Wine Regions

Rhone Valley, France

The Rhone Valley, stretches south of Lyon, France & has been a wine region since the 14th Century. Learn about the climate, best local wine varieties …

The Rhone 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 Rhone Valley for centuries. The influence of the Romans on the early years of Rhone viticulture was crucial, and the southern Rhone 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 Rhone Valley were often blended into wines from the cooler parts of France to add body and character.

Get to Rhone Valley

The city of Lyon is a two-hour train trip from Paris on the super-fast TGV train. The vineyards of the Rhone Valley are about an hour’s drive from Lyon. Tours are easily arranged and often the best way to gain guided access to some of the wineries of the Rhone Valley.

Climate and style in Rhone Valley

The Rhone Valley climate is Mediterranean with long, warm summer and mild winters. There is less rainfall in the south and the Mistral Wine 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.

Key Rhone Valley varietals

Rhone Valley Marsanne and Roussanne

Marsanne and Roussanne white wine grapes are similar in style, so 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 the northern Rhone – full-bodied, aromatic, usually aged in big old barrels.

Rhone Valley Viognier

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 in texture, often barrel-fermented and barrel-matured. Small amounts of Viognier are also sometimes blended with Syrah (Shiraz) in Cote Rotie in the northern Rhone to add perfume and structure to the red wine.

Rhone Valley Muscat

The Rhone'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).

Rhone Region

Other Whites

There are many other white grapes used in the Rhone Valley, notably Clairette, used mainly for the region's sparkling white wines, Clairette de Die. Grenache Blanc and Ugni Blanc are used to fill out more affordable whites such as Cotes du Rhone Blanc. Other white grapes such as Picpoul and Bourboulenc are blended with red grapes in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, often to add acidity to the red wines.

Rhone Valley Grenache

The most widely planted grape variety in the Rhone Valley, with the majority of the vineyards in the warm south, where Grenache ripens easily. Grenache is the backbone of the Rhone Valley production and its best-known red wine, Cotes du Rhone. Grenache is also a very important variety in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape blend Both these and many other southern Rhone styles are blends of Grenache and 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 Rhone Villages (particularly Cairanne), Rasteau and Gigondas. Grenache is also the main grape in the Rhone's famous savoury pink wines, the Rosés of Tavel.

Rhone Valley Syrah

If Grenache predominates in the southern Rhone, 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 characteristic spicy, gamey bouquet – and usually distinctive scent of freshly-cracked white pepper. The better-quality Syrah wines of the northern Rhone can age exceptionally well over two decades or more.

Others

Mourvedre is probably the best known of the Rhone's other red grapes, particularly for the role it plays as a robust blending component in red wines such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Other varieties, particularly the fairly bland but dark and firm Cinsault and Carignan, are often used merely to bulk out cheaper wines.

Rhone Wine Region

Rhone Valley appellations

The Rhone Valley is split into two classifications: northern Rhone and southern Rhone. In the north, the appellations of Cote Rotie, Condrieu, St Joseph, Cornas, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage are famous for high quality collectable wines, particularly Syrah and Viognier.

The most famous appellation southern appellation d'origine controlee (AOC) is Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the first to be recognised when the system was instituted in 1936. Red wines are most common, crafted from officially approved red grapes including Grenache, Mourvedre, Cinsault and Syrah.

The future of Rhone Valley

There's been an increase in demand around the world for Rhone wines, and an increase in the number of winemakers outside France making ‘Rhone-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. Much Rhone 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 Rhone and Rhone-style wines. Because even though they're aromatic and sometimes bold and gutsy, Rhone wines always finish with terrific dryness. This savoury quality makes them perfect to drink with flavoursome Mediterranean food.