The Rhône River has played a major role in commerce and viticulture dating back to the Greeks as early as 600 BC. A major waterway from the Mediterranean deep into what is modern-day France, the Greeks first planted vines around what is now Marseilles and shipped the finished wine in amphorae up the Rhône River into the center of Gaul civilization. The Romans continued to prioritize viticulture along the banks of the river, moving the vines further upstream and building aqueducts and terraces as they went to support the burgeoning agricultural industry.
The Catholic Church found its home in Avignon during the 14th century as Pope Clément V moved the papacy from the Vatican and established the “new house of the Pope,” or Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and planted vineyards around the property where the Popes resided from 1309 before returning the seat to Rome in 1378. The British got their taste of Rhône wines in the 17th century as the shipment from the Rhone up to the Loire River allowed British merchants to load them onto ships to be brought back to the British Isles. Their quality and popularity amongst the British actually resulted in many winemakers in Bordeaux and Burgundy buying wines from the Rhône in order to fortify their own red wines in an attempt to make them more palatable to consumers. While demand for Burgundy and Bordeaux has since overtaken the Rhône in the global marketplace, the style and quality of the wines allow the Rhône to remain a bit of a hidden gem for many critics and consumers.
The Rhône is broken down into two main geographical portions, the Northern and Southern Rhône, and each has numerous appellations of its own. The Northern Rhône is dominated by steep, hillside vineyards that follow the contour of the Rhône River. Many of these vineyards must be harvested by hand due to their extreme terrain. Syrah is the red grape of the Northern Rhône, making wines that are spicy, savory, and oftentimes a bit smoky. While it is commonly vinified by itself, some of the Northern Rhône appellations do allow for co-fermentation of Syrah with either Viognier or Marsanne and Roussanne, which results in a more floral, lifted expression of the wine. White wines are made from either Viognier, or a permitted blend of Marsanne and Roussanne, and the wines tend to be rich, full-bodied, and somewhat diminished in acidity. There are seven main appellations in the Northern Rhône and following the river from north to south they are:
Côte Rôtie – red wine only, Syrah co-fermented with a maximum of 20% Viognier.
Condrieu – white wine only, 100% Viognier
Château Grillet – white wine only, 100% Viognier
St-Joseph – red and white wine, Syrah for red, Marsanne/Roussanne for white
Crozes-Hermitage – red and white wine, Syrah for red, Marsanne/Roussanne for white
Hermitage – red and white wine, Syrah for red, Marsanne/Roussanne for white
Cornas – red wine only, must be 100% Syrah
The Southern Rhône is much different, as most of the vineyards are on gentler hills or alluvial plains and they receive much more direct sunlight during the growing season. Vineyard management is much easier here compared to the Northern Rhône, and while Syrah is still a major grape, Grenache is the key red grape in the Southern Rhône due to its tolerance for heat and dry conditions. White wines tend to rely upon Clairette, Grenache Blanc, and Roussanne. Instead of single-varietal dominant wines, blending is much more common here, with some regions permitting at least 13 different grapes to be included in a wine. The major regions in the Southern Rhône are:
Châteauneuf-du-Pape – red and white wine
Gigondas – red and rosé wine
Vacqueyras – red, white and rosé wine
Vinsobres – red wine only
Rasteau – dry red and sweet red and white and rosé wines
Tavel – dry rosé wine only
Côtes du Rhône is an appellation that can be made from grapes throughout the Northern and Southern Rhône and is typically a Grenache and Syrah-based blend for red wines and a Clairette and Grenache Blanc-based blend for white wines.