Decode the label, explore the grapes, and discover the secret to the blend
How to Find a Good Wine From the Rhône Valley
Imagine that you’re standing in front of the French wine aisle in a wine store, with the intention of choosing a bottle as a gift, or for a casual dinner. You’ll probably be staring at hundreds of bottles, trying to decipher the ambiguous labels, with no clue about the grape varieties. So, what do the wines of Rhône Valley taste like? How to understand the wine label? And are the Rhône Valley wines worth buying and exploring?
Facts to know about The Rhône Valley
The Rhône Valley is the second largest AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) wine producer in France. With consistent quality and amazing value for money, it is no surprise that the wines of the Rhône Valley have gained much popularity in the world. The Rhône wines have even been an inspiration for a lot of winemakers in the New World, who tried to incorporate the concept of the Rhône blends into their wines, particularly in California and Australia.
On the map, the Rhône Valley is situated in southeastern France, stretching from Lyon to the Mediterranean city of Avignon. It encompasses some of the most celebrated wine vineyards in the country and is home to many prestigious crus and appellations such as Hermitage, Côte Rôtie, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Condrieu.
The region extends along the Rhône River from Vienne to Avignon, divided into Northern Rhône, Southern Rhône, and Les Côtes du Rhône.
The river, the soil, the topography of the land, and the northerly dry mistral wind all play significant roles in vineyards location, aspects, and grape selections, and it is reflected in the wines.
What Flavors Can be Tasted in The Wines of The Rhône Valley?
Some of the most obvious flavors that can be found in red wines are black and red fruit, herbs, black and white pepper, leather, and meaty flavors. Tannin levels vary between appellations, and some will boast full-bodiedness and powerful structure while others will be supple and fruit-forward. Alcohol is almost always on the high range in the red wines, especially because of climate change.
White wines are mostly made from white grape blends except for Condrieu AOC, that makes varietal wines from Viognier. The white wines are medium bodied, high in alcohol, yet balanced, and complex. With a food-friendly profile that boasts richness with subtle citrus and stone fruit aromas, these wines are worthy of exploring
Northern Rhône vs. Southern Rhône
There are three subdivisions in the Rhône Valley: Northern Rhône, Southern Rhône, and Les Côtes du Rhône. Wines produced in these subregions will differ because of climatic variation, terrain, the mistral wind, and winemaking laws.
Overall, the northern Rhône is cooler, and vineyards are steeper, planted on the banks of the river, whereas vineyards in the Southern Rhône stretch on a flatter landscape and are more affected by the powerful mistral wind.
Northern Rhône vineyards are planted on steep terraces; therefore, they are hand-harvested. As the ripening season is quite short in the Northern Rhône, early ripening varieties such as Syrah and Viognier are planted there. Granite-based soils are dominant and mica shist can be found there.
Southern Rhône vineyards stretch up to 50 mi/80km away from the river on a flatter landscape, therefore, they are exposed to the mistral wind. But the mistral also has a positive effect in mitigating the heat and moderating temperature.
Southern Rhône Wines Are All About Blends
But why do they blend? And what’s in the blend?
Traditionally, the Rhône Velley vineyards were co-planted with different grape varieties, as it was not practical or necessary to harvest and vinify them separately back in the days.
Aside from tradition, there are several reasons for creating wine blends. To begin with, Mother Nature is not predictable, and sometimes, even in the same vintage, a variety can be thriving while another is hit so hard. Since the life cycle of the vine (budding, ripening… etc.) depends largely on the weather conditions, blending different varieties helps create a balanced wine. The different flavors and characteristics that come from these varieties will add complexity and depth to the final wine.
Some crus in the Northern Rhône even co-plant, and co-harvest Syrah and Marsanne together, and then co-ferment them to create their wines (Hermitage and Corzes-Hermitage).
So What Grape Varieties Are Planted in The Rhône Valley?
On record, there are 34 grape varieties planted in the entire Rhône Valley.
There are 6 major white varieties in the Southern Rhône used in the blend.
- Grenache Blanc
The red varieties that make what is known as the MSG blends are:
- Other red grapes that are often used are: Cinsault, Carignan, Counoise, and Marselan.
Wine Laws in The Rhône Valley
The Rhône blends are not just the creative the result of artistic winemaking. Blends are dictated by wine laws that govern quality and styles. Obviously, the higher the ranking of the area, the stricter the laws will be.
Most of the red blends in the southern part of Côtes du Rhône require having two of the main red varieties (must include Grenache) to make 60% of blend. In the northern part of the Côtes du Rhône, only one of the main grapes is required and will make 60% of the red blend.
Côtes du Rhône white blends are generally less strict, and can include any white variety in any percentage, although most of them will include Grenache Blanc.
Are The Wines of the Rhône Aged in Oak Barrels?
Rhône Valley wines are typically aged in neutral vessels, such as stainless steel (inox) or concrete (béton) or old oak (foudre). The exception here are the wines of Château-Grillet AOC as they are aged in oak for 2 years, and can continue to age for 10 years or more. Also, the white wines of Hermitage, and a small percentage of red and white Châteauneuf-du-Pape special cuvées—they can spend some time in small oak barrels, to add more texture, complex flavor and ageability.
How to Decode a Rhône Valley Wine Label
The first thing you need to look at when you see any wine label is the appellation’s name. Most French wines will emphasize the name of the appellation, and rarely state the grape varieties. But keep in mind that this is the land of beautiful blends, and as a consumer, all you need is to enjoy what’s being served—which is almost guaranteed in this case. Nevertheless, it’s important to have an overall idea about wine region. So, here’s a brief list of the Rhone appellations (AOCs) and what they mean.
Wine Appellations and names to know in the Rhône Valley
Let’s start with the premium crus. Wine crus sit at the top of the hierarchy, and they were granted this status, because they are historic, enjoy premium sites, and have consistently produced excellent quality wines over many years. Wine laws here are strict in terms of permitted varieties, yields, winemaking, and aging.
Crus of the Northern Rhône
There are eight crus in the Northern Rhône, and for Syrah lovers, this where they can find amazing wine gems. Here they are:
- Côte Rôtie AOC (Red from Syrah and can blended with Viognier)
- Cornas AOC (Red from Syrah) – the only 100% red varietal wine in the Rhône
- Hermitage AOC (white from Marsanne/Roussanne and red from Syrah)
- Corsez-Hermitage AOC (white from Marsanne/Roussanne and red from Syrah)
- Condrieu AOC (whites from 100% Viognier)
- Château-Grillet AOC (a single vineyard in Condrieu)
- Saint-Joseph AOC (white from Marsanne/Roussanne and red from Syrah)
- Saint-Péray AOC(white & sparkling
Crus of the Southern Rhône
In the Southern Rhône, the nine crus focus more on Grenache, and they are:
- Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the largest AOC in the Southern Rhône, and the most famous AOC in the entire Rhône Valley, and also famous for having the unique galet soil (round-shaped river stones)
This AOC permits 13 grapes to be planted and used in the blends, but the powerful and full-bodied red blends are Grenache-based. White blends, however, are Grenache Blanc based)
- Cairanne AOC (Grenache-based red blends and white blends from Clairette)
- Rastau AOC (produces red blends that are Grenache-based, and it also produces fortified wines)
- Vinsobres AOC (red blends that are Grenache-based, but must also include Syrah or Mourvèdre)
- Gigondas AOC (grenache-based red and some rosé)
- Vacqueyras AOC (GSM red blends, rosé and white)
- Baumes de Venise AOC (grenache-based red)
- Lirac AOC (whites from Clairette, Bourboulenc and Grenache Blanc, Grenache based red and rosé)
- Tavel AOC (dry rosé only from Grenache-based blends 60%)
Côtes du Rhône Villages + Named Village DGC
Wines that are labeled Côtes du Rhône Villages AOC come from any of 95 villages in the Southern Rhône, producing wines of consistent quality every year.
Côtes du Rhône Villages AOC
There are 22 villages in the Côtes du Rhône Villages appellation that produce wines with consistent high quality. These villages can put their name on the label and have DGC status (Dénominations Géographiques Compémentaires), i.e. Sablet, Seguret, Nyons,.etc.
Côtes du Rhône AOC
The appellation of Côtes du Rhône AOC is in the bottom of the classification hierarchy pyramid, contributing up to 40% of the Rhône production, and the vast majority comes from the Southern Rhône.
The Secret to GSM Blends
What does each grape contribute to the unique blend formula?
This primary red grape of the Southern Rhône is high in alcohol and has moderate acidity and color. It also has an oxidative nature.
This red grape is the ideal complementing blend partner of Grenache as it has high acidity and tannic structure. Syrah’s reductive nature helps to counterbalance the oxidative tendencies of Grenache. The two grapes are often co-fermented in the Southern Rhône.
Often added in small percentage to the blends, this red grape is high in pigment, tannins, and acidity. It also has reductive tendencies that can offset Grenache’s oxidative nature.
What is The Drinking Window for The Wines of The Rhône Valley?
Most white wines are intended to be consumed within 2-4 years of production, except for Hermitage Blanc which can live for decades.
Red Rhône wines, especially those from the prestigious crus can live for 10-20 years after production. the lesser wines can still age up to 10+ depending on the style and vintage.
Which Rhône Wine Should you Choose?
It’s fun to explore the Rhône wines and try them with food and cheese. Start with the basic white and red wines from the Côte du Rhône for weekday dinners. Then open the bigger wines from the villages and crus for a special dinner, where you can pair them with a juicy roasted leg of lamb!
History Trivia: The New Palace of The Pop
Did you know that the Catholic church moved the Papal Palace from Rome to Avignon from 1309 to 1376 French Popes, where it was home to seven French popes?
Châteauneuf-du-Pape was the village chosen to be the summer residence of Pop John XXII (the new castle of the Pop) and the wines of the area were called “Vins du Pape” to be later known as Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Geography Trivia: As The River Flows…
The Rhône River starts from the Alps in the South of Switzerland, then pours into Lake Geneva, and starts again flowing into France. It passes by Lyon, descending south towards the Mediterranean Sea. The journey of the river covers 505 mi/813 km and it’s linked to a network of rivers in France, including Saône, Seine, Rhine and Loire.
Suggestions for Wines to Buy from The Southern Rhône
Find out my five budget-friendly wines from the Rhône Valley to learn about some of the best examples from the Southern Rhône. Read more here.
More info about the Rhône Valley can be found at Vins Rhône.com.
Source and copyrights: This guide is written as part of self-study and preparation for the French Wine Scholar exam by Wine Scholar Guild.
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