The vast Rhône Valley is an expanse of verdant beauty spanning the length of the Rhône river in southeastern France — sweeping from Lyon, France’s second city, to just north of provençal Orange; still a testament to the glory of the Roman Empire. Way back when, the Romans used the Rhône Valley as their highway through France, and thus established a flourishing wine trade — planting vines the length of the river’s stretch. The valley is an area of an often overwhelming natural beauty, one of sunbaked hillsides and lush countryside. It would be difficult to condense the riches of the Rhône — the scenery, the history, and of course the wines — in a few short paragraphs, but this might at least serve as an inspiration to sample the liquid offerings of this unique region.
Following the course of the Rhône river from North to South, we can explore the valley’s remarkable repertoire of styles, shaped by terroir and tradition. The valley can be broken into two distinctive parts — North and South — with differences in geography, grape varieties, climate conditions, soils, sun exposure etc. The uniting force that brings them together is the river that runs through them — the mighty Rhône — which carries and carves out a history while holding together these contrasting and compelling winescapes.
Northern Rhône: Where Syrah Reigns Supreme
The northern Rhône Valley is one of the world’s most distinctive and distinguished wine growing regions; famed for its terroir, or sense of place, which is translated by the often profound (and profoundly expensive) wines. Here, on extremely steep terraced hillside vineyards, Syrah is the ruling grape, and it is arguably here, in its native home, where it reaches its apex of expression.
Wines made from the Syrah grape are typically known for their robust tannic structure, deep colour and dark fruit flavour, and a distinctly peppery note. Here in the northern Rhône, Syrah unveils itself as a highly complex character; sometimes developing nuances of leather, smoke, violet, truffle, licorice, and musk… This many-hued grape develops in interesting ways as it ages, and age it can, like a pro; these fine wines carry a certain power that make them somehow not quite suitable for everyday drinking, but rather something that demands attention and respect, to be savoured on a special occasion.
You may have heard of the steep, rocky vineyards of the tiny-but-legendary Hermitage, which produces a small quantity of uniquely complex wines of a finesse quite unmatched in the region. Or perhaps you’ve tasted the more perfumed and delicate Côte Rôtie, with its seductive, elegant, complex aromatics, opulent textures, and sky-high prices. Here on the roasted slopes, the addition of white grapes (Viognier) adds a subtle floral fragrance that plays delicately with Syrah’s red and black fruit, earth and spice. There is also a certain freshness on the finish due to the cooler more northerly temperature of the region.
In regards whites, the region of Condrieu is famously dedicated to a tiny production of Viognier wine; a true labour of love, as this is a notoriously temperamental grape variety. Here however, it is at home; revealing layers of honeysuckle, mandarin, and creamy textures. Condrieu is the quintessential white of the Rhône, and typically demands a very high price tag. More affordable are the rich, silky whites made from the grapes Marsanne and Roussanne, which pair excellently with seafood.
Another notable wine area in the northern Rhône Valley is Saint Joseph, which produces many very fine reds that can even measure up to Côte Rôtie in some cases, though they are usually a little more rustic. They are well-priced, and drink well early. Saint Joseph also produces some lovely fresh and floral white wines. This area is particularly interesting in terms of quality/price.
Crozes-Hermitage is a much bigger growing area than the mythical Hermitage. The wines are usually a good deal cheaper, and less complex, but they can be very good. It is such a vast growing area that the quality varies quite a bit, however.
Nearby Cornas is a small appellation that makes complex wines of interesting character. The wines of Cornas are improving all the time, so it would be wise to keep an eye on this area. The red wines produced here are characteristically earthy, chocolatey and deeply flavoured, and have excellent ageing potential.
The southern Rhône Valley is a very big wine region. To offer some perspective; 95% of the valley’s wine comes from the South. The wines produced here are generally more approachable, fruity, and more alcoholic than in the North. Owing to the hotter climate, the wines often do not need any ageing, and open up quickly.
Here, the influence of the Mediterranean creeps in, and a distinctly provencal vibe is detectable in many ways; in the restless Mistral wind which gathers in the Alps before spilling over the mountains and rushing down into the Rhône Valley, and in the scent of the ubiquitous garrigue — outcrops of aromatic herbs (rosemary, lavender, thyme) and scrub-bush which inhabit the windswept plateaus and small slopes of the area.
The Southern Rhône’s holy trinity of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre will dominate the blends. Each grape has a special role; Grenache brings a jammy fruitiness, Syrah provides deep colour and spice, while Mourvèdre adds a little depth and structure to the wine. Here, this grape combination works in tandem with the southern heat to create lush, jammy reds that are almost hedonistic in character — soft, fleshy fruit. supple tannins, and an altogether too-temptingly quaffable nature.
The largest appellation is Côtes du Rhône. Ascending from the CDR title, you might also spot the slightly more expensive Côtes du Rhône Villages which is usually of a greater intensity — more alcohol, and more full, complex flavours. These delimited small areas are little villages notable for their production of wines of an even higher quality than the simple Côtes du Rhône AOC. The blend here must be 50% Grenache and a minimum of 20% Syrah and Mourvèdre.
Some high quality up-and-coming villages with CDRV appellation status have even been upgraded to a full independent AOC — such as Gigondas, Rasteau, and Vacqueyras. These fiery wines are often of a concentration and power similar to the much heralded Châteauneuf-du-Pape. They are more powerful, racy, and elegant than their Côtes du Rhône counterparts. The elevation of the vineyards brings a finesse, as it is cooler up there, on the limestone slopes in the foothills of the rocky Dentelles de Montmirail mountains. These three AOCs very often have all the character of a Châteauneuf, without the cachet (yet) and ruinous price tag.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a little historic hilltop village which boomed in popularity when the pope moved from the Vatican to Avignon, shacking up in a ‘new castle’ and thus giving the nearby village its name. It is a charming little place; full of narrow, winding, cobblestone streets — but its reputation has been chiefly built upon its dazzling wines. CNDP wines are characterised by their power; they are voluptuous, rich, concentrated, and sexy wines, bursting with fruit — both juicy, jammy red fruit and dark fruit — and dark chocolate and warming spices.
Grenache shines In the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where it grows in very old bush vines, like gnarled old fingers creeping up out of the ground, and dominates the landscape, along with Syrah and Mourvèdre. Galets Roulés — the layer of round stones which retain the scorching heat — keep the vines warm at night. The vineyards here, and the southern Rhône in general, are tormented by the cold Mistral wind. Interestingly, here, up to 18 grape varieties can be included in the blend — a mix of red and white grapes — which in varying quantities add a kind of signature Châteauneuf seasoning to the mighty GSM blend.
It would be a shame not to mention the appellations Lirac, Luberon, Ventoux, and especially Costières de Nîmes: These fun, fruity, everyday wines are consistently increasing in quality. They are also cheap, extremely quaffable and delicious. I can personally vouch for this; having studied wine in Nîmes for a year, a very drinkable bottle was even (all too) regularly within the budget of a poverty-stricken student, along with other occasional Nîmoise indulgences such as the delicious brandade de morue, or the fougasse d’Aigues Mortes.
For a serious rosé (yes — they exist!) travel to Tavel. These mainly Grenache-based wines of deep pink hues are brimming with summer berries, smooth notes of pitted fruits and almonds, and supported by a little spice play. Tavel rosé is uniquely full-bodied, and excellent with food.
Notable also are the lovely dessert wines of Baumes de Venise, made from the aromatic Muscat grape, and fortified with neutral spirit. These are usually around 16% alc, and offer floral, bright, honeyed tones, that pair deliciously with traditional desserts.
Southern Rhône wines can be so budget and food friendly. I think that a lot of Irish restaurants would do well to include more mid-range southern Rhône wines on their wine lists — they are so people-friendly, and much less intimidating or severe than Bordeaux or Burgundy. Sometimes in Irish restaurants, baffled by a terrible selection of syrupy New World wines (they seem to litter wine lists here), or austere, overpriced Bordeaux, I’ve found myself closing my eyes, clicking my heels, and whispering wistfully ‘there’s no place like Rhône, there’s no place like Rhône…’ And there really isn’t — that ruby red Rhône magic is hard to beat.
Some Rhône Valley vintages to note are: 2015, 2012, 2010, 2009, 2007
€19.95, available at thecorkscrew.ie
An elegant but well-structured 100% Marsanne wine, with charming complexity; white peach, honeysuckle, and a yeasty character on the nose.
The palate is rather full-bodied, with bright acidity and juicy pear and tropical fruit flavours. This is a well-balanced single varietal wine from a talented winemaker.
€19.95, available at Mc Cambridges, Shop St, Galway City
A smooth Gigondas, bursting with ripe plums, anise, and spice.
This silky wine has dark fleshy fruit, well-integrated oak, and a touch of earthiness.
Gently spicy with a cherry finish.
€19.95, available at obrienswine.ie and stores nationwide
This full-bodied blend of Grenache, Carignan, Mourvedre, Cinsault and Syrah offers up flavours of raspberry and black fruit, as well as some licorice, white pepper and delicate floral notes.
This fiery wine, quite high in alcohol (15% abv.), has a solid tannic grip, which is softened and balanced by its rich textures and full fruity flavours.
Naomi Ní Chatháin is a WSET-certified wine specialist from Co. Clare. She studied French and Philosophy in NUI Galway before pursuing a master’s degree in Wine Tourism (or ‘oenotourisme et projet culturel’) in Nimes.
Naomi loves French culture, and has lived in different parts of France over the years.
Her other passions include the pessimistic philosophy of Schopenhauer, the music of Bob Dylan, and road trips across America. Naomi is also a professional baker, and founder of NaomiBakes.com.
She is a firm believer in eating delicious, healthy cakes every day, and has a small subscription-based healthy cake kit delivery business.