Oak forests, vineyard terraces with steep walkways on crumbly granite soils, pebbly and sunny plains where the vine meets the olive tree, create the backdrop to the course of the Rhone, whose banks are dotted with precious vineyards, already known to the Greeks and Romans. Here's what you need to know about Rhône Valley wines.
Today the Rhône Valley is one of the most important French wine regions and over the years it has managed to carve out space for itself on the world scene. Let's see what there is to know about the wines produced in this area.
The vines of the Rhone Valley
The production of the Rhone Valley is mainly concentrated on black grape varieties: Syrah and Grenache above all, which have practically divided the territory in two.
History of wine in the Rhone Valley
It was probably the Greeks who began the cultivation of vines along the Rhone, after having settled on the Mediterranean coasts and having traveled up the river, but the Romans, after the foundation of the city of Vienne, between 120 and 100 BC, planted the first vineyards on the terraces of the Hermitage hill and began the production of the famous vinum picatum, described by Pliny in his Natural History, a wine obtained from a grape called allobrogica and vinified in wooden barrels.
Wine-growing areas of the Rhone Valley
The Rhone Valley is divided into 2 large areas: the Northern Rhone and the Southern Rhone.
The Northern Rhone Valley includes these main appellations:
- Côte-Rôtie : the oldest vineyard in the Rhône Valley, located around the village of Ampuis, where vine cultivation is complicated due to a harsh climate and difficult-to-work soils. Syrah reigns supreme and is expressed in wines of great value. The Côte-Rôtie, in turn, is divided into Côte Blonde, to the south, where young and soft wines are produced, and Côte Brune, to the north where the wines express themselves with greater intensity in color and tannin and have an aging potential superior.
- Condrieu and Château-Grillet : these are the two smallest areas of the Rhône Valley. Condrieu is the largest area and within it contains the enclave of Château-Grillet: a 3.5 hectare plot with land that offers the wines great depth of flavor and minerality, up to notes of hydrocarbons. Here the most widespread grape variety is viognier , which expresses its best after about three years of evolution, with fruity hints of apricot and peach.
- Hermitage : a 130 hectare vineyard arranged on less steep terraces than that of the Côte-Rôtie. The continental climate, with hot and dry summers that offer important notes of softness to the wines. Thanks to the particular composition of the soil, the syrah manages to express great mineral notes. The color of Hermitage is compact ruby red, its aroma is intense and fruity, with spicy and undergrowth hints after a few years of rest in the bottle.
- Crozes-Hermitage : the vines are planted in flat and gravelly soils and provide grapes with which simple wines are produced even with the use of small percentages of white grapes. The red wines of this area are less colored and should be drunk in a short time, with pleasant cherry notes.
- Saint-Joseph : the wines are produced in the 1200 hectares of vineyards (the largest AOC in the Northern Rhone Valley) located on the opposite bank of the Rhone river, starting from syrah with small percentages of roussanne and marsanne (white berry) and are confirmed elegantly fruity and with an excellent quality/price ratio. In fact, it is allowed to blend a small percentage of white grapes in the production of reds.
- Cornas and Saint-Pèray : Cornas is a very small denomination (70 hectares on the outskirts of the town of Valence) where red Syrah wines are produced, the climate is very sunny and warm. In the Saint-Pèray district only white wines (including excellent sparkling wines) based on marsanne and rousanne are produced.
The Southern Rhône Valley includes these main appellations:
- Chateneuf-du-Pape : has a long tradition linked to wine, with vineyards planted as early as the 14th century, when the popes settled in Avignon, placing their new residence there. The area is characterized by calcareous soil and sand. The vineyards extend over 3000 hectares, with a production reaching almost one million hectoliters of wine, historically obtained from a blend of thirteen black and white grape varieties, although today most companies use 3 or 4, especially grenache , syrah , cinsault and mourvèdre . Chateneuf-du-Pape is characterized by a ruby red color with garnet reflections, with a broad aroma of cherry in alcohol, dried plum, pepper, cinnamon, tobacco and dried flowers. The taste is characterized by an enveloping softness, accompanied by a powerful structure and alcoholic note, with a long fruity and spicy finish. Although less famous, the white Chateneuf-du-Pape is also an excellent wine, soft and animated by a good alcoholic note although slightly lacking in acidity.
- Gigondas : follows the Chateneuf-du-Pape blend. In the 1200 hectares of this vineyard, the different terroirs offer wines with distinct characters, more elegant and mineral if obtained in the highest and sunniest areas, with vineyards planted in chalky and sandy soils, warmer and more structured if produced from grapes obtained in the most low, where clay and gravelly soils prevail. The best Gigondas express deep colors, fruity aromas and warm flavors.
- Vacqueyras : a grenache -based wine is produced, grown in clay, sand and gravelly soils, which give less structured but finer wines than Gigondas.
- Tavel and Lirac : these are the two areas that offer the best rosés in the Rhône Valley. 1000 hectares of vineyards planted in sandy limestone soils, on the opposite bank of Chateneuf-du-Pape. Grenache , Syrah and Mourvedre are the most cultivated grape varieties. The color of these wines is salmon pink, with an intense and fragrant aroma, evident hints of strawberries and small berries. The flavor is fresh and dry.
- Muscat de Baumes-de-Venise and Rasteau : these are the sweet wines of the Rhône. Muscat de Baumes-de-Venise has the typical aroma reminiscent of moss, apricot and peach. Very sweet, it is paired with melon or citrus cream cakes. Rasteau wines, on the other hand, are obtained by blocking fermentation by adding brandy. Specifically, the rancio version is left to rest in oak barrels exposed to the air, in which the wines evolve under oxidative conditions to create the Madeira- like aroma.