THE RHONE VALLEY

You’ve probably heard of Côtes du Rhône, or even Côtes du Rhône Villages – the great value, simple, 4-5 euro bottles you can find at your local French Carrefour. A cut above these reliable steeds are “cru” level wines – wines that will evolve over time, and display richness of their individual terroirs. Many believe the Rhône Valley to be one grand region. On the contrary, the Northern and Southern Rhône sub-regions produce very distinct styles of both red and white wine. This post is designed to identify some of the main differences between each. Along the way, we will highlight some of the more famous cru-level appellations of each sub-region.

Northern Rhône

Terroir

My ratchet sketch of the Northern Rhône grape-growing sites

Compared to the Southern Rhône, the grape-growing area of the North is much smaller – just a thin strip running along the Rhône river where its not unusual to find vineyards at very steep inclines. The North is dominated by cru-level appellations. Generic Côtes du Rhône wines are rare here.  Each cru appellation is able to produce wines that display flavours and textures unique to their individual appellation – this is what makes them some of the most premier sites in the world. Côte Rotie, for example, is the most North appellation, growing the Syrah grape. The intense exposure to the sun (hence the name ‘roasted slope’) means Syrah thrives in this area, and producing deep-coloured, full-bodied, spicy, with floral aromatics and fine texture – distinguishing itself from other appellations in the North.

Varietals

The sub-region’s higher latitude means cooler temperatures. Due to this, the Northern Rhône produces a significant volume of white wine, mainly from the Viognier grape. Other white varietals found in the sub-region include Roussanne and Marsanne. For red grapes, Syrah is the only red varietal grown in the North and is at its most northern limit where it can ripen fully and properly. In general, Syrah produced from the Northern Rhône is known to display very distinct black pepper and floral notes. This said, the most premier sites such as Côte Rôtie and Hermitage, have the capacity to produce some of the most prestigious red wines, made from the Syrah grape varietal.

Summary

  • “Crus” appellations to note include: Côte Rôtie (most Northerly, literally translated as ‘roasted slope’), Condrieu (solely Viognier), Saint-Joseph, Hermitage, Hermitage (greatest producing appellation), Cornas (solely Syrah)
  • Small grape-growing areas, dominated by cru appellations – generic Côtes du Rhône is rare
  • White varietals: Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne
  • Red Varietals: Syrah (black pepper and floral notes)

Southern Rhône

Terroir

Example of the galets, found in the premier growing sites of the South

The Southern Rhône is much more hospitable for red grape varietals compared to the North. The grape growing area is big. This is where you’ll find your generic Côtes du Rhône wines – usually in the sprawling, flat areas south of the town of Valence. The terroir is unique due to its high stone content. Some of the best cru appellations like the famous Chateuneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, and Vacqueyras contain galets which are very large stones that cover the surface of the soil. These stones trap heat and aid the ripening process of red grapes.

Varietals: ‘GSM’

A point of differentiation from the North is the amount of red varietals grown in the South. Rather than producing red wine from a single varietal, wines from the Southern Rhône are almost always made from a combination of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre, often referred to as ‘GSM‘ blends. Each varietal plays its own role. Grenache is the most widely planted red grape in the South and provides GSM blends with intensely spiced red fruit. Syrah acts a little differently here in the South (it can have a difficult time in the hottest sites). It provides structural quality to GSM blends by adding tannin and colour. Mourvèdre is now at its most northern limit where is can ripen properly (it loves warm climates), and when grown to perfection, will provide a GSM blend with tannins, black fruit, and gamey meaty notes which add complexity to the blend when aged.

Another ratchet sketch, this time, of the Southern Rhône. Note the amount of Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages appellations.

Summary

  • The terroir features stones and galets, which allows red grape varietals to fully ripen and produce high quality, intensely flavoured and textured wines
  • The Southern Rhône is famous for its GSM blends (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre)
  • Cru appellations of note include Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Vacqueyras, Gigondas

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