The Wine Grapes of
the 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.