Southern Rhône

By Nick Adams, Master of Wine.

“When I drink a great Rhône, it is as if my heart and palate have traded places”

Robert Parker

As part of the ongoing look at France’s classical wine regions we look at the largest of all – The Southern Rhône. The Rhône Valley is split into 2 regions – North and South, but the South is by far the bigger, accounting for nearly 90% of all “Rhône” production.

Although it shares its name with the Northern part, the Southern Rhône is a complete contrast.  Heading south on the motorway from the southernmost part (Valence) of the North Rhône it takes a good hour’s drive before you begin to enter an area which might be termed the Southern Rhône.

Along the way the climate and terrain change markedly to a much warmer and more Mediterranean feel (in fact a sign on the motorway proudly announces this fact). Buildings take on a more burnt terracotta look, and the land flattens out significantly. In addition, the effect of the mighty river Rhône diminishes as the vineyards and the river increasingly part company. And then there is the sheer scale of the viticultural area.

To put this into context if you were to merge all the appellations of the Northern Rhône into one vineyard land mass, it would easily fit into Châteauneuf-du-Pape alone – and with plenty of space to spare!

Peeling off the motorway you quickly enter the amorphous area known as Côtes-du-Rhône, which was formally designated in 1966. Expansive (with over 42,000 hectares of vines!) and fragmented, this relatively flat and fertile area could be described as the workhorse area of the Southern Rhône. Such is its sheer size and diversity that focusing on who are the better producers is time well spent, as this is a source of excellent value for money styles. That is not to say that there aren’t better areas of production – there are – and these have been formally identified and defined over the last 40-80 years.

As the interest in the Côtes-du-Rhône grew and winemaking improved, certain villages became identified with producing consistently better wines. Over time, such was their reputation; they were formally recognised with their own Appellation. Today the most renowned of these are probably:

  • Gigondas (AOC 1971)

Gigondas is an attractive and atmospheric large village. The vast majority of Gigondas is red – with a little rosé made. Situated well inland and away from the river, this region is roughly split into 3 sub areas: the large flat plain to the west, where the more robust wines tend to come from; the lower slopes of the needle like Dentelles mountains to the east; and the higher sloped cooler, higher altitude vineyards behind the village.

Gigondas
  • Vacqueyras (1990)

Vacqueyras can make all colours of wine but in reality, is a red wine area. This is another (geographically close) village of GIgondas, with similar qualities and style. Dominated by the local co-operative there are also several Domaines:

Other top AOCs, former Côtes-du-Rhône Villages:

  • Beaumes de Venise (2005) – also famous for the production of a famous sweet Muscat wine
  • Vinsobres (2006)
  • Rasteau (2010)
  • Cairanne (2018)

Within these areas – and from top producers – are some to the finest value for money wines in the whole generic region. In addition, these areas play the sort of role of courtiers to the King – in this case Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which – is rightly regarded as the finest wine producing district.

But this is not to say that all Châteauneuf-du-Pape is superior because it isn’t. In fact, the paradox of this region is because of its sheer size and scale some producers may be accused of riding on the reputational coat tails of the leading Domaines. There is a real parallel here with Burgundy in that the key is to sieve through the welter of names to those who are the most consistent and conscientious. This is doubly difficult as there is no hierarchy of classified top vineyards or producers (unlike Burgundy and Bordeaux) to guide the drinker. But what is the definitive style and quality of this vast area? 

It will come as no surprise that due the climatic background to this area that majority of wines produced are red. There are also, though in much smaller quantities, some exciting sweet and rosé wines made, along with a little white. If Syrah is the great black grape of the North, then this title belongs to Grenache in the South. This sun loving, welterweight of a grape produces some of France’s most luxuriant and hedonistic of wines. But the twist is that with a few exceptions, most top reds – especially Châteauneuf-du-Papes – include a blend of Syrah and a South Rhône speciality – Mourvèdre. Yes, it is true that up to 14 grapes can be included in Châteauneuf-du- Pape, but most wines are a blend of these three (although the black grape Cinsault can feature in the blend too).

And this also applies to top quality, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Rasteau and Côtes-du-Rhônes in general. In fact, is creates, maybe simplistically, the effect of a sort of vinous Russian doll – open up Châteauneuf-du-Pape and just inside is Gigondas, open this up inside is a good Côtes-du-Rhône Villages … and so on.

These great red wines have a unique character – full bodied, warming and relatively soft (but not flabby), with medium acidity, bold red berry fruits and alluring spiciness. And top examples are complex and layered with haunting richness and texture.

And top of the tree, rightly regarded, is Châteauneuf-du-Pape (please refer to an earlier blog on this area). The paradox, for me, is that the town itself (despite the history and now derelict landmark papal castle) is rather dull – and strangely lacking in bars and restaurants for France.

Classic old vine Grenache in the La Crau section of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, with the famous galets pudding stones

This whole region is also rightly regarded for the production of high quality (as well as everyday) rosé wines. Grenache’s split personality (and with its thinner skins) can make for some exciting examples, although Cinsault is also used in blends in several areas and styles. But, in general, these are full bodied and textural wines – not lightweight summer quaffers by any degree, and all the better for being served well chilled and partnering food. And to confirm that by law Châteauneuf-du-Pape cannot make rosé wine and call itself “Châteauneuf” (but it can make a white version).

With a few notable examples, the white wines of the region can sometimes be a little flat, with low acidity, high alcohol and lighter aromatic and fruit qualities. The best wines, though, are again from Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Top grapes include Roussanne, Clairette, Grenache Blanc in the blends. There are also some exciting individual wines being made – often under the banner of “Côtes-du-Rhône”, which include ventures into single grape varieties white wines such as Viognier.

Viognier is the one of the great white grapes of the North Rhône (the other being Marsanne) and although it is not allowed in the white Châteauneufdu-Pape blend it is increasingly being found in new wave “Côtes-du-Rhône”.

There are several other important areas, offering fine style often a fair price. In no order of preference:

Lirac

Lirac is a rather sleepy and modest village. This area makes red, rosé, and white. The reds are very much in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape mould (if not quite so full bodied) and the rosés rival Tavel for full bodied richness. This area arguably produces the nearest to Châteauneuf-du-Pape in terms of style and quality for often half the price.

Tavel

To the south of Lirac this Appellaton is unique in France in that it is only allowed to make Rosé wine, and there is no lack of confidence in their ability as their village sign proclaims! – Often the fullest bodied, dry, and textural rosé style in all of France, usually with quite a deep rosé colour. These are food rosés which need to be served well chilled.

Other Southern Rhône areas of note – often at excellent value for money – include

Côtes du Ventoux

One of the lighter (relatively speaking) styles of wine in this region, these drink like a Côtes-du-Rhône

Coteaux du Tricastin

Similar in style to Ventoux – maybe a little weightier on average.

Cotes de Vivarais

Neighbour and stylistic twin of Tricastin

Costières de Nîmes

One of the great debates in the trade is where does the Southern Rhône end and the “South of France” – eg the Languedoc – start? For me Costières de Nîmesis in the South Rhône and although it has some Languedoc qualities the main style is positively Côtes-du-Rhône.

Sweet, Fortified Wines of Southern Rhône

This district is also rightly famous for several outstanding sweet wines, called “Vin Doux Naturel” (or VDN). These are gently fortified and either white (from the Muscat grape) or red (from Grenache). They are not too alcoholic and not too sweet and can be “intoxicating” with their heady aromas and bold fruity flavours. Top examples include:

Rasteau VDN

Technically VDNs can be red, white, or rosé here, but the main production is red from Grenache.

The production of fortified wine was introduced in 1934 and in 1944 the Rasteau AOC for VDN wines was created, with effect from the 1943 vintage. The method of production is typical of the way these wines are made in general in the south, by that they are produced from grapes which must reach a maturity of at least 252 grams sugar per litre. The wine must be fortified by the addition of neutral alcohol (with a minimum strength of 96% by volume). The alcohol level of the finished wine must be at least 15.5% abv and the sugar content at least 45 grams per litre. These days most examples are bottle young for freshness and immediate drinking.

Beaumes de Venise 

Although a standalone (AOC) village for red Côtes-du-Rhône, the area is probably more renowned for its white VDN from the Muscat grape. Golden in colour with a lovely, perfumed, exotic nose these wines have a hedonistic style.

Food Matching

Reds

Any red meat dishes, casseroles, game – even a mild curry. Also char grilled and roasted vegetable dishes

Rosés

Summer salads, pan fried oily fish and shellfish, crudités, salade niçoise

Whites

Fish in general (even with a richer sauce), pork, chicken and most vegetable dishes

Sweet VDNs

Cakes (there is a traditional Muscat Beaumes de Venise cake made in the region), fresh fruit-based desserts (including tropical fruits) with meringue – or just a nice drink on its own

Wine Trust Selection

Domaine des Pasquiers Côtes du Rhône
Domaine de la Solitude, Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge

Please find below a fine selection which is, in effect, a hierarchy of reds which showcase the region nicely through various price points. All reflect the character and strength of the Grenache grape as the base of a traditional southern Rhône blend, and the fine red berry and soft spice watermark of this region.

Lirac Domaine Moulin des Chênes
Domaine Gour de Chaule, Gigondas

You could try all 4 and do a comparative tasting between the various areas and styles?

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