France’s Rhone Valley is perhaps one of the best-known wine regions in the world and the largest of all the French wine regions.
The length of the valley, which stretches about 240km from Lyon to around the Mediterranean coast, means that it has diverse soil compositions and climates, which produce a wide variety of wines.
A Taste of Rhone
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Wine cultivation in the Rhone Valley dates back to around 600 BC. Some say that the Greeks brought the Syrah grape, one of the main grapes grown in the Rhone, from the city of Shiraz, although others say the Romans brought it to the Rhone from the Sicilian city of Syracuse in 280 AD. DNA typing and research suggests, however, that the Syrah grape actually originated in the Rhone Valley.
No matter from where the grapes originated, wine production in Rhone began with the Ancient Greeks in the area that is now Marseilles, with the Ancient Romans cultivating grape vines in Vienne. However, when the Romans left the area, so did the interest in viticulture in the region, and it didn’t make a reappearance until the papacy moved from Rome to France in the Middle Ages.
After becoming pope in 1305, Pope Clement V, a Frenchman, refused to move to Rome, instead moving the papacy to Avignon, in Southern Rhone, where it stayed for the next 67 years. This is where the most famous region in Rhone, Chateauneuf du Pape, got its name.
Wines in the region remained popular until the mid-19th century, when phylloxera, a grapevine pest, devastated much of Europe, the Rhone Valley included. As many growers lacked the funds to replant their vines, some turned to growing other fruit, such as cherries, instead of producing wine.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that the region really started to regain its world-class reputation for producing stunning wines. Nowadays, the Rhone wine region produces some of the most famous and highly valued wines in the world, in particular their Syrah, a red wine. Wines from Hermitage (mostly Syrah), Chateauneuf du Pape (both red and white wines), and Cote Rotie (also Syrah) are some of the most famous from the Rhone region.
There are two key regions within the Rhone Valley, the Northern Rhone and the Southern Rhone.
The Northern Rhone has a continental climate with warm summers and harsh winters, and is cooler than its southern counterpart. The soil in the Northern Rhone is also known to contain more granite.
The Southern Rhone, on the other hand, has a more Mediterranean climate, with a hot summer and mild winter. The soil in this area of the region contains more limestone than is present in the north. Drought can be a threat in the south, but limited irrigation is permitted to help mitigate the problem.
Vineyards in the Rhone cover 170,000 hectares, with over 6,000 wine growing properties, 1,837 private wineries, and 103 cooperatives. The Rhone produces about 400 million litres of wine a year, 77% of which is red wine, 8% rosé, and 5% dry white wine. Every year, about 33.3 million cases of wine of each vintage is produced.
Within the Rhone Valley, there are 23 different appellations in the Southern Rhone, and eight in the Northern Rhone. The north has some of the older, more well recognised names in wines, such as Hermitage and Cote Rotie, but only has about 5% of the region’s total wine production. Any red, white, or rosé wine from the region, however, can claim the Cotes du Rhone appellation.
There are around 27 different grape varieties planted in the Rhone, but the most common are Grenache, Syrah, and Carignan for red wines, and Viognier, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, and Ugni Blanc for white wines.
27% of wine produced in the Rhone is exclusively made from Syrah, also called Shiraz in Australia, and Syrah is the only red wine grape allowed in the Northern Rhone.
Wines from the Northern and Southern Rhone are quite distinct from each other, despite being produced in the same overall region.
Southern Rhone wines are generally warmer, have a higher alcohol content and a light to medium body. They are also fruitier, with flavours of kirsch and red fruits.
Wines from the Northern Rhone typically need to be aged before use. Northern Rhone wines are full bodied and complex, with aromas of prunes, chocolate and ripe black fruit.
Some of the most notable producers from the Rhone include Domaine Paul Autard, Albert Bell, Chateau d’Aqueria, and Clos des Papes.
Maison Tardieu-Laurent, located in the iconic area of Provence, has no vineyard holdings of its own, but manages to produce some truly excellent wines. This is only possible because the Tardieu family, who own the estate, know the wine industry inside and out and have managed to make a name for themselves in an ever competitive field.
Located in the famous Southern Rhone appellation of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Domaine Saint Prefertproduces some of the best-known wines in the highly renowned region. Since coming under new management in 2002, Domaine Saint Prefert has made a name for itself in a field with many contenders.
As with many vineyards in Cote Rotie, Domaine Stephane Ogier is a family-run establishment and has been since its inception. Located in Northern Rhone, Domaine Stephane Ogier produce their wines in a traditional way, while not shying away from experimentation, finding the perfect blend of tradition and modernity.
Yves Cuilleron, a third generation wine maker, is the owner of Cave Yves Cuilleron in Northern Rhone. The estate is a real family affair and Cuilleron’s passion is evident in the production of his masterful and well-respected wines.