hillsides. Terroir is much influenced by the river with an overall cooler climate than in the south. La Bise , the wind that funnels through the river valley, helps to keep the vines clean and as disease-free as possible.
  • 95% reds, 5% whites. Syrah for reds; viognier, marsanne and roussanne for whites.
  • Little known region before the 1980s when it was ‘discovered’ by influential wine critic Robert Parker. With small production and fame come high prices…

And if you want to know more…
There have been vineyards here since Roman times, maybe before. At Lyons, the Saone river joins the Rhone and the combined flow becomes majestic, deep and fast-moving. The best sites are on the steep granitic hills which loom over the river as it ploughs inexorably southward. The appellations, from north to south, are as follows.

Cote Rotie
Reds only here, but, boy, what reds! Sensual, silky, exotic, erotic (whoa, down fellah), with depth of flavour and great aromatic complexity – bacon fat, black and red fruits, earthiness, pepper, spice… stick your nose in a glass and you might just forget to drink. A small amount of white viognier is allowed to be added to the syrah for complexity and roundness. Tiny appellation of about 200 hectares.

An even smaller appellation of about 135 hectares, this time only whites from viognier. The wines have a luscious, sometimes oily texture. Vinification combines steel tanks and oak barrels. Wines can be dry or sweet, but the latter can tend to cloy. The best dries combine peaches, pears, honey, apricot, honeydew melon, with a floral overlay.

Chateau Grillet
But if you want really, really small, welcome to the 3.5 hectares of Chateau Grillet, one of the smallest French appellations. Whites only, from viognier. Owned by a single producer, the same guy who owns Chateau Latour in Bordeaux. A superb wine combining fatness and acidity with aromas of rose, violet, pear, pineapple, honey, nougat… Needs ageing to show at its best.

Saint Joseph
The largest appellation in the northern Rhone with some 1200 hectares of vines, 90% syrah for reds, 10% marsanne and roussanne for whites. With such a large area under production, terroir and producers’ commitment to best practice can vary, making quality hit and miss. But the best are very good value for money. The most feminine wines of the northern Rhone, both reds and whites can be enjoyed in their youth.

Second largest of the region’s appellations, weighing in at around 1000 hectares. 90% syrah for reds, 10% marsanne and roussanne for whites. Given its similarity in size to Saint Joseph, the same reasoning vis-à-vis quality applies, but the best are, again, very good value for money – certainly as compared to the neighbouring Hermitage appellation. In fact, think of it as a slightly poorer cousin of Hermitage. Reds are smoky, peppery with cassis scents. Whites are no great shakes.

As famous as Cote Rotie, but a small 130 hectares. The famous ‘Hill of Hermitage’ towers over the town of Tain l’Hermitage where the Rhone takes a brief west to east interlude before resuming its southward course. This granitic outcrop is one of the most dramatic settings for vineyards in the world. Reds from syrah are powerful and tannic with aromas of black and red fruits, tar, cassis, pepper. The best can easily age 40+ years. Whites from marsanne are full-bodied with scents of nuts, peaches and minerals.

Reds only in this 100 hectare appellation – but what reds! Almost black in colour, very tannic, robust, virile. In the bad old days barrels of Cornas were shipped to Bordeaux and other regions to add body to the local wines – strictly verboten now of course. Aromas are earthy with black fruits; very big in the mouth, almost coarse – not everyone’s idea of a relaxing tipple.

The most obscure of the northern Rhone appellations, its 64 hectares produce whites only from marsanne and roussanne – 60% dry, 40% sparkling. In the 1800s the best St Péray sparklers sold for more than some champagne, but the region lost its way and produced only mediocre wines for a long time. Now, though, things are looking up, with successful producers from elsewhere in the Rhone investing time and money here. One to look out for.
Wines of the Northern Rhone
Historic Centre of Lyon
St Antoine l Abbaye Rhone

The Southern Rhone

The Southern Rhone
  • Almost 95% of all Rhone wines (roughly 380 million bottles) come from the southern sector.
  • Large, widespread area between Montélimar and Avignon. As the vineyards are spread far and wide, there is no influence on terroir from the Rhone river (unlike in the north).
  • But, given the size of the area, there are a multitude of soil types, micro-climates, and wine-making styles. All wine types are present but reds dominate.
  • Most wines are blends: principal red grapes are grenache, syrah, mourvèdre and cinsault; for whites, marsanne, roussanne and grenache blanc. Generally good, early drinking, but the best can be aged with great advantage.
  • Used to be ‘famed’ as a prime producer of plonk – but make no mistake, for the past 20 years or so quality has improved immeasurably; prices have inevitably crept up too.

And if you want to know more…
The most famous of the southern Rhone appellations. 95% reds with Grenache the most important grape, but with additions of syrah and mourvèdre as the producer sees fit. Wines are fruity yet chewy, meaty, herby (Provençal lavender, rosemary and thyme). A large range of styles here, with the more traditional makers preferring old oak, the young turks new oak – which is by way of saying tread carefully, not all CduP is made equal. Suggested food pairings: venison, moussaka, lamb stew, roast duck, munster cheese.

Cotes du Rhone/Cotes du Rhone Villages
A massive wine region, the second largest appellation after Bordeaux. The ‘villages’ part of the appellation is of a higher quality, vines being planted on superior terroirs. 90% reds principally from grenache, 7% rosés, 3% whites. These can be some of the best value for money wines anywhere – honest to goodness, early drinking. Unfortunately, some hark back to the bad old days of plonk; by the law of averages there are bound to be some lazy or inept wine makers given the size of the region. Find one, or a few, that you like and stick with them. Suggested food pairings: pizza and black olives, roast chicken, chicken tikka masala, veal cutlets, goats’ cheese.

One of the prettiest one-horse villages with expansive views and charming restaurants/wine bars with laid back outside seating. 99% reds from grenache, the wines are a rustic, beefy fore-armed version of Chateauneuf (of which it is a near neighbour). Suggested food pairings: beef stroganoff, cassoulet, wild boar.

Due south of Gigondas, again predominantly reds from grenache, mourvèdre, syrah and cinsault. If you’re looking for a rustic, burly, powerful red, there are still great bargains to be had here. Suggested food pairings: steak, lamb, duck.

This appellation only allows the production of red wine. The dry variety is produced from a high percentage of mourvèdre. These are popular and pleasant. The area’s real claim to fame is the sweet, fortified, red wine, Vin Doux Naturel Rasteau, made from grenache. Not your everyday run of the mill wine, but a go-to if you’re looking for something to pair with chocolate desserts.

Beaumes de Venise
This area makes basic reds from grenache and syrah. They’re OK but I find them a little coarse and basic, particularly when compared to the production of some of the other villages above. The jewel in the crown here is Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, a sweet, fortified white wine made exclusively from muscat grapes. With aromas of orange, honey, and passion fruit, this can go equally well with savoury foie gras or strawberries for dessert.

At the far southern end of the Rhone, Lirac is almost on the border with Languedoc-Roussillon. 80% reds (blends, but predominantly grenache), 10% rosés, 10% whites. Good wines at fair prices. Try reds with duck breasts, guinea fowl or ostrich.

A unique appellation in the southern Rhone, devoted 100% to rosé wines. Made from the same red grapes as used elsewhere in the region, these are some of the finest rosés you will find anywhere. Fruity and refreshing for sure, as all rosés should be, but also with a raciness and complexity. If you were ever a rosé denier, at least give one of these a try. And if you go with tapas, charcuterie, grilled tuna or shrimp, or a salad Niçoise, you will become a rosé convert.

The Pont d Avignon
Sunset in the Rhone
Carpentras Vineyards

Contact Me

For more information or to arrange your next tour with French Wine Tours, call John Sherwin on +33 (0)7 50 90 02 00
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