The Rhône Valley is divided into two distinct zones: the Northern Rhone and the Southern part. The total Production of the Northern Rhône accounts for less than 5 per cent of the total Rhone wine production, but most of the premium wines will be situated in this area.
Climate, soils, topography and even vine varieties makes the Southern Rhône completely different from the Northern part. The region produces large quantity of wines, from high-volume/inexpensive to premium wines
Few appellations from The Northern Rhône
Cornas, in the old dialect, means “burnt land”, a reference to the prime areas of land in the appellation, towards the west and northwest of Cornas village, that have high slopes and protection from the cold winds from the north. Wine has been made here for millennia, with the first terraces built on the steep hillside probably during the Roman era. It is well known for its varietal Syrah reds, the only grape allowed to be used by the appellation. It is often the first appellation in the north of the Rhone Valley to harvest.
The appellation is very small at 90 hectares, just a twentieth of the size of its northern neighbour, Saint-Joseph, and produces on average 4,000 hectolitres a year. It does not have the same recognition as some of the more northern appellations, and as such produces wines that are of high quality but relatively low in price. They are generally known for their good ageing potential.
Due to the steep granite terrain (reaching 400 metres in places), most of the vineyards here are terraced. The granite soil is common across Rhone, and its low fertility means that the roots will grow deep and strong. The granite also absorbs the heat and provides good drainage. Towards the south of the appellation, the soil is mainly of clay.
Cornas was recognised as an official appellation in 1938, but the first written evidence of its winemaking past comes from 885, when the local church was described as being “surrounded by vines”.
This appellation is the largest in the Rhone Valley, stretching from the north to the south of the town Tain L’Hermitage on the east bank of the river Rhone. Some 90 per cent of wines produced here are red, mostly Syrah, with whites making up the remaining 10 per cent, mainly Roussanne and Marsanne. The fertile soils here are perfect for producing accessible, fruity wines, especially on flat land.
Such a large appellation leads to a wide range of terroirs, most of clay and limestone. To the north of Tain L’Hermitage, wines are produced with more complexity, thanks to its climatic conditions, especially on the south-facing slopes which receive more sunlight. The granite bedrock under the soil is useful for retaining heat. The eastern area has soil made up of clay and limestone, while the south, by the river, is rich with alluvial rock.
Few appellations from The Southern Rhône
One of the best known wine appellations in the world, Côtes-du-Rhône is mainly famous for its diverse range of red wines. Vinification has taken place here since before the Roman conquest, and the valley has always been a useful pathway between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. The vineyards here are spread across 171 villages along a 200 kilometre stretch of the river Rhône. Its 32,000 hectares of vineyards produce around 1.2 million hectolitres per year, 89 per cent of it red, 7 per cent rosé and 4 per cent white. Around a third of wine made here is exported.
Côtes-du-Rhône, which makes up for around two-thirds of total Rhône Valley production, was also the first place to have a certified place of origin (AOC). The name Côte-du-Rhône – literally “hill of the Rhône” – originated in the 15th century, by which time it was already well-known for its wines. By 1650, laws were introduced to ensure that the wines produced there were of a certain standard of quality, and in 1737 a royal decree ruled that all wines exported or sold from the region were to be marked “CDR”. A century later, the appellation increased its area to include both banks of the river, altering its name to how it appears today (with Côte pluralised to Côtes).
There are four different classes of Côtes-du-Rhône: Côtes-du-Rhône AOC, Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages, Côtes-du-Rhône (named village) and crus:
The level of Côtes-du-Rhône AOC makes up around half of all production in the Rhône Valley. The wines are generally blended from a selection of 21 grapes, with Grenache or Syrah providing the base. They come from various vineyards on various soil types, but the majority are grown in the south of the valley. The lowest alcohol content for this type of wine is 11 per cent. Côtes-du-Rhône AOC wines are generally easy to drink reds wine, although whites and rosés are also produced in smaller quantities.
The next level is Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages. These wines are more complex than the previous category, and can come from any of 95 selected communes in the Ardèche, the Drôme, the Gard or the Vaucluse. Around 3,000 hectares are cultivated at this level. The lowest alcohol content is 12.5 per cent, and they are good for ageing.
Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages (named) are used for the 18 villages permitted to use the village name on their label as well. This makes up for around 6,500 hectares of cultivation, with a slightly lower yield once more.
The final level is that of the crus, of which there are 16. These may also use the name of their village, and are not required to mention Côtes-du-Rhône on the label at all.
The climate across Côtes-du-Rhône is generally Mediterranean in the south, with a more continental climate in the north, both under the harsh influence of the Mistral Wind. Summer is hot and dry, and sometimes stormy, with a mild winter. Rainfall is not frequent, and snow even less so, but there are two rainy seasons, in autumn and spring. There are also two dry seasons, one in the winter and another in the summer.
The soils also differ between north and south, with the former largely featuring granite and calcareous clays, and the south featuring limestone, sandstone, quartzine shingle and alluvia.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape was once the seat of the popes of Avignon, from 1305. While there are no records of wine production before then, it is widely assumed that it took place. But it was in the 18th century that the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape expanded hugely, as demand increased from consumers in France and across Europe. Today this appellation is made up of 3,200 hectares of vineyards across Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where more than half of the wines are made, and its four neighbouring communes Courthézon, Orange, Bédarrides and Sorgues. It is the largest and most famous of all southern Rhône appellations, and produces more wine that the entirety of the northern part of the valley. Châteauneuf-du-Pape AOC allows 13 varieties of grapes, although Grenache the most common, and 95 per cent of production is of red wines (the remainder is rosé, white is not permitted under AOC rules).
The landscape here is covered with galets – pebbles – which help keep the soil drained and warm at night. They were the result of ancient alpine glaciers around 1.8 million years ago, a time when the Rhône was once 30 kilometres wide. The soil is often made up of sandstone containing fossilised shells, a reminder that this was once at the bottom of the Mediterranean, some 20 million years ago.
The climate is relatively humid, and rain can fall throughout the year. The summers are hot, but tempered by Mistral winds from the north.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape is probably the only appellation in France so protective over its vines that it has “banned” UFOs. In 1954 the local mayor and village council legislated against “the overflight, the landing and the take-off of aircraft known as flying saucers or flying cigars”. Any unfortunate alien that does accidentally land here must, even today, be taken into custody. In 2016, the mayor, Claude Avril, said, “I'm not going to touch the ban. It spices things up a bit.”
The village of Rasteau sits at the top of a 200 metre high hill in the south of the Rhône Valley, and has been producing wines since at least 30BC. Winemaking here increased steadily after the Middle Ages, at which time the clergy invested heavily in the growing of vines here, so that by the 18th century the vineyards were some of the largest in Vaucluse. It was heavily affected by the phylloxera outbreak in 1870, but has since recovered its reputation as a key wine-growing region.
The most commonly used grape here is Grenache, which makes up at least 50 per cent of official AOC wines. The vines are tough enough to withstand dry soils and strong winds, with roots reaching deep for nutrients. Syrah and Mourvèdre is generally added to the wines, offering balance, and Carignan is also often added for structure and aging potential.
The climate here is influenced by the Mediterranean Sea, and the south-facing hills ensure both a large amount of sunlight and adequate protection against the Mistral winds from the north.
Rasteau features a wide variety of soils, including elements of marl, red soil, and limestone, although clay is most commonly found. Galets, smooth pebbles resulting from ancient glacial melt, keep the soil well drained and retain heat during the way, keeping the vines warm at night.