France’s Rhône Valley produces fine wines at an incredibly high level, although is often overshadowed by the bigger names of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Producers here range from large-scale négociants to cottage industries with centuries of history behind them: famed winemaker Jean-Louis Chave is the 16th generation of his family to make wine at the legendary Hermitage site. Any diversified wine cellar would be enhanced by cases from this wonderful region, such is the quality and ageing potential on offer.
Most of the wine here falls under the Côtes du Rhône or Côtes du Rhône Villages appellations; quaffable and inexpensive red blends designed for simple, everyday enjoyment. These generic wines are not bad by any stretch, but do not reflect the depth and quality of which the region’s top producers are capable.
In order to understand the fine wines of the region, it is worth breaking the valley into its two naturally distinct parts: north and south.
The northern Rhône produces the majority of the region’s fine wines, despite accounting for just 5% of overall production. The most prestigious of these wines are powerful reds made from Syrah, although there are also some outstanding whites produced from Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne.
It is the smaller appellations, or crus, that produce the finest wines. Regions such as Saint Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage and Cornas all offer high-end wines with a superb quality/price ratio, although for something truly outstanding, consider the following:
● Côte-Rôtie is the Rhône’s northernmost appellation. The steep, exposed hillsides here produce some of the world’s finest Syrah. The white grape Viognier can account for up to 20% of the blend, and gives the wine a sleek finesse and the seductive aromas of fruits, violet and spices.
● Condrieu produces exclusively white wines from Viognier. Condrieu is best in its youth, with lively and fresh floral and fruit notes, typically including mango and apricot.
● Hermitage is an esteemed appellation centred on a historic hill site. Reds are generally 100% Syrah, although they may also be blended with Marsanne and Roussanne. It is more common to find white grapes used instead to produce white Hermitage wines, which have a considerable capacity for ageing. Red Hermitage wines are the region’s most full-bodied, and can age for half a century and beyond.
The southern Rhône begins just south of the town of Montélimar, sixty kilometres from the northern vineyards. This sprawling vineyard is all about red blends, and produces the vast majority of the everyday wines mentioned above. It is also home to a number of prestigious crus, whose fine wines can offer worlds of depth, complexity and flavour at a fraction of top Bordeaux or Burgundy prices.
● Châteauneuf du Pape tops the table, and is perhaps the region’s best-known individual appellation. It is the largest cru appellation in the region, and was the first French wine region to actually achieve Appellation Contôlée status, back in 1936. Châteauneuf wines have thirteen different grape varieties from which to choose in blending, although the most prominent are Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. At its best, red Châteauneuf is full-bodied, textured and spicy. A small amount of white wine is also produced here, although red is king.
● Gigondas and Vacqueyras are close neighbours of Châteauneuf and the best wines are every bit as good, and can be found at a considerable discount.