“Do not search in a wine for the reflection of an exact science. The formulas of scientific oenology are only a thin competition which does not know how to respect the mysteries of eternal creation.”
~The late Jacques Perrin, Château Beaucastel, Châteauneuf-du-Pape
If only lightly familiar with French wines, Champagne or Burgundy probably pop into your mind when conversation turns to bottles from France. Yes, those are diamond-studded French cellar stars, but there is a region that fits nicely with most tastes and budgets. Reader, get ready to meet your new wine best friend: Wines of the Rhône Valley. Serve Rhône Valley wines to your pals and you will be so popular that they’ll let you sit in the front seat.
The Rhône Kingdom: Where to Begin
The Rhône River runs in a relatively straight, north-south path by the time it wedges into southeastern France where it meets the mighty Saône (say it, so:n) River in Lyon (say it, lee-own, soft on the n). If you are lucky enough to drive from Lyon to Provence, you’ll head generally along the Rhône.
This area is very much cultivated and proprietary. As it goes in all of France where the vine grows means everything. Distinct vineyards knitted together make up the vast sweep of the Rhône region. The Rhône Valley represents a large number of winemakers and appellations d’origine contrôlée or AOCs which translates as “controlled designation of origin”, or what you are drinking came from exactly here and contains exactly this grape made from this exact vineyard.
The largest appellation here is Côtes du Rhône, which is a regional AOC. From there is the Côtes du Rhône Villages, and then 21 Côtes du Rhône Villages that can use their geographic names. At the top of the pyramid there are 17 Crus, including 2 for a naturally sweet wine called Vin Doux Naturel.
Northern Rhône: Distinct and Distinguished
While the Rhône is one singular river, it travels through geography and climate adjustments and, like yourself if you were headed from Lyon to Provence, it experiences some new sensations as it flows southward. When it comes into France from Switzerland, the Rhône finds itself in cooler climates, sharp-toothed hillsides and stony soil. For the purposes of wine classification, this northern region is called septendrial to the French; in English simply Northern Rhône. Look out the window here and you’ll see vines. Lots and lots of impressive, sometimes acrobatic vines. The river is down here, 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.
Though the Northern Rhône region is much smaller than the Southern Rhône region, it’s the well-poised grand dame of the region. Northern Rhône wines can be highly distinctive and fine. They stick to a cultivated game plan. In fact, the only red grape you’ll find in Northern Rhône wines is Syrah. Syrah is deep in color and intense berry-smoky-peppery flavor. Most wines produced in the Rhône are red, but there are a few white grapes with a hall pass. Viognier, Marsanne and Roussane can become strictly-speaking whites, and in an unusual sleight of hand they can be lightly blended with Syrah to add complexity. Northern Rhône vineyards are primarily planted on the western bank of the river (though Hermitage, a little lady, sits on the Eastern bank, so keep your eyes open for treasure anywhere). If you want to flash your teeth at a party, mention Côte-Rôtie, St-Joseph or Hermitage; though they are by no stretch the only AOCs in Northern Rhône, but they are some of the prom queens.
Southern Rhône: Diverse and Delicious
Moving southward the air heats and scents of fruit on the tree, scrub brush and herbs float through the window. This part of the region is méridionale, or simply Southern Rhône, and here the rules of wine engagement are more relaxed; bottles still contain Syrah but are primarily built on Grenache, Mourvèdre and others. Grenache is a heavy player for blends in Southern Rhône and you won’t find many bottles that aren’t propped up by this medium body, spicy-candy grape. Down here, same as in the North: most wines are red, but white and rosé can be found and in fact, as rosé grows in favor it’s easy to find a tasty Côte du Rhône rosé these days.
Southern Rhône geographically fans out from the river on either side, and with the lack of tension comes variety. Grapes of many sorts are used in vineyards of many textures. You’ll hear wine drinkers say they are having a CDR or a GMS, just throw-it-out-there, common knowledge blends (Côte du Rhône or Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah), though that is not always the way it works.
Because there is something else…
Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the Crus. This particular region in Southern Rhône was one of the first to be regulated with an AOC. The winemakers there knew they had something distinct and they put a stamp on it in early days. Here you’ll find deep red wines, again with a heart of Grenache that is allowed to blend with a relatively large scope of other regional grapes. Many of the vineyards here have a special geographic feature called a galet, a big stone that soaks up the sun and impacts the soil temperature. Winemakers here often use an embossed, Burgundy-style bottle: don’t forget you are drinking a Châteauneuf–du-Pape, Mac. There are other memory makers in the area; nearby Crus such as Gigondas and Vaqueyras make good cellar mates if you love heady wines that will spice and experiment.
By natural design, this journey is headed to Provence so you’ll be in shouting distance of rosé. Southern Rhône offers some delicious ones, likely thanks to the shared geography with neighborly Provence. By the time you’ve got your bikini on, you’ll be in rosé heaven but wine lists in Provence and all over France will include outstanding bottles from the Rhône valley.
Lucky You or #jealous
Bring it in a bit, get close for my real advice about Rhône wines… say Yes, indeed whenever you are offered one. Try as many as you can. It’s a whopper of a region: big and diverse and delicious. If you get in a car in Lyon, one that’s heading south to Provence, give a wild Amen to the wine gods. You are going to have the time of your life.
This post is happy to be a part of the 1st Birthday celebration of All About France hosted by the The Lou Messugo Blog: “life in the south of France from a British/Australian TCK’s perspective, bringing you French culture, travel on the Côte d’Azur and beyond, expat issues and a little bit of je ne sais quoi all mixed up with a hefty dose of photography.”