Introducing Rhône Valley
The Rhône Valley wine region stretches south of Lyon, France’s second-largest city, to Avignon and beyond in France’s south east. It’s big and diverse, but its wines are still distinctively regional. Wine has been made along the length of the Rhône Valley for centuries. The influence of the Romans on the early years of Rhône viticulture was crucial, and the southern Rhône in particular is characterised by huge, medieval chateaux, testament to the region’s Papal rule of the 14th century. For many centuries before the French appellation controllée system came into being, red wines from the warm Rhône Valley were often blended into wines from the cooler parts of France to add body and character.
Where is the Rhône Valley?
The Rhône Valley is located in the south of France. The vineyards of the Rhône Valley are about an hour’s drive from Lyon. The city of Lyon is a two-hour train trip from Paris on the super-fast TGV train. Tours are easily arranged and often the best way to gain guided access to some of the wineries of the Rhône Valley.
Rhône Valley Climate
The Rhône Valley climate is Mediterranean with long, warm summers and mild winters. There is less rainfall in the south and the Mistral Wind is a major influence on climate across the valley. This fiercely cold wind blows in from the Northern seas in winter and early spring towards the Mediterranean. The Mistral Wind helps keep the grapes dry, eliminating much of the risk of moisture-loving fungus and helping moderate summer heat.
Wines to try from the Rhône Valley
Marsanne and Roussanne
Marsanne and Roussanne white wine grapes are similar in style and are often blended. The honeyed, rich unctuous Marsanne contrasts with the leaner, more savoury character of Roussanne. They are best in the white Hermitage wines of northern Rhone – full-bodied, aromatic, usually aged in big old barrels.
At its best, in the wines from the small Condrieu region or occasionally in the single vineyard appellation Chateau Grillet, Viognier produces one of the world's most outstanding dry white wines: aromatic, rich, textured, layered, almost oily, often barrel-fermented and barrel-matured. Small amounts of Viognier are also sometimes blended with Syrah (Shiraz) in Cote Rotie in the northern Rhône to add perfume and structure to the red wine.
The Rhône's sweet wine, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, is made by adding neutral spirit to the wine after only some of the sugar has been fermented to alcohol. The resulting wine is a pale yellow gold, incredibly aromatic and grapey, and while delicate and fresh, is usually quite strong (minimum 15 per cent alcohol).
The most widely planted grape variety in the Rhône Valley, with the majority of the vineyards in the warm south, where Grenache ripens easily. Grenache is the backbone of the Rhône Valley production especially with its best-known red wine, Cotes du Rhône. Grenache is also a very important variety in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape blend. Both these and many other southern Rhône styles are blends of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre, along with a host of other grapes. Good Grenache-based wines to look for apart from Chateauneuf-du-Pape are Cotes du Rhône Villages (particularly Cairanne), Rasteau and Gigondas. Grenache is also the main grape in the Rhône's famous savoury pink wines, the Rosés of Tavel.
If Grenache predominates in the southern Rhône, Syrah – the same varietal as Shiraz in Australia – is the number one grape in the north. Here, in regions such as Cote-Rotie, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, St Joseph and Cornas, Syrah produces wonderfully aromatic, deeply coloured, intensely flavoursome red wines, often with a characteristically spicy and gamey bouquet – and usually distinctive scent of freshly-cracked white pepper. The better-quality Syrah wines of the northern Rhône can age exceptionally well over two decades or more.
The future of Rhône Valley Wine
There's been an increase in demand around the world for Rhône wines, and an increase in the number of winemakers outside France making ‘Rhône-style’ wines. Partly this interest stems from massive increases in the cost of wines from France's other two famous wine regions, Burgundy and Bordeaux. Rhône wine is relatively good value in comparison to the stratospheric prices being asked for First Growth claret or Grand Cru Burgundy.
What's really capturing the interest of wine drinkers and makers though, is the food-friendliness of Rhône and Rhône-style wines. Because even though they're aromatic and sometimes bold and gutsy, Rhône wines always finish with terrific dryness. This savoury quality makes them perfect to drink with flavoursome Mediterranean food.