Wines from the Rhone Region
The impressive river Rhone links two very distinct wine regions: the northern Rhone with its statuesque Hermitage and rarefied whites, and the much more extensive southern Rhone, the source of robust Chateauneuf-du-Pape and so much good-value Cotes-du-Rhone.
Those who have hurtled down the French auto-route towards the Mediterranean will know how narrow the Rhone Valley is between the industrial suburbs of Lyons and the gentler countryside around Valence. It takes eagle eyes to spot the vines that are left on the right bank of the river just south of Vienne that constitute red wine appellation Cote Rotie and the whites of” Condrieu and Chateau-Grillet.
The vines planted on these hazardously steep slopes, Viognier for white and Syrah for red, produce hardly enough to keep a vigneron afloat and it is only world-wide demand for these rarities that makes them a viable proposition. Cote Rotie means ‘roasted slope’ and, thanks to a bend in the river, the hillside does indeed face south to the ripening sun. Some producers add a little Viognier to the Syrah for Cote Rotie, which may then have a special perfume overlying the dense, long-lived characteristics normally associated with Syrah.
Chateau-Grillet has the distinction of being the smallest appellation in France a single property and shares with Condrieu the exciting combination of lots of body and the haunting Viognier aroma that reminds some of may blossom.
Hermitage, the northern Rhone’s most revered red, is deep-coloured, dry and lasts for decades. All major north Rhone reds are made from Syrah, though Crozes-Hermitage from the lower slopes around the famous Hermitage hillock tends to be more approachable than most, and to mature after only two or three years. Cornas and St-Joseph are other northern reds and there are now up-and-coming vineyards in their hinterland in the department of the Ardeche.
The southern Rhone is France’s most sheltered wine region, and some of the reds prove it. Some of the ancient Chateauneuf-du-Pape vineyards around Avignon are especiallv picturesque, with their distinctive large stones to conserve and radiate heat. As a result, the wines themselves almost taste warm. There is richness and more than a suggestion of the herbs of Provence in most of them.
Cotes-du-Rhone is the country cousin of Chateauneuf, being made from the same mix of grape varieties, in which Grenache and, increasingly, Syrah play a major role for reds. There are white Chateauneufs and Cotes-du-Rhones, again made from a blend of grape varieties, but this corner is too hot to produce whites with much crispness. Red C6tes-du-Rhone tends to have a certain peppery flavour and can vary between being as full-bodied as a Chateauneuf and being light and juicy like a Beaujolais.
Whatever the weight, Cotes-du-Rhone provides good, straightforward, early-maturing wines. Some of the villages in the Cotes-du-Rhone region are allowed to boast their own name on the label. Gigondas is the most like Chateauneuf, while Vacqueyras, Cairanne, Chusclan and Beaumes-de-Venise (more famous for its grapey sweet wine) are all perfectly respectable. Coteaux du Tricastin, Cotes du Vivarais, Cotes du Ventoux and Cotes du Luberon are the fringe areas of this region. On the right bank of the river Rhone, opposite Avignon, is rose country. Tavel and Lirac make pink Grenache-based wines that are high in alcohol because they are made so far south.