What’s the Difference Between France’s Northern Rhône and Southern Rhône Valleys?

The difference is latitude.

There. My work is done. Of course I’m just kidding, but let’s start there.

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

rhone valley road trip 2

Northern Rhône

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. For the purposes of wine classification, this northern region is called septendrial to the French; in English simply Northern Rhône.

Though the Northern Rhône region is smaller than the Southern Rhône region, it’s the well-poised. 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. This varies as we move around the cru, of course.

 

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 and Crozes-Hermitage are on the Eastern bank, so keep your eyes open for treasure anywhere). From north to south, the crus include:

Côte-Rôtie AOC
Condrieu AOC
Château-Grillet AOC
Saint-Joseph AOC
Hermitage AOC
Crozes-Hermitage AOC
Cornas AOC
Saint Péray AOC

Wine to try: Delas Domaine des Tourettes Hermitage 2014

This wine is made with fruit grown in Tain l’Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage and Larnage. Here we find granite soils combined with alluvial deposits and marl. The grapes were hand-picked from three plots: l’Ermite, le Sabot, and the famed plot, les Bessards, 100% Syrah. 

northern rhone, syrah, french wine

Delas Domaine des Tourettes Hermitage. Photo Credit: Jill Barth

Southern Rhône

Moving southward the air heats and scents of fruit on the tree, scrub brush and herbs resound. 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: large portions of wines are red, but white and rosé can be found and in fact, it’s easy to find a tasty Côtes du Rhône rosé these days.

Wine to try: Ferraton Père et Fils Samorëns Rosé 2019 (Côtes du Rhône)

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.

In Southern Rhône crus, such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, and Vacqueyras, 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.

Wine to try: Goubert Gigondas “Florence” 2014

rhone wines on the road

The French Winophiles

Check out the lineup from our French Winophiles crew. I’m excited to gain access to all of these stories, recipes and tastings notes:

Twitter Chat (#Winophiles)

Join us for a twitter chat #Winophiles on Saturday, April 19th 10:00 am CST.  We will take a deep dive into the Northern Rhône.

 

21 thoughts on “What’s the Difference Between France’s Northern Rhône and Southern Rhône Valleys?

  1. Thanks for the wonderful overview of the differences between the Northern and Southern Rhone. Syrah is my favorite grape variety, but now that I’m thinking about it, I’ve enjoyed far more wines from Southern Rhone than Northern. Ironic right? I suppose it’s because I’ve found plenty of cool climate Syrahs here in CA that I enjoy. Still…now I need some Northern Rhone!

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    1. Hi Martin. It makes sense that you’ve had many more Southern Rhône (SR) wines than Northern Rhône (NR) since the entire NR constitutes only 6% of total Rhône Valley wine production. On top of it, practically all NR production is only “cru” wines. There is, for all intents and purposes, no “Côtes du Rhône” AOP wine produced in the NR. The average price for a NR wine is substantially more expensive than wines from the SR. Crozes Hermitage is the largest appellation of the NR and the one in which you will find the entry-level prices for this region. Entry-level here starting around $20 retail and up to $45, and sometimes more for the top cuvées.
      St Joseph and St Péray would be the next price point and then you move up to the most expensive wines of Hermitage, Côte Rôtie, Condrieu and Cornas.
      SR wines, for a very large percentage, can be found between $10 (Ventoux, Côtes du Rhône) and $40. Of course there are the more expensive “crus” of the SR such as Gigondas and Châteauneuf du Pape, which start at$30/$35 and go up to well above $100.
      So it’s not “ironic” that you’ve enjoyed more SR wines than NR… ;-))

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Playful road trip! Good point noting the French use septendrial and méridionale. I was lost the first time hearing these words discussing Rhone wines French friends.

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