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The Rhône Valley - Winegrowing Areas of the Southern Rhône

DK PublishingDK Publishing 2/07/2014 DKBooks
Photo: Field of sunflowers and vines surrounding a ruined castle in the Southern Rhône © Provided by DKBooks Field of sunflowers and vines surrounding a ruined castle in the Southern Rhône

Vineyards in Tavel

Photo: Grenache grapes © Provided by DKBooks Grenache grapes

Terraced vineyards in Gigondas

Photo: Terraced vineyards in Gigondas © Provided by DKBooks Terraced vineyards in Gigondas

Vineyards in the AOC Côtes du Rhône

Photo: Vineyards in the AOC Côtes du Rhône © Provided by DKBooks Vineyards in the AOC Côtes du Rhône

Field of sunflowers and vines surrounding a ruined castle in the Southern Rhône

Photo: Galets roulés (large stones) in a Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyard © Provided by DKBooks Galets roulés (large stones) in a Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyard

Photo: Vineyards in Tavel © Provided by DKBooks Vineyards in Tavel

Grenache grapes

Galets roulés (large stones) in a Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyard

Winegrowing Areas of the Southern Rhône

The wines of the Southern Rhône are generally warm, hearty, and full-bodied—more akin to the style of Languedoc-Roussillon and Provence than that of the Northern Rhône. A range of grape varieties is permitted for these wines, which tend to be blends, but Grenache usually provides the foundation for the reds. There is also some fruity, full-bodied rosé. The small percentage of white is soft and round with low acidity.


Côtes du Vivarais

soil type: limestone
red grape variety: Syrah, Grenache, Cinsaut, Carignan
white grape variety: Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne
wine styles: red, white, rosé

This rather obscure district in the Ardèche was given full appellation status in 1999. The climate is generally cooler and wetter than in the rest of the Southern Rhône, and the wines are therefore leaner in style. Reds are in the majority and are made principally from blends of Syrah and Grenache, which together must officially account for 90 per cent of the plantings. The cooperatives produce 85 percent of the volume.


Coteaux du Tricastin

soil type: limestone-and-clay, sand
red grape variety: Grenache, Syrah, Cinsaut, Carignan, Mourvèdre
white grape variety: Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier
wine styles: red, white, rosé

Coteaux du Tricastin is a fairly extensive AOC of 2,500 ha located just south of Montélimar. The red wines, which represent 90 percent of the production here, are like lighter-styled Côtes du Rhône and should be drunk young. The high, open landscape is exposed to the full blast of the mistral, and grapes like Grenache do not ripen easily. Syrah fares better and, in accordance with AOC regulations, must represent 20 percent of the plantings. A fruity quaffing rosé accounts for another eight percent of production, while white is scarce but improving in quality.


Clairette de Die, Crémant de Die & Châtillon-en-Diois

soil type: stony
red grape variety: Gamay, Pinot Noir, Syrah
white grape variety: Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, Clairette, Aligoté, Chardonnay
wine styles: red, white, rosé

About 25 miles (40 km) east of the Rhône River, in the Drôme Valley, lies the region of Diois, where winemaking probably dates back to Roman times. Today, the best-known wine from the three AOCs here is the light, sweet, grapey sparkling Clairette de Die. This is made from Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains and Clairette grapes by the méthode dioise, a process in which a secondary fermentation in the bottle is initiated by residual grape sugars rather than by the traditional addition of sugar. The more regular dry white sparkling Crémant de Die is made exclusively from Clairette by the traditional method. A little still red and white is made in the zone of Châtillon-en-Diois. These wines are light in weight and frame; the red is mainly Gamay and the whites are from Aligoté and Chardonnay.


Gigondas

soil type: limestone, clay, sand
red grape variety: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsaut
wine styles: red, rosé

Gigondas, like Vacqueyras, lies in the shadow of the Dentelles de Montmirail hills. The two AOCs have similar soils, but Gigondas has most of its vineyards on limestone-and-clay slopes, which rise as high as 1,300 ft (400 m). These soils and the slightly cooler temperatures give additional intensity and volume, and a tighter structure, to the Grenache-based blends, making them firmer and longer-aging. A decade presents no problem to these powerful wines, and although the price has risen in recent years, Gigondas still offers excellent value.


Vacqueyras

soil type: limestone, clay, sand
red grape variety: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsaut
white grape variety: Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Marsanne, Viognier
wine styles: red, white, rosé

Vacqueyras is the most recent of the Rhône’s crus, promoted from Côtes du Rhône Villages to full appellation status in 1990. Essentially a red wine district, it produces one of the great value wines of the region, with more weight and concentration than regular villages offerings. Grenache is the dominant grape variety, imparting a rich, warm, full-bodied generosity to the wine, which is best drunk between three and six years. A small percentage of white is also produced.


Côtes du Rhône

Côtes du Rhône, a name sometimes used to refer to the Rhône Valley, is also the label given to a broad base of generic wines. AOC Côtes du Rhône is a huge playing field of production accounting for over 40,000 ha of vines and nearly two million hectoliters of wine in an average year, most of it red. The district extends to areas in the Northern Rhône, but the south takes the lion’s share. In such a large district there is naturally a great variety of style, from light and fruity to richer, fuller wines with lovely dark fruit character. Price is often the best indicator of quality. Grenache is the principal red variety and, in accordance with AOC rules, represents 40 percent of the total plantings. Other red varieties include Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsaut, and Carignan, while the whites are produced from Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Marsanne, and Viognier. Cooperatives account for around 70 percent of production.


Côtes du Rhône Villages

Côtes du Rhône Villages is a distinct step up from generic Côtes du Rhône, implying limestone-and-clay or stony soils, stricter rules of production, and wines of greater depth. The percentage of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre in the blend is higher, and permitted yields are lower. The villages appellation covers 96 Southern Rhône communes, of which 16 are allowed to print their village names on the labels. The best wines are from Cairanne and Rasteau: rich and full-bodied with a tannic structure. Côtes du Rhône Villages is almost always red, usually a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsaut, and Carignan; the one percent of white is soft, round, and floral for early drinking. Rasteau also makes a sweet, fortified vin doux naturel (VDN) from Grenache, as does Beaumes-de-Venise from Muscat.


Châteauneuf-du-Pape

soil type: sandy red clay, stones, limestone
red grape variety: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsaut, Counoise
white grape variety: Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Roussanne
wine styles: red, white

The Rhône’s most celebrated wine takes its name from the location of a summer residence for the pope, built in the 14th century when the papal seat was temporarily moved to Avignon. By far the largest cru in the Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a sizable appellation of 3,200 ha producing over 100,000 hl of wine yearly. Many of the vineyards here are covered with galets roulés—large, smooth pebbles that retain heat, ensuring full ripeness and flavor. The wine itself, mostly red, is a powerful, heady libation; the best is sweet and smooth, packed with summer fruits and fine tannins, with a mineral freshness on the finish, and the ability to age. There is even a hint of top red burgundy to some examples. That said, the fact that 13 different grape varieties are allowed in the appellation and winemaking techniques vary, as do soils and exposures, means that style and quality vary considerably. The present vogue for special cuvées—old vine fruit, less traditional blends (higher percentages of Syrah, for example), or wines aged in new oak—is even more irregular. The district is gaining momentum, though, and with several great vintages (1998 to 2001 inclusive) and a new generation of producers entering the fray, it is an ideal time to try these wines. White Châteauneuf, a varying blend of the four white varieties, is full and fruity with a delicate floral bouquet, and should be drunk young.


The 13 grape varieties of Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Châteauneuf-du-Pape unusually offers growers a choice of 13 different grape varieties: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsaut, Counoise, Vaccarèse, Terret Noir, Muscardin, Bourboulenc, Clairette, Roussanne, Picardan, and Picpoul—which probably all existed here pre-phylloxera. In theory, this allows for a huge range of styles, but in reality Grenache accounts for 75 percent, imposing its big, warm-hearted flavors across the board. Plantings of Syrah and Mourvèdre have now increased to give added complexity and structure, but few producers other than Château de Beaucastel grow all 13 varieties.

The formula for the ideal blend, devised by the owner of Château la Nerthe in the early 1900s, involves 10 grapes: Cinsaut and Grenache for mellowness, warmth, and consistency, Mourvèdre, Vaccarèse, Muscardin, and Syrah for structure, freshness, aging potential, and a thirst-quenching taste, Counoise and Picpoul for vinosity, pleasure, freshness, and bouquet, Bourboulenc and Clairette for vigor, finesse, and sparkle.


Lirac

soil type: limestone, sand, stones
red grape variety: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsaut
white grape variety: Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc
wine styles: red, white, rosé

On the opposite bank of the Rhône River from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the appellation of Lirac has grown to nearly 700 ha. Its Grenache-based red is robust and meaty; some of it, with a higher percentage of Mourvèdre, is firmer in style and has the ability to age. The rosé is similar to that of neighboring Tavel, full and heady and good with food. Like the fruity white, it should be consumed young.


Tavel

soil type: limestone, sand, clay
red grape variety: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsaut, Carignan
white grape variety: Clairette, Bourboulenc
wine styles: rosé

The reputation of this district is based on a single style of wine—rosé—and with nearly 950 ha under production, there is quite a lot of it. Grenache provides the base grape variety and is supplemented, according to producer, by a mix of other red and white grapes. This is a strong, full-bodied, fruity wine that finishes dry and is best drunk chilled with food. As an established name, it usually demands a higher price than other rosés.


Côtes du Ventoux

soil type: limestone, clay, sandstone
red grape variety: Grenache, Carignan, Syrah, Cinsaut, Mourvèdre
white grape variety: Clairette, Ugni Blanc, Bourboulenc, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne
wine styles: red, white, rosé

By far the largest of the “young” Rhône appellations, with over 7,700 ha under production, Côtes du Ventoux is again dominated by red wine. The 6,200-ft (1,900-m) Mont Ventoux is its focal point, with vineyards planted as high as 1,600 ft (500 m) on its slopes. The altitude means a generally cooler-than-average climate with greater variation between day and nighttime temperatures, resulting in wines that are fresh and fruity with a marked point of acidity. As a whole, they are made for drinking young, but a growing number of producers are now providing wines of greater structure that will age well for up to five or six years. The small percentage of white wine is usually light-bodied with a floral bouquet.


The mistral

The cold, northerly mistral wind whistles down the Rhône Valley from the Alps and is a climatic feature of the region. In winter its influence can leave the Rhône Valley colder than central and northern Europe. In 1956, it blew for three weeks and temperatures dropped to 5°F (–15°C), destroying the olive trees but not the vines. Its ferocity can cause havoc with vine trellising, particularly in spring, hence the tradition of bush-trained vines. On the positive side, its dry, cool effect helps keep fungal diseases such as mildew and oidium at bay, and concentrates the grapes prior to harvesting.


Côtes du Lubéron

soil type: limestone, sand
red grape variety: Grenache, Syrah, Carignan, Cinsaut, Mourvèdre
white grape variety: Grenache Blanc, Ugni Blanc, Vermentino, Clairette, Bourboulenc
wine styles: red, white, rosé

The Côtes du Lubéron gained AOC status in 1988 and now has 4,000 ha under vine. Its profile is similar to that of Côtes du Ventoux, with the added allure of a magical Provençal setting. Its vineyards are planted on the slopes of the Lubéron hills, surrounded by lavender, fruit orchards, and picture-postcard villages. The climate is slightly cooler here, and the red wines are generally light, fruity, and easy-drinking, although they occasionally display greater weight and frame. The cooler climate appears conducive to white varieties, and indeed Côtes du Lubéron produces more white wine than any other Rhône district. This tends to be round and fruity, although it is crisper than other whites from the Rhône region.


Costières de Nîmes

This AOC is sometimes considered to be part of the Rhône region. It is covered in this guide within the Languedoc-Roussillon section.

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