The Rhône wine growing region can be split, as in Burgundy, into two distinct areas. In the northern sector we have the Cote Rotie , Condrieu and Hermitage and the southern sector contains Chateauneuf-du-Pape and its sub regions including Gigondas Vacqueyras Muscat de Beaumes -de-Venise and lesser areas as Cotes de Luberon and Cotes de Ventoux amongst others.
This baked southern region of France is home to the Syrah grape so well taken up in Australia as Shiraz, this is a very old wine growing area, grapes having certainly been grown here since Roman times and maybe earlier.
The wines made here on the Cote Rotie were until the 70s relatively unknown outside France. This small hillside vineyard divided by soil type into the Cote Blonde and Brune have been “re discovered” and the growing acreage doubled since then.
As the world has become aware of these great wines and as with all things with a limited production, with demand soaring, so has the price, amazing since they couldn’t make money out of it forty years ago. The likes of Guigal, Rostang, Delas Freres and others are making some wonderful wines
Here they are very powerful and pungent, not as they say for the faint hearted but this is the pinnacle of quality for the region. Cote Rotie is adjacent to the appelation of Condrieu, white wine rules here made from the Viognier grape but what is sold uses the name of the region, not the grape. Viognier from here is at its best a class act, a scented wine seemingly getting richer as the quality racks up.
This is another grape that was never grown anywhere outside the Rhône until fairly recently but is now cropping up all over the New World to some effect. Many thought this would be the new Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc but it has not reached that popularity yet though even in its simplest versions it makes a pleasant change.
The less steep slopes of the Hermitage contain individual vineyards that a hundred or so years ago were mentioned and compared to the great Chateau of the Bordeaux and Burgundy. That no longer applies but these are still great wines, real blockbusters and again winemakers like Chapoutier, Chave lead the way in the quality stakes.
At the lower level, Crozes Hermitage is a village wine compared to the Grand Cru and the same applies as Cotes de Rhône Village. Straight Cotes du Rhône is a step up in quality.
In all of these lesser appelations, there are some very good, inexpensive wines and to add to the mix, roughly 25% of Hermitage and the Crozes is white grape Marsanne and it is also used in the blend of Hermitage and the best of it can be kept.
This white is quite delicate compared to the Viognier of Condrieu and is golden and dry.
Other good sub areas of this part of the Rhône include St-Joseph and Cornas which probably supplies the best of the rest a sort of mini Hermitage, only not mini in structure. There are some good bargains in this appelation for those who cannot afford the real thing and that is most of us.
Going south, Chateauneuf du Pape is the name that dominates the area. The centre piece of a huge wine growing area that is the Cotes du Rhône, the whole of this area produces nearly as much as Bordeaux on its own, to the east is the up and coming Cotes du Ventoux, to the west Coteaux d’Ardeche and south the Luberon there they are having success with a variety of grapes, all straight varieatals ie single grapes and it’s probably the French answer to the New World.
If they can carry on producing these good everyday drinking wines at this level, they are increasingly being seen on supermarket shelves and give you the opportunity to try some different grape varieties at low cost.
France desperately needs areas like this and those in the neighboring Languedoc – Roussillon to get back into the market they have had taken away largely by the New World. They have the know how and the materials but still need to get over what has happened in the market place and it is these regions that can lead the fightback.
But the top of the tree here is Chateauneuf du Pape, a name everybody knows. Nearly all of it is red and consists of a blend of up to a dozen different grapes, with Grenache being the main player and Mourvedre used in some blends in varying amounts. This is a grape that when ripe – and it needs a long season – adds something to the blend. If not ripe, it adds nothing.
The producers all having there own mix in the final blend, most of Chateauneuf is of good standard with the best producers Chateaux Beaucastel, Fortia, Rayas and Vieux Telegraph the most famous and stand on quality with the best in France. Gigondas is spoken of as a rival to Chateauneuf but from what I have sampled it is no more than average and Vacqueyras and Lirac even less but no doubt in there are some better ones.
The Grenache is a hot climate grape that world wide produces a variety of styles in the finished wine. It responds to limited production by vine pruning and restricting yield to make deep coloured reds that can be delicious. It is also seen elsewhere as Australia makes lighter wines as well that make great food wines.
Garnacha in Spain is the same grape and there is also a white version Grenache Blanc, an alcoholic fruity wine comes from it and when made well is a good fresh drinking wine.
The other exceptional wine here is Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, the sweet white dessert wine that can not only be exceptional but also great value compared to Sauternes or any other dessert wines. Again, it is being seen on the shelves and is to be recommended for value.
Rosé is a specialty of Tavel and Lirac, the two most southern Rhône appelations. This should always be drunk young and if showing an orange tinge is already getting too old. As with many of the industrial level wines, this is one I tend to avoid. The best come from top end producers who declassify a lot of Grenache in lesser years and make rosé instead or supplement with an increased production with the less ripe grapes.
Taken overall, the best quality levels are found in the northern sector. The southern sector is more patchy, ranging from glorious Chateauneuf to mundane industrial thin wines. This is an area of huge co-ops and they traverse all the qualities and account for roughly 75% of production. All of these Cotes wines should be drunk young, but this is an area with a lot of new young makers and a lot going on. This is an exciting region for the future.
Strangely this is an area bypassed by most on the way south but it has a grandeur of its own, rugged scenery, burnt hillsides and stone villages that are still untouched by the outside world. Many of the manor houses have that crenelated Tuscan look and many of the castles likewise but the scenery is certainly not Tuscan.
In late summer, it can be harsh and dry away from the fertile Rhône itself and in the case of Mont Ventoux – quite forbidding. Avignon is close and the Roman artifacts that still remain including the Pont du Gard, the wonderful aqueduct and to the coast, Nimes with its Roman arena and then Montpelier with its university.
East is Marseille and a coast including the wonderful inlets known as calanques and west to the camargue and Arles, both unique areas of beauty easily reached from the Rhône wine regions.