Grapelive Quickies: Exploring the Rhone Valley & Learning the Basics

The Rhone Valley
One of France’s main wine regions, the Rhone Valley is mostly divided into two areas the Northern and Southern zones, but also including the Ventoux, Nimes and the Luberon in the southern area and Lyonnaise in the most northern end. This vast region has many varietals including native grapes which include Syrah, Cinsault, Counoise, Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne and Picpoul to name a few, plus grapes that came from Spain like Grenache (Garnacha) and Mourvedre (Monastrell) that have taken hold since the late 1,800’s and have been allowed in Chateauneuf-du-Pape since it became France’s first AOC. It’s key to remember that in the Northern Rhone, a terroir that mostly consists of granite schist with loam, clay and gravel, the red wine is 100% Syrah, with the exception of Coteaux de Lyonnaise where there is in fact Gamay, this area sits just north of Cote-Rotie, while the white grapes include only Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne with Viognier only allowed in Condrieu and Chateau Grillet, while Roussanne and Marsanne can be used together in Hermitage, Saint-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage and Saint-Peray, with no white grapes allowed in Cornas. In the Southern zone things get much more complicated and grape choices much more varied, but this is primarily Grenache territory and it usually leads the way with the sandy and rocky soils that has some limestone or marl underpinning. The most famous areas of the South include the mentioned Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the “new castle of the Pope” for the time of the Popes of Avignon and where the wines were rightly honored by the church and are still enjoyed in the Vatican today, but also includes the huge generic Cotes-du-Rhone, Cotes-du-Rhone Villages as well as smaller high end Villages (towns) of Gigondas, Vaqueyras, Sablet and Cairanne being the main AOC’s, but one must not forget sweet wine areas like Banyuls a red dessert wine made from Grenache and Baumes de Venise white dessert wine made from Muscat. Please note that in 2009 the Chateauneuf-du-Pape rules were clarified to include 18 varietals (from the original 13) and it includes: Cinsaut, Counoise, Grenache noir, Mourvèdre, Muscardin, Piquepoul noir, Syrah, Terret noir, and Vaccarèse (Brun Argenté). White and pink varieties are Bourboulenc, Clairette blanche, Clairette rose, Grenache blanc, Grenache gris, Picardan, Piquepoul blanc, Piquepoul gris, and Roussanne. As you can see Marsanne and Viognier are forbidden, but still allowed in the South and feature in many Cotes-du-Rhone whiles. Also in Chateauneuf-du-Pape you can use all 18 different grapes in the reds, or use a single varietal, confused yet? Happy drinking!

Rhone Wines to look for: Chateau de Saint Cosme, Vieux Telegraphe, Guillaume Gilles, Beranred Levet, Clusel Roch, JL Chave, A. Clape, Pegau, Rayas, Montmirail, Delas Freres, Jamet, Beaucastel, Perret and Faury.

American Versions to look for: Alban, Bonny Doon, P’Tit Paysan, Drew, Halcon, Skylark, Samsara, Piedrasassi, Cayuse, Gamercy, Lagier-Merideth, Sheldon, Favia, Tribute to Grace, Jaffurs, Ridge Vineyards, Saxum, Epoch and Big Basin.