The Wine Grapes of France’s Rhone Valley
By Don Clemens
OK, so you know that most of the grapes being grown in what we call “Wine Country” on America’s West Coast had their origins in Europe, and especially in France. You’ve heard about Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Merlot, and maybe even Pinot Noir, Gamay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chenin Blanc. And (hopefully) the more wines that you see on that highly rated restaurant’s wine list or that very well-stocked liquor store that AREN’T those previously named varieties have piqued your curiosity. You’ve been asking yourself, “What the heck is a Cinsault, or Mourvèdre, or Roussanne?” Bordeaux and Burgundy have long dominated the market for France’s exported wines, and those varieties justifiably have legions of supporters. But it doesn’t take long to realize that France has several other outstanding wine growing regions. For example, there is Alsace, which shares most of its eastern border with Germany, and is home to several grape varieties that are equally at home in Germany such as Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Gris. The Loire Valley, home of France’s longest river and multiple wine growing regions, also is home to many grape varieties that are almost exclusive to its wine appellations, such as Muscadet (also known as Melon de Bourgogne), Cabernet Franc, Chenin Blanc, and Sauvignon Blanc.
But – it is the Rhône Valley, followed closely by Languedoc-Roussillon and “The Rest” of France (its immediate southern neighbors) that take the prize for the most grape varieties that are officially sanctioned to produce wine. I will confine this article to the Rhone Valley’s appellations and grapes; you’ll thank me later.
The Rhône Valley
Geography – The Rhône River, which has its origin in the glacial spring run-off in the French Alps, is one of the most important wine routes of Europe. There are wine grape vines planted along its banks from the Valais appellation of Switzerland all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. The Rhône Valley also contains one of the most important (and southernmost) winegrowing regions in France. These vineyards are situated on either side of the Rhône River, which runs north to south. The appellation “Cotes-du-Rhône” begins in the north, near Vienne and continues for about 125 miles south, with virtually no break in vineyard areas, to Avignon and then on to Marseilles, where the river grudgingly flows into the Mediterranean.
The northern Rhône is characterized by granitic, sandy soil (combined with schistous soil, much like the upper Douro of Portugal). As one travels south, the soils become a bit heavier with clay and chalk. Then, it gets stonier, until Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where the term “soil” is probably missing the mark. “Boulderville” is probably more accurate – the rocks around this region are about baseball size and larger.
As is usually the case with the best winegrowing regions, aspect (the relationship of the vineyard to the sun’s rays) is very important here. Most of the great vineyards have a southern exposure, maximizing the beneficial ripening effects of increased exposure to the sun.
It is probably accurate to say that there are really “two Rhônes” – the North and the South. Syrah characterizes the red wines of the Northern Rhône and Grenache Noir characterizes the wines of the Southern Rhône. The dividing line, at about the midpoint of the Rhône appellation (near Montélimar) is useful when trying to figure out what the dominant red grape is likely to be.
Like most river valleys, the Rhône is narrower at its source and wider at its mouth. The land at the source is hillier and at a higher altitude. The land near the mouth is flatter and lower. The result of this is that there are far more acres planted in the south than in the north.
History – Vines have been planted in this region for more than 25 centuries. It is truly one of the oldest winegrowing areas in the world. The area became known for quality wines when the Roman Catholic “Papal Court” moved from Rome to Avignon in 1309. The name “Châteauneuf-du-Pape” translates to “new residence of the Pope”, and the wine of that name certainly capitalized on its popularity with the clerics-in-residence. It is one of the best known of all the Rhône reds.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, it was not at all uncommon for red wines of the northern Rhône, particularly the powerful Syrahs of Hermitage, to be shipped to Burgundy and Bordeaux to be blended with the “weaker” wines of those regions, when the vintage might not have been as perfect as one could have hoped for. As early as 1727, in a move to protect the reputation of its wines, a law was passed that guaranteed that the grapes used to make Châteauneuf-du-Pape came from within a specific delimited zone – a precursor, by almost two hundred years, of the emergence of AOC/AOP laws. In fact, it was in 1923 that the Baron Le Roy de Boiseaumarie, owner of Château Fortia (located within the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation), began to push for AOC legislation. It was granted on May 15, 1935. Today, appreciative wine drinkers all over the world are rediscovering the wines of the Rhône.
The Appellations: The Wines and the Grapes that make them.
Côte-Rôtie (“the Roasted Slopes”) is the northernmost of the fine wine AOC’s. The wines are red, and made from a minimum of 80% Syrah, with up to 20% of Viognier (a white wine grape) allowed to be co-fermented with the Syrah.
Château-Grillet is one of only two single-estate appellations in France (the other is Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and some might add the Loire’s Coulée de Serrant); the wines of Château-Grillet are made from 100% Viognier.
[Insert Viognier photo]
Condrieu is usually considered to be the greatest white wine appellation in the Rhône. Generally, the wines are vinified as dry white wines. On occasion, when the weather allows, late-harvested sweeter wines are produced. These are also 100% Viognier.
Once considered to be “not very exciting”, this appellation had been re-imagined and is producing some of the greatest bargains in the whole of the Rhône. The red wines are Syrah, with up to 10% Marsanne and/or Roussanne. The white wines are Marsanne and/or Roussanne.
Crozes-Hermitage is produced from one of the largest areas in the northern Rhône, around the city of Tain. Quality is variable depending upon the producer, but there are some outstanding wines from the area. The red wines are Syrah, blended with up to 15% Roussanne and/or Marsanne; the white wines are Marsanne and/or Roussanne.
[[Insert Syrah grape picture]
One of the greatest of all French red wines, and truly a “classic” wine, Hermitage can possess marvelous finesse, even with its mouth-filling weight. The red wines are a minimum of 85% Syrah, with Roussanne and Marsanne allowed as blending wines. The white wines are Roussanne and Marsanne.
Cornas is a small appellation, with the potential of producing truly great wines. Unfortunately, the wines are almost always sold young, and are usually consumed before they have had a chance to develop their potential. Cornas is a red wine appellation; the wines are made from 100% Syrah. In very good years, they can compare favorably with the more expensive wines of Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage.
This is a white-wine-only appellation, and its wines are not often seen outside the area. Marsanne and Roussanne ae the grapes of choice. The wines from this area are not known to age particularly well.
One of the great historic red wine appellations, the regulations for this region set the tone for other appellations. The number of allowable grapes borders on the ridiculous, but they all have their place, depending upon the specifics of each vineyard. Most Châteauneuf-du-Pape found today is predominantly Grenache; however, there is a total of 18 different grape varieties that can be used in the production of this wine. With Grenache Noir leading the way, the blends often contain Mourvèdre and Syrah, with some Cinsault, Counoise, lesser amounts of Vaccarèse, Muscardin, Picpoul, and Terret Noir, and the light skinned Clairette, Bourboulenc, Roussanne, and the neutral Picardan. A couple of highly regarded properties, Château de Beaucastel and Clos des Papes, use the traditional 13 allowed grapes in their blends. (The remaining five grapes now allowed under the AOC/AOP regulations are Clairette Rosé, and both white and pink forms of Grenache and Picpoul.)
Côtes du Ventoux
This appellation is sort of the “Beaujolais” of the Rhône. While some seriously weighty reds can be made here, one usually finds fruity supple wines that are an everyday joy. (They even make a “Nouveau,” which is available for sale on the third Thursday of November following the harvest.) The grapes for the red wine are Grenache Noir, Syrah, Cinsault and Mourvèdre, plus up to 30% Carignan and a maximum (in total of up to 20% Picpoul Noir, Counoise, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Grenache Blanc, and Roussanne. Up until 2014, Ugni Blanc, Picpoul Blanc, and Pascal Blanc were also included.
Great value and, sometimes, great wine, Gigondas is known for its red wines. They are made of a maximum of 80% Grenache Noir, with at least 15% Syrah and Mourvèdre and a 10% maximum (in total) of Clairette, Picpoul, Terret Noir, Picardan, Cinsault, Roussanne, Marsanne, Bourboulenc, Viognier, Counoise, Muscardin, Vaccarèse, Pinot Blanc, Mauzac, Pascal Blanc, Ugni Blanc, Calitor, Gamay, and Camarèse. There is also a good quality, dry rosé made with the same allowable grapes as the red wines. The blend is a maximum 0f 80% Grenache Noir and a maximum of 25% of all those mentioned for the red, except no Syrah or Mourvèdre is used.
Best known for rosé wines, there is now a push to make more (quite excellent) red wines. The rosé is a minimum of 40% Grenache Noir and 25% (in total) of Syrah and Mourvèdre, plus up to 10% Carignan with no limit on the amount of Cinsault and up to 20% (in total) of Bourboulenc, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Uni Blanc, Picpoul, Marsanne, Roussanne, and Viognier.
Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise
This appellation dates from 1945, and the wines are known as Vins Doux Naturel. They are lightly fortified with alcohol distilled from the same grapes and are amazingly aromatic and rich, without being cloying. The grapes are Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains and Muscat Rosé à Petits Grains. Sometimes, the wine has a pinkish cast to it, but it is generally pale gold to light apricot gold.
The appellation dates to January 1, 1944, and is one of two Rhône “vins doux naturel” appellations. Known for its sweeter wines, lately the appellation has been achieving modest success with red wines.
The most famous dry French rosé, but one that must be watched. When vinified to gain the freshest fruit, it is truly worthy of anyone’s table and is an ideal summertime wine for the grill. Spectacular with grilled whole sea bass, it also makes a terrific companion to foods with full-tilt flavors such as smoked barbecued ribs. The grapes are Grenache Noir (usually the dominant percentage), Cinsault, Clairette, Clairette Rosé, Picpoul, Calitor, Bourboulenc, Mourvèdre, and Syrah (none of these grapes can account for more than 60% of the blend), plus a maximum of 10% of Carignan.
This was once a single-village designation under the Côtes-du-Rhône appellation. In 1990, it was accorded full AOC status and is, at least hierarchically, on a par with Gigondas. The grapes are at least 50% Grenache Noir, plus up to 20% (in total) of Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Cinsault. There can be no more than 10% (in any proportion) of Terret Noir, Counoise, Muscardin, Vaccarèse, Gamay, and Camarèse. There is a white wine that is essentially (when it is good) fresh and featureless. It uses Grenache Blanc, Clairette and Bourboulenc, plus up to 50% (in total) of Marsanne, Roussanne, and Viognier. The rosés can be very good, using similar grapes to the red blend – up to 60% Grenache Noir, plus no more than 15% (in total) of Mourvèdre or Cinsault, and up to 15% (again, in any proportion) of Terret Noir, Counoise, Muscardin, Vaccarèse, Gamay, and Camarèse.
[Insert Grenache Grape Picture]
With a total of approximately 5500 acres under cultivation for Côtes-du-Rhône Villages, the average yield is approximately 400 gallons per acre. Producers are required to adhere to stricter wine growing and winemaking rules than those prescribed for Côtes-du-Rhône. In the red wines the Grenache grape must be present at not less than 50%, with 20% Syrah and/or Mourvèdre. A maximum of 20% of other authorized varieties is permitted. The rosés must contain a minimum of 50% Grenache with 20% of Syrah and/or Mourvèdre and a maximum of 20% of other authorized varieties to comprise not more than 20% of white varieties. Used are Grenache, Clairette, Marsanne, Roussanne, Bourboulenc and Viognier. The white wines are a blend of Grenache Blanc, Clairette Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, Bourboulenc and Viognier. Other varieties are allowed to a maximum of 20%. The minimum required alcoholic strength is fixed at 12% for all three colors.
Whew! When looking at all the percentage requirements that the various Côtes-du-Rhône winegrowers must follow, it’s clear that, in addition to fermentation vessels and bottling machines, winegrowers in the Rhône Valley find that a good calculator is definitely “necessary equipment”!