A Primer on the Wines of France’s Rhone Region
The Rhone Valley in Southern France produces stellar wines using many different grapes than those found in other parts of France. In fact, in the popular and renowned Chateauneuf-du-Pape region, blends can utilize 18 different grapes. It sounds like it could get complicated but it really doesn’t. You just have to know a few basic fundamentals of the geography and you’ll be on your way to enjoying these excellent Southern French wines.
Rhone wines stand out to me because they exude the beauty of the French land, with old vine heritage, and they are consistently exceptional values from the low end ($10) all the way to the high end ($300+). They are also incredibly food friendly.
Northern Rhone is noted for its Syrah which is the primary red grape that is grown in the area. Interestingly enough to many US wine consumers, the winemakers in Northern Rhone will blend their Syrah with small parts of white grapes, including Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne. Fans of Australian wines may find that more familiar since you see that occur frequently with Australian Shiraz which can sometimes have a pinch of white mixed in.
A result of these blends is the growing international popularity of some of these Northern Rhone vineyards, particularly those from Cote Rotie and St Joseph. And unfortunately, prices are rising along with their popularity. But if you search around you can still find some of these great wines for $40-$50.
Some of the appellations of Northern Rhone to keep an eye out for are:
- Cote Rotie
- Saint Joseph
Tip: Crozes-Hermitage is Northern Rhone’s largest volume producer and the wines share many characteristics as well regarded Hermitage but with a more approachable price tag.
Southern Rhone has a slightly warmer climate than its neighbor to the north. In addition to Syrah, which is popular in the region, you will also see blends with Grenache (dominantly), Mourvedre, Cinsault and Carignan. These are the staples of what are known as “Rhone Varietals” which continue to grow in popularity around the world.
Today you will find a lot of these same grapes grown in South America, often times from vines brought over from France, and there’s a strong emergence lately of the varietals in California. The acclaimed Chateau de Beaucastel of Chateauneuf-du-Pape offers their Tablas Creek wines grown in Paso Robles, and there’s even an organization known as the “Rhone Rangers” who promote the growth and consumption of Rhone varietals. This is clearly an area at the center of the modern wine world.
Some of the key appellations in Southern Rhone that you will want to commit to memory include:
Cotes du Rhone: a staple of the area, lots of Grenache dominated blends and typically a safe bet at almost any price point. If you start dipping below $10 you’ll be pushing it, but for just a few dollars more, $12-$15, you’ll be right in the sweet spot. That said, when you go even further up market, in that $20-$30 range these wines are on par with bottles twice the price from other areas. (note: the prices I list may vary widely depending on where you are buying your wine. Please use this as just a rough guide for what to expect.)
Cotes du Rhone Villages: attached to the northern part of Cotes du Rhone and the second largest in size after Cotes du Rhone. Comments from above apply here too, but there are different blending rules between the two. Wines from Cotes du Rhone Villages must meet slightly higher standards than those of Cotes du Rhone. They therefore can cost a few dollars more, and generally to me, are worth the step up.
Gigondas: a really fun region to explore, and one that is starting to make more of a presence in the U.S. I see many more Gigondas bottles on restaurant wine lists today than I did just a few years ago. Part of the reason is that these wines, made from the Grenache Noir grape blended with other Rhone varietals, are big and flavor packed.
Another is that they can be purchased for less (starting around $20-$30 retail) than their more expensive neighbors. They exhibit characteristics that are similar in some ways to nearby Chateauneuf-du-Pape but Gigondas wines bring a bit more bang. These are bold wines with aging potential, and a nice one to add to your wine knowledge list.
Ventoux: this is another up and comer, at least to U.S. markets. A couple years ago you’d be hard pressed to find many Ventoux bottles in your average wine shop. But they are creeping into wine stores near you, and they are a great representation of the values from this region. Ventoux produces red, white and rosé wines. The reds are made from the standard Rhone varietals (Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault, Carignan and Mourvèdre), while the whites can be made from a blend of Bourboulenc, Clairette, Roussanne andGrenache Blanc.
Vacqueyras: This area is right there with Gigondas for consistently producing strong, rich, bountiful reds at very attractive prices. These wines also utilize the standard Rhone varietals, and they typically exhibit strong red and dark fruit, with tobacco, leather and a notable pepper spice. They are medium in body but pack a nice punch. You will find Vacqueyras wines generally priced in the $15-$25 range and they will deliver much more value than most other wines in that price range.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape: My appreciation for Chateauneuf-du-Pape began around a table at a French restaurant in Paris many years ago where I was dining with local hosts, who knew of my burgeoning interest in French wines. I was only mildly familiar with Chateauneuf at that time, and as the food was being ordered, the locals ordered a couple different Chateauneuf bottles. They told me they were going for the “local stuff,” which after clarification they told me is the wine that is so good that the French don’t ship it to the rest of the world. Perhaps there’s a little truth to that.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines are made predominantly with the three staple Rhone varietals – Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre (sometimes referred to simply as GSM)–however an additional 15 varietals may be used in the blend for a total of 18 possible grapes (some of the other lesser known varietals include Counoise, Cinsault, Muscardin, Vaccarese, Picpoul Noir and Terret Noir).
These are among the most respected and revered wines from Southern Rhone. You’d be lucky to score one under $25 (although Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand produces one every year for only $19.99 that is a very good buy) and they can reach prices in the several hundreds of dollars. Google “Chateau de Beaucastel Hommage a Jacques Perrin Grande Cuvee” to learn about one of the most highly regarded and most expensive Chateauneufs around.
The standard Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape can be found for $80-$100 and is an excellent buy. Many Chateauneuf wines will be priced in the $40-$80 range, and most are quite good. I have had luck shopping online for Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines where the selection is vast and the price points more accessible.
Rasteau: a sleeper from Rhone in my opinion. You don’t see shelves stocked with Rasteau bottles, but I’ve had great experiences at the high and low end of this region too. Part of the reason you haven’t seen many of these bottles is that the region was only promoted to “cru”status in 2010, which allowed them to put the name of the appellation on the wines. Rasteau wines consist primarily of Grenache and they can be hefty, and higher in alcohol, perhaps as a result of the region’s history of producing fortified wines. No modern study of Rhone wines would be complete without sampling those from Rasteau.
Costieres de Nimes: Like Ventoux, this is an up and comer. It’s one of the newer regions to be classified as a Rhone wine, having previously been identified as part of the Languedoc area. Costieres de Nimes mainly produces red wines, however whites and rosé can be found from this area in smaller volume. The reds again use the main Rhone varietals and are perhaps a little lighter in body than some of the other nearby, bigger style reds.
The White Wines of Rhone
Like Bordeaux, Rhone is known for its reds, but that’s not to say you won’t find some fun white wines from this area. White wines will be blended too and may include grapes such as Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne and Grenache Blanc along with some lesser known grapes such as Ugni Blanc, Bourboulenc, Picpoul, and Clairette.
White Rhone wines start at very reasonable price points, sometimes under $10 even, and are great choices when you want something a little different. I’ve become a fan of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blancs that begin to climb the price ladder a bit ($30-$50).
[Excerpted from Decoding French Wine, A Beginner’s Guide to Enjoying the Fruits of the French Terroir, by Andrew Cullen]
What are your favorite wines from Rhone? Let us know in the comments below.