A Guide to the Southern Rhône
The Southern Rhône is a haven for fabulous wines, many of which rank among the greatest values in France. The following post will examine the major grape varieties grown in the region, as well as three of its most important wine producing appellations.
Grapes of the Southern Rhône
Unlike the varietal wines of Burgundy to the north, wines from the Southern Rhône are usually blends of two or more grapes. These are primary for red wine production:
Grenache - As the prominent black grape of the Southern Rhône, Grenache often serves as the majority component of red wine blends. This variety is well-suited to the warm Mediterranean climate of the region and can be made into lush, intensely flavored wines that typically display red berries (raspberry, strawberry, cranberry) and peppery spice.
Syrah - While Syrah is the dominant black grape of the Northern Rhône, it also plays an important role in the wines of the Southern Rhône. Syrah’s characteristic dark berry, licorice, and black pepper flavors contribute complexity to blends, as well as body and structure.
Mourvèdre - Another black grape included in many of the region’s wine blends is Mourvèdre, which thrives in the warmest climates and displays high levels of tannin, as well as meaty aromas and flavors.
The wine producing grapes of this regional appellation can be sourced from anywhere within the Rhône Valley, though most wines come from the south. The standards are Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre, though up to ten other black grapes may comprise a modest portion of red and rosé Côtes-du-Rhône. Many producers choose to make wine using a method called carbonic maceration. During this process, whole bunches of black grapes are placed in an environment where oxygen is removed, which causes some of their sugars to ferment without additional yeast, resulting in soft and fruity red wines. A few white wines are also made, principally from Clairette and Grenache Blanc. With a few exceptions, Côtes-du-Rhône wines should generally be consumed young.
There is a significant jump in quality for wines classified as Côtes-du-Rhône Villages. In order for wine labels to state this appellation, all grapes must be grown in one or more of 20 approved villages. The name of a single village may be added to Côtes-du-Rhône Villages as long as all grapes were grown there. Again, Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre are the key players in these wines, which now possess more complexity, depth, and structure than regular Côtes-du-Rhône. You can also perceive their special terroir through hints of earth and minerals. Each one of the 20 Côtes-du-Rhône Villages can petition to gain appellation status in their own right.
Gigondas - Initially a Côtes-du-Rhône village, the cru of Gigondas was the first to become a distinct appellation. Vineyards here are planted on a combination of limestone and rocky soils. The best versions are age-worthy reds that place greater emphasis on the Grenache grape and exhibit intense aromas and flavors.
Vacqueyras - To the south of Gigondas is Vacqueyras, another reliable appellation for fine wines; however, a smaller percentage of Grenache is required. The wines are often very ripe and slightly less polished than their northern counterparts, but still, provide a unique and charming drinking experience.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape - The most celebrated of all Southern Rhône wines come from the appellation of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, notable for soils covered with "galet roulés" - large stones and pebbles that absorb the sun’s heat during the day and release it at night. Grenache is the driving force behind these full-bodied wines, and in some instances, the only grape vinified. More than a dozen other grapes are permitted as well. Classic examples offer concentrated flavors of savory red berries, white pepper, garrigue, and smoky earth, and often have excellent cellaring potential. White wines are rarely produced, but still, give immense pleasure to the consumer.
Now that you have a solid reference point, there are so many amazing wines to explore from the Southern Rhône. Seek them out and allow their unparalleled expressiveness to draw you in!