Gemstones of the Soil
By W Peter Hoyne
Situated in southeastern France, the Rhone Valley has been producing wines for more than 2,000 years offering a spectrum of complex reds, whites and rose´. Some believe they understand Rhone Valley wines since they tasted a Côtes du Rhône at one point in time. In reality, the Rhone Valley is much more expansive than many realize, and it would take several volumes of text and tired eyes to pay homage to the many producers and co-operatives within this vast region. Since each region has its own dominant grape varietal, it may be easiest to understand the geography of this ancient wine growing area by simply separating it into its two contrasting styles, the north and the south.
Let’s begin with a brief history to christen the journey. The Greeks were the first to cultivate vineyards near Marseilles, France in 400 BC. It wasn’t until the first century A.D. that the Romans began planting vineyards in the North near the town of Vienne. The Romans were also credited with crafting earthenware jars called amphorae that were used to transport their wine. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, it was the Roman Catholic Church that was responsible for the progression of the wine industry. In 1309, because of the political climate in Rome, the papal residency was moved to Avignon in southern Rhone. The popes were lovers of wine and became intimately involved with viticulture, establishing the famous region and wines of Chateauneuf du Pape, which translates as “the new castle of the pope.” Greater recognition of this region emerged with higher quality of wines in the early 21st century. Today, there are 23 appellations in the Southern Rhone and 8 in the North with over 5,000 producers. While it’s not important to remember all of them, there are some distinguishing characteristics to focus on during your tastings.
The Rhone Valley stretches 150 miles beginning north from the city Lyon down to the town of Avignon in the south. The Rhone River begins in the higher elevations of the Swiss Alps and traverses southwest emptying into the Mediterranean Sea. Vineyards are situated along both sides of the river.
The Côtes du Rhône by itself is the largest wine growing area accounting for over 50% of the production. Cotes du Rhône are terrific entry level wines with bright, red orchard fruits and may be described as “user-friendly.” Next, at a higher quality level of expression is Côtes du Rhône Villages. Some are identified by a specific village name, which sets the quality bar for these wines even higher. The cost per bottle will increase within each category, so know your budget.
The cru’s are the highest level and account for 20% of Rhone’s total production. They have distinguishing characteristics that paint a picture of the soil and unique locations where they are grown. Notable crus from the south include Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueryras and Rasteau. In the north, some of the standouts include Cote-Rotie, Hermitage, Coronas and Saint-Joseph along with the whites of Condrieu. There are 17 cru’s in total.
Southern and Northern Rhone Distinctions
The landscape in southern Rhone has steep slopes, plains, and hills with rugged mountains in the background. The weather is Mediterranean with sunny days, hot summers, and mild winters. The temperature in the Rhone Valley is moderated by the cool Mistral (masterly) winds, which funnel through the valley from the northwest. These fierce winds can achieve speeds of over 50 mph and are unsympathetic to the residents of the area. The upside is that they keep the skies clear while maintaining healthy vineyards by drying out the moisture in the air and limiting diseases. The soil in this region ranges from limestone, sand and rounded pebbles called Galets roulés.
There are 23 varietals used for blending in the Côtes du Rhône with 86% of the total production dedicated to red wine. The primary red grapes are Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah. Secondary grapes such as Cinsault and Carignan may be used, but law requires 70% of a main grape be used for the final blend. Regardless, Grenache reigns with authority and is the dominant player in the Southern Rhone. It is also the most widely planted grape in the world, ripening later and thriving in dry, arid climates. Grenache-based wines showcase red berry notes of raspberry, strawberry, and black cherry with a hint of delicate spice in the background. The white wines make up a modest 7% of production and Grenache Blanc is the main player. It can be blended with a proportion of Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, Bourboulenc and Clairette Blanc and perhaps a few others. These wines are medium bodied with stone fruit and herbal notes.
Near the southern fringe of France’s Rhone Valley and set within a medieval landscape is the timeless winegrowing region of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Adjacent to the banks of the Rhone River, between Avignon and Orange, are five villages that coalesce to form this appellation. Chateauneuf-du-Pape is an appellation of unique individuality that is cloaked in history, but better defined by the “spirit of the people.” The red wines account for 94% of its production and the old vine rootstock can exceed 100 years old. While each producer has his own definition and vision of the appellation they are guided by history, but not controlled by it. In the last few decades, inertia has brought the Rhone Valley into the forefront with producers crafting better and more complex wines.
The landscape and wines of northern Rhone are a striking contrast to those in the south. Only 5% of Rhone’s wine production comes from the north. The region begins just below the city of Lyon and stretches down to the city of Valence, home of famed Verona Chocolates. Here, vineyards are steeply terraced, some at nearly 90 degrees, with rocky sub-soils of limestone, granite, and clay. The climate is different as well with a continental influence and cold temperatures in the winter along with warm summers. There are eight appellations in northern Rhone with Cote-Rotie and Hermitage recognized as the leading red appellations. Syrah is the mainstay and only allowable red grape from this region while Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne represent the whites.
Cote-Rotie meaning “roasted slope” is located above the village of Ampuis with Hermitage slightly to its south. The wines of Cote-Rotie have more perfumed aromatics with a stylistic elegance because of the cooler weather. Hermitage is intense and full bodied with leather, bacon fat and white pepper. The value wines can be found in the much larger appellation of Crozes-Hermitage and St-Joseph. Crozes-Hermitage is the largest appellation in the north and these reds are primarily Syrah with the addition of the white grapes of Marsanne and Roussanne. Condrieu, meaning “corner of the stream” is a small appellation of steep granite slopes specializing in unctuous Viognier-driven whites with intensely perfumed aromatics. The wines from northern Rhone may require 10-15 years or more to be at their peak of drinkability. Lyon has become the gastronomic epicenter of the world and the wines of the northern Rhone find great harmony with the meat centric dishes from this city.