This is typically reflected in the wines through fuller body, higher alcohol and deeper colour.
Like Burgundy and the Loire Valley, this region can be divided into areas that are quite distinct from each other.
In this case we have two zones, referred to generally as the:
- Northern Rhône (FR: secteur septentrional) and;
- Southern Rhône (FR: secteur méridional).
Within these two zones there are also communes of such quality that they have earned the right to use their own names – these are the “crus” of the Rhône Valley.
With a diverse range of grape varieties and wine styles, the Rhône Valley has something to suit every palate, if you know what to look for.
The Northern Rhône
Taken as a whole, the Northern Rhône only accounts for ~5% of wine production in all of the Rhône Valley, but the quality of it’s red wines has raised it’s reputation (and prices) above it’s southern counterpart.
It is also the home of the red grape Syrah, with the white varieties of Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne playing supplementary roles, except in certain areas.
The Crus of the North
From north to south the crus of the Northern Rhone are:
- Côte Rôtie
- Chateau Grillet
The crus of Côte Rôtie and Hermitage produce some of the most coveted Syrah-based wines in the world. Both are legally allowed to use a small percentage of white grapes in their red wines (Viognier in Côte Rôtie, Marsanne and Roussanne in Hermitage), which some say helps to fix the colour in the wine and lends a velvety softness to the palate.
Condrieu and Chateau Grillet are the only white-wine specific crus in the North. Their wines made from Viognier are typically high in alcohol and highly aromatic, with notes of ripe peach, lychee and even ginger. It’s acidity is correspondingly muted in this warmer climate, so the wines seem to have a heavy, oily texture on the palate.
Cornas is unique among the crus, being the only one that legally requires 100% Syrah, with no blending with white grapes allowed.
In contrast, St-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage are areas where plantings were substantially increased after renewed interest in wines from the Rhône.
This does not have to mean that the wines are low quality, but one might expect less balance and complexity when compared to the more well-regarded crus.
Because of this, their Syrah-based wines (some Marsanne and Roussanne may be blended in) can be good value for money, and great for early drinking.
The Southern Rhône
Whereas the Northern Rhône’s wines are based on just four grapes, there is a greater number of varieties in play in the south.
Grenache Noir is the main red grape here, giving wines of high alcohol and aromatic intensity.
Mourvedre, Cinsault and Syrah are also strongly represented here.
Grenache Blanc is the main white grape, with some plantingse of Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne. While some white wine is produced, these are also blended into red wines as in the north.
The Crus of the South
Here the crus are a little more spread out, but roughly from north to south they are:
Chateauneuf-du-Pape sits at the top in terms of both quantity and quality.
It is special due to its 13 permitted grapes use (including mutations):
- Grenache Noir (+Gris and +Blanc)
- Picpoul Noir (+Blanc)
- Terret Noir
This gives producers a myriad ways to express how they feel a wine from Chateauneuf-du-Pape should be like.
- On one extreme, Château Rayas has built it’s reputation on wines from 100% Grenache
- On the other, Château de Beaucastel makes a point of using all 13 permitted varieties.
And of course there will be all those producers in between.
If there is anything that I have learned in my studies, it’s that there is no truly “typical” Chateauneuf-du-Pape wine – there is a range where it fits between, but deeper distinction is something that needs long discussions (hopefully over a few glasses of wine).
Tavel is unusual in that it only produces Rosé wine, primarily from Grenache Noir and Cinsault.
Historically, these rosé wines have been quite powerful and full-bodied, unlike the lighter styles made in Provence. It is an important food wine, balancing fruit with a relatively high alcohol level.
The remaining crus of Gigondas, Lirac, Vacqueyras and Vinsobres all mainly produce red wines on a smaller scale, in a similar image to Chateauneuf-du-Pape
The Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages AOP designation deserves a special mention. This is not a cru, but covers almost 100 communes in the Southern Rhone, some of which may append their name on the label.
Some of these communes may have the chance to be promoted to crus in their own right, as happened with Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Vinsobres.
As you can see, the Rhône Valley has much variety to offer, and some excellent value for money if you know where to look.
From the perspective of a student, there are many rules and exceptions, making the Rhône Valley an endless source of entertainment if you enjoy looking into the nuances of what makes each of the crus different from one another.
As always, drink responsibly!
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