The Rhone Valley is France’s second largest wine AOC, with a total area as large as 71,000 rugby stadiums and 28 appellations within, with a history that traces back two millennia.
While it is a region best known for its reds, which comprise over four fifths of the total production, the Rhone Valley is a champion in versatility, with whites, rosés, dessert wines and even a very small production of sparkling.
With 27 allowed grape varieties and remarkable climatic and geographical differences between sub-regions, it is not surprising that wines from different corners of the Rhone Valley can be so dissimilar.
In fact, the region is often divided into two main sections –Northern Rhone and Southern Rhone- and, long story short, the north is Syrah central while the south is Grenache domain, because despite the wide palette of grapes winemakers can work with, these two lead the way each side of the massive valley.
Finding time to delve into the intricacies of each sub-region can be challenging, so the quick guide below is a good place to start if you’re eager to find your happy place amidst so much diversity.
We’ll start at the northernmost region and move southwards as we shed some light on some of the Rhone Valley’s main regions and what can you expect from them.
Côte-Rôtie: Very steep hills are a feature of this 100% red wine appellation that produces Syrah wines acclaimed for their finesse. Up to 20% of the white variety Viognier is allowed in the blend. The name roughly translates as “the roasted slope”, as a nod to how the fruit gets plenty of sun time thanks to the sharp slopes.
Saint-Joseph: A place to source Syrah wines of elegance, restrain and often, pleasant notes of violets and a peppery palate. Dark and intense, these wines have long ageing potential. White varieties Roussanne and Marsanne are allowed in small quantities for blending and there is a small production of white wines.
Crozes-Hermitage: A little less restrained than its northerly neighbour, this is a place for lovers of aromatic Syrah with a more fruity character, yet an elegant structure. While they also age well, wines from this appellation are often enjoyed young.
Hermitage: A jewel among jewels, this region’s legendary status traces back to medieval times. With only 137 hectares, this area enjoys a privileged exposure to the sun and protection from the merciless wind. Wines of remarkable longevity and complexity come from this special trio of hills. It’s best known for world-class Syrah, but superb whites from Marsanne and Roussanne can also be found.
Saint-Péray: A rarity among its peers, this 85 hectares large region produces only white wines from Marsanne and Roussanne. They range from peachy and floral still wines to the Rhone’s only sparkling wine, made with the traditional method.
Côtes du Rhône: With a massive area of 32,036 ha, this region takes up almost half of the Rhone’s map. Mediterranean climate and the force of the Mistral wind are shared features along this extensive landscape, where blends are the norm and great value is often found. Being the first stop in the Southern Rhone, Grenache takes the torch, but Syrah is a frequent appearance in the blends, along with Mourvèdre (these three grapes offer the initials for the very popular GSM blend!). Expect vibrant, fruity, food-friendly wines that are often drunk young.
Gigondas: Age-worthy wines lead by Grenache and often accompanied by Mourvèdre and Syrah come from this sunny appellation. You’ll often find wines of robust elegance, with ripe dark fruit aromas combined with pepper and liquorice. Ageing helps the wines develop meaty and truffle-like notes. It’s a place to stop if you’re fan of full body, complex, big, reds.
Vacqueyras: Just south of Gigondas, this is another must-try if you like red wines with intensity. The region’s style is Grenache-driven, and while still well in the “big bold reds” territory, they tend to be mellower and smoother, with gentler tannins that its peers in the top floor. It is a good door to knock on if you’re seeking fine reds that won’t break the bank.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape: One of the oldest and most famous wine appellations, this region juggles 13 different grape varieties to achieve its world-famous wines (the large majority being reds, but with a small proportion of whites). In practice, Grenache is often on the spotlight, sometime even by itself.
This is a very dry area, with a soil famous for its “galets”, or pebbles that retain the heat that accumulates during the day, releasing it slowly by night, providing vines with a natural heating system. You’ll find long-lived, full-bodied reds with aromas of ripe black fruit and berries preserve, pepper, spices and leather.
Ventoux: A very large (5,774 ha), yet sometimes forgotten region south-east from Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Ventoux’s winemaking history is centuries long, but the region only gained AOC status in 1973. Go here for peppery reds with dark fruit character and for affordable rosé (over a quarter of their production is pink).
Lirac: Rhone’s southernmost region is a land of aromatic, generous and palate pleasing wines that come in all three colours. Grenache leads, but never signs alone as the region where wines must be blended, and Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Cinsault are often combined into dark and well-structured reds.
Tavel: This unusual region stands out in pink within a sea of redness. It’s a rosé-only appellation famous for its balanced blends and fresh, elegant character. Grenache is again the boss, and it welcomes grapes such as Syrah, Cinsault and Mourvèdre. Expect aromatic rosés at reasonable prices.
Ferraton Père & Fils Crozes-Hermitage La Matinière 2016
€20.95 – Available at O’Briens Wine
An elegant Northern Rhone Syrah with a pleasant balance between white pepper and ripe black fruit aromas and flavours.
It’s a well-rounded red of moderate tannins, medium body and a restrained nature that calls for slow sipping and mindful enjoyment.
Clos de Caveau Vacqueras 2014 Carmin Brillant
€31.95 – Available at Baggot Street Wines, Le Caveau, The Corkscrew, Fallon & Byrne, Dundalk Wines, Donnybrook Fair
An organic blend of 70% Syrah and 30% Grenache. Generous, aromatic and with great concentration of ripe fruit aromas and flavours. Expect juice red berries, with pepper, sweet spices and a meaty note.
Full bodied and with gentle tannins, this is a wine of balance, that despite the ripeness of its fruit, retains a freshness that makes every sip as appealing (if not more) that the one before.
Côtes du Rhône ‘Alizé’ 2016, Les Deux Cols
€17.95 – Available at Searsons Wine Merchants, siyps.com, Green Man Wines, 64 Wine
Made by Irish winemaker Simon Tyrell in collaboration with Charles Derain. This wine is a Syrah-dominated blend with a good presence of Grenache and a small proportion of Cinsault.
Concentrated and modern, it offers a parade of alternating red and black fruit, sprinkled with a hint of pepper. Smooth and juicy, it’s an incredibly friendly red that feels well-rounded in taste and and silky in texture.
Maison Les Alexandrins Viognier 2017
€19.99 – Available at McHughs Off Licence – Kilbarrack Rd, Bubble Brothers
White wine lovers have also plenty of reasons to remember Rhone. Modern and fresh, this wine is made from Viognier grapes from selected parcels in the Northern Rhone and it offers a pleasant combination of fruit and floral notes, aged in stainless steel to preserve the purity of its aromas.
Nectarines, lemons and crisp green apples lead, accompanied by a delicate white blossom character. Moderate in acidity and medium-bodied, it’s a versatile white that will prove to be a fine companion to seafood, goats cheese and delicate dishes.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.