Rhone Wine - Buying Guide
History and Production of Rhône Wine
The Rhône Valley is home to some of the oldest vineyards in the world with evidence of wine production dating back to the 4th Century BC Greek occupation. Thereafter, the Romans took occupation and their wine making thrived from the 1st Century AD. Archaeological finds, such as earthenware jars and geographical sculpting, have shown that Rhône wines are among some of the oldest wines in the world.
With the collapse of the Roman Empire, the wine industry was severely impacted with limited avenues. By the fourteenth century, the papacy moved from Rome to Avignon and the Popes became the largest outlet for Rhône wines, adding to the local viticulture. Indeed, Châteauneuf du Pape roughly translates to ‘The Pope's new castle’ with the Avignon Popes being great lovers of the region's wines. Over time, more than one Avignon Pope has had a residence in the region and their respective influence over Châteauneuf du Pape wines were so intertwined, the wines were originally named ‘Vin du Pape’.
Whilst the regions success has fluctuated to date, particularly heading into the early twentieth century, with the implementation of new winegrowing rules (some of which helped form the basis of appellation rules still in use today), wine standards sored and the industry thrives with names such as Châteauneuf du Pape, Côte Rotie and Hermitage being world famous.
Classifications and Appellations of the Rhône Valley Region
The Rhône Valley provides for a wonderfully diverse terroir, particularly contrasting the North and South of the region. Wines produced, fall into one of four appellation categories, Côtes du Rhône, Côtes du Rhône-Villages, Côtes du Rhône- Villages assigned a specific village name, and the best of the best usually from a specific Cru.
Côtes du Rhône
Côtes du Rhône appellation wines are at the base of the appellation structure. The wines of this appellation account for just over fifty percent of the region's wine production, and are subject to less stringent rules than wines moving up the appellation structure. Most of Côtes du Rhône wines are easy drinking, every day, enjoyable wines made in red, white or rosé styles.
Côtes du Rhône-Villages
Côtes du Rhône-Villages appellation wines are considered to be better quality than those produced under the larger Côtes du Rhône appellation. Wines of Côtes du Rhône are made from grapes from a number of villages, often forming a blend. These wines are slightly more complex, punchy wines that can age well.
Côtes du Rhône-(Specific named Village)
There are twenty one villages of the Rhône region that can be specifically mentioned on the labels. The wine label will detail the specific village name such as Séguret, with ‘Côtes du Rhône-Villages’ appearing on the label alongside or underneath the village name.
Villages allowed a special mention are:
- Massif d’Uchaux
- Plan de Dieu
- Vaison la Romaine
Cru appellations of the Rhône region are considered to be wines that are ‘the best of the best’. There are seventeen Crus in total with over half of those being in Southern Rhône and the remainder in the North. Wines of each Cru express their very individual terroir and thereby some wines have very distinct styles.
- Saint Péray
- Beaumes des Venise
The Rhône Valley provides for a wonderfully diverse terroir, particularly contrasting the North and South of the region. Thereby the region’s wines are informally divided into two sub regions being Northern Rhône (Côtes du Rhône- Septentrinaux) and Southern Rhône (Côtes du Rhône- Meridionaux).
Northern Rhône has a cooler wine growing climate, influenced by the Mistral winds but sheltered by the Massif Central. Southern Rhône has a Mediterranean climate with rough terrain that allows for microclimates to thrive, affording some appellations, such as Châteauneuf du Pape, very individual and distinct wine styles.
The Northern Rhône climate is cooler than that of Southern Rhône. The best of Northern Rhône wines are produced from vineyards planted on steep slopes facing the River, providing shelter from the cooling winds of the Mistral. It is the home of Syrah and a must for any Syrah/Shiraz red wine lover, as some of the best Old World Syrah on the planet can be found in the Northern Rhône region.
Literally translates as ‘Roasted Slope’. Whilst this is the most northerly of appellations, the vineyards are situated to maximise sun exposure. Wines produced are mainly deep red wines with splendid aromatics and finesse. Unusually, the red wines sometimes include viognier grapes, adding finesse and complexity to the tasting structure.
Known for its white wines produced from Viognier grapes, the best of which are complex, and offer intense notes as a result of low yield production.
Along with Condrieu, Château-Grillet is the home of very fine honeyed apricot and floral flavoured viognier white wines.
Both red and white wines are produced in Saint-Joseph, with red wines being predominantly Syrah grape based. They can be surprisingly light bodied. White wines are often produced from Marsanne and Roussanne.
Vineyards are dotted around the hill of Hermitage on both the slopes and flatter land. The location of the vineyards can significantly impact the style of wine. Hermitage wine explorers will find much lighter Syrah based red wines from vineyards on the plains, and spicier, more vibrant wines can be found on the northern slopes. Whilst wines of Crozes-Hermitage are a delight, they do not carry the famed reputation of its counterparts in Hermitage.
Located on the steep south facing slopes, wine styles and complexity are significantly impacted by the location of the vineyards in respect of aspect and steepness. For those that enjoy a full bodied red wine, Hermitage is the place to start, with red Syrah based wines being some of the most full bodied of the region. Delightful white wines made from Roussanne or Marsanne are also produced.
This is the only appellation that stipulates that the red wines must be made from a hundred percent Syrah grapes. The vineyards, situated in the most southerly of the northern region, bask in more sun than its counterparts and so wines are deep, full bodied and a perfect comparator to those of Hermitage.
The home of refreshing white wines and sparkling wines that can be a cost effective alternative to Champagne if you fancy bubbles without the price tag.
Red wines are made from Syrah, as the only permitted black grape variety. This allows for the wines to be deep, full bodied, dark fruity wines. Syrah is often blended with a small percentage of Viognier or Roussanne to add complexity and intensity to the wines. Although, this style of blending is now falling out of favour with producers choosing to make white wines from the Viognier, Roussanne or Marsanne grapes in their own right. Viognier white wines are known for their depth, floral, low acidity style compared to its Roussanne/Marsanne blended counterpart which can offer a leaner, refreshing higher acidity, perfect for warm summers.
Southern Rhône is by far warmer than its Northern counterpart, with sunshine filled days akin to the Mediterranean, and vineyards planted on much flatter stony terroir. The stones hold onto the sunshine filled days adding heat to the cooler nights and allowing for grapes to reach a deep ripeness. Whilst drought can be an issue for this region, the most damage can be from the Mistral winds which carry a strength unseen in the north of the region, thereby viticulture adaption is a must, from planting low to the ground to makeshift wind breakers. Grenache grapes play a greater role in the South, with low planted Grenache bushes, close to large river stones (Galets), being a famed imagery to greet you in appellations such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Simple red, white and rosé wines accounting for more than half of the production of wines in the south. These wines are every day, simply, all round ‘medium’ wines.
These have an added complexity compared to the larger appellation of Côtes du Rhône. The appellation carries more rules as to yield, alcohol levels and the blend of grapes used. The wines have a higher level of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, and tend to offer more depth, body and flavour intensity outside of wines sourced from Crus.
Côtes du Vivarais
This is the most northerly appellation of southern Rhône known for their deep Grenache based red wines, ruby rosés and lean, refreshing white wines.
The oldest AOC appellation of the region and indeed France, these red wines are famed across the world. They also can be made from a significant number of grape blends, unlike Southern Rhône red wines. A staggering fourteen grape varieties can be used in the production of the wines, although the kings are considered to be Syrah, Mourvèdre and of course the southern region’s sweetheart, Grenache. Good examples of the wines offer a full, pronounced palate of dark fruits, spice, and the signature note of the South of France, garrigue (resinous herbs such as rosemary and thyme). Hearty, full bodied white wine is produced however in very small quantities. White wines are often made up of a blend of white grapes from Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Clairette and Bourboulenc. Whilst styles can vary, key tasting notes are honeysuckle, stone fruits, minerality and a mouth-watering yet balanced acidity.
Originally known as Coteaux de Tricistan until 2012, this region produces some delightful, everyday drinking red, white and rosé wines in a range of styles utilising the region's range of diverse grape varieties.
South of Gigondas, Vacqueyras (Latin for ‘Valley of the Rocks’) produces mostly powerful red wines that are a cost effective alternative to Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Gigondas, albeit lacking the finesse of its better known rivals. The red wines are Grenache heavy with a little more Syrah in its blend than that of Gigondas.
A diverse wine producing region known for its red, white and rosé wines produced using the region's grape varieties, along with some fantastic examples of fortified wines also produced as red or white. Red fortified wines are sweet, full and produced from a hundred percent Grenache Noir.
The newest appellation in the region, after originally being a part of Côtes du Rhône Village, it received its own status in 2018. Wines are produced in red, white or rosé, with red wines relying on Grenache Noir and Syrah. White wines tend to be blends of Grenache Blanc and Clairette.
Vineyards of Gigondas are snuggled at the foot of the Dentelles de Montmirail Mountains. This region can produce superb examples of red wines to rival its famous sibling Châteauneuf-du-Pape that also age well to reveal truffle notes. Splendid rosé are also produced with full, complex red fruit flavours and spice.
Vinsobres literally meaning ‘sober wine’ derives its name from the motto of the Bishop of Vaison in 1633 “drink it soberly". The Bishop was an avid admirer of the red wines for their balanced, aromatic tasting notes. The appellation is known for its stony red soil producing deeply, dark red wines brimming with dark fruit notes. The wines are made from Grenache and Syrah or Mourvèdre.
Close to being one of the most Southerly appellations of the region, wines range from red, white to rosé. Often made from a blend of the best of the best grapes across the appellation, these wines carry their own distinctive style with power being balanced with freshness and elegance, whatever the colour.
Beaumes de Venise
An ancient, scenic appellation where vines and olive groves can be seen growing side by side. The appellation sits at the foot of the Dentelles de Montmirail Mountains affording its terroir three types of rocky soils with the best being ‘Le Trias’ where the finest of the appellations red, Grenache/Syrah wines are produced.
Muscat de Beaumes de Venise
Beaumes de Venise is also known for its sweet fortified wines produced from the small Muscat grape (also known as Muscat de Frontignan). These wines have a long history and were known to have been enjoyed by the Avignon Popes of the fourteenth century.
The most southerly of appellation, sitting south of Lirac, Tavel’s vineyards can be traced back to the Greek era. Tavel is famous for its rosé wines in distinct styles dependent on its terroir which can range from very stony to a mixture of stone and sand. Heralded by the appellation as the King of Rosés, the wines are distinctly deep coloured and refreshing, with red berries and stone fruit notes.
Whilst Syrah is the backbone of the North, Grenache is such to the South, being the heart and foundation of all red blends, followed by Mourvèdre, Cinsault and Syrah. Other grapes used include Marsanne, Roussanne, Carignan, Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Clairette and Bourboulenc. There are also a number of locally lesser known grapes that can be included in the blends, often to add complexity or balance to the wine structure. The appellation of the region will stipulate to what degree each grape varietal can be used, although the classic ‘Rhône Blend’ known worldwide as ‘GSM’, Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, remains King. Côtes du Rhône-Villages must contain a higher level of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre according to the appellation rules. The Crus of Vacqueyras and Gigondas are mainly Grenache based in the style of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. These Crus offer fantastic alternatives to the famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape, with the best being by far superior to lesser quality examples of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Other Appellations of Rhône
Other satellite appellations well worth consideration are Costières de Nimes, Côte du Luberon, Côte de Ventoux, Clairette de Die, Grignan-Les Adhemar and Côtes du Vivarais. These regions offer delightful red, white and rosé wines in a very Provencal, Southern France style with their notes of garrigue and lavender, a signature for the South.
The red wines are Grenache, Syrah heavy, bold, brimming with dark fruits, spice and liquorice. White wines are aromatic and rosés are bright, deep coloured and full bodied.
If you are a lover of sparkling, dry white wines, Crémant de Die is your go to, as these wines are a great, cost effective alternative to those of the illustrious Champagne region. Crémant de Die covers the same area as Clairette de Die and offers a white sparkling wine made from Clairette, Muscat and Aligoté.
Buy Rhône Wine from Pierre Hourlier Wines
At Pierre Hourlier Wines, we have a selection of carefully sourced, highly recommended, superb quality, delectable and cost effective wines from the Rhône Valley. All of our wines are produced by passionate, artisan, wine makers and we are proud to be able to showcase the best of their range to our buyers.
This Domaine offers a range of truly fascinating wines, mostly red in style, from Vacqueyras, Sablet and Rasteau. Although their different appellations are in close proximity to one another, the wines offer a hugely varied palate of different tastes, superb in quality and constantly winning medals as well as ever-growing recognition.
Domaine Des Amadieu
The Domaine is owned by Monsieur Houser, a passionate wine-grower, who has dedicated himself to carrying on with the tradition established by the previous owners. His motto is ‘quality not quantity’. The Domaine specialises in red wines and particularly highly recommended are the Côtes du Rhône Villages as well as the Cairanne ‘Vieilles Vignes’.
Domaine Pierre Gaillard
The Pierre Gaillard Family own four vineyards across Rhône, Roussillon, and across southern France. The Pierre Gaillard Rhône vineyard is located in the northern part of the Rhône Valley, ranging from Côte-Rotie down through to Cornas in the South.
Dominique Raspail-Ay is a well-established producer of Gigondas, with an impressive number of admirers. The Domaine produces superlative red wines, using Grenache Noir to perfection.
Family owned since the 1920s, this 15-hectare vineyard is now run by Francois Laget. Grenache is the dominant grape, complemented by Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault. The Domaine also produces some particularly delicious white Châteauneuf du Pape in very small quantities.
At Pierre Hourlier Wines we can provide our buyers with a superb selection of wines to cover the varied styles from the famed Rhône Valley.
If you are looking for a bold, Southern Rhône classic from the illustrious Châteauneuf du Pape, then look no further. Châteauneuf du Pape can carry exceptionally high prices, however we have sourced a wine that not only retains its strength in quality, it also offers exceptional value. Domaine Pontifical's Châteauneuf Du Pape Red is a blend of 75% Grenache Noir, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Counoise and Cinsaut. It offers a palate of black fruit and raisin that is extremely velvety, smooth and round with a long finish. The dominance of Grenache brings a sense of fullness and richness.
A classic Southern Rhône, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah blend from Gigondas, can be found in Domaine Raspail-Ay's. Made from a majority of Grenache, this most impressive wine is powerful and truly mouth-watering. It offers red fruit notes with a long palate and lingering mature tannins. This is an absolute must for Rhône wine experts, from a true flagship wine grower. It is also a fantastic alternative to the more famous Châteauneuf du Pape.
Whilst the Rhône Valley is heralded for their red wines, made famous by the likes of Châteauneuf du Pape, the region's splendid white wines should not be neglected by any explorer of French white wines.
The white wines of Condrieu are simply stunning, and our Pierre Gaillard's L'Octroi is a classic example of such a triumph. Made from 100% Viognier sourced from the rocky and mineral slopes of the Malleval Gorges, this wine is aged in fine grain oak barrels for seven to eight months. It beautifully balances an abundance of white fruits with elegance and minerality.
Châteauneuf du Pape has been made famous for its red wines, however the appellation also makes a small production of incredible white wine. Domaine Pontifical's is the ultimate blend of 17% Grenache Blanc, 35% Roussanne, 18% Clairette, 30% Bourboulenc providing for an incredible, unique white wine that must be experienced. Heralded by a golden colour, it has an intense nose that announces white fruit flavours of peach and apricot. The palate is warm with hints of white flowers and almonds.
From the famous to the lesser known, Sablet is one such appellation which quietly offers gems of the Rhône Valley. Domaine Chamfort's White Sablet is a Rhône classic blend of 95% Viognier, and 5% Marsanne, offering elegant, floral notes, subtle but lingering.
What type of wine is Côtes du Rhône?
Côtes du Rhône is lowest down in the appellation structure offering simple, every day, enjoyable wines that can be red, white or rosé in style. The reds tend to be Grenache Noir heavy in the south or Syrah heavy in the north and are the absolute go to, should you wish to find a simple, enjoyable wine to have with dinner or to take to a summer BBQ or grill. White wines tend to be Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne based offering aromatic, white fruit and stone fruit tasting notes.
What food pairs well with Rhône wine?
Rhône red wines are usually brimming with bold, red fruit flavours with added spice and depth. This makes them an absolute delight to enjoy with Asian style grilled meats, BBQs, vegetable laden Pizza particularly with black olives, or even a classic Sunday Chicken roast.
White wines of the region tend to be quite aromatic and make the perfect pairing with prawn linguine dishes, salmon or cream of mushroom soup.
Rosé wines of the region have a shimmering deep pink colour, offering full body and ripe red fruits. They are a delight with grilled red snapper and an absolute dream with traditional styled paella or a vegetable based style rice dish, with lots of resinous herbs such as rosemary and thyme to echo the garrigue of the region.
What is the best year for Rhône wine?
Most Rhône wines are best enjoyed early, within three to four years of bottling however there are some examples, being the best of the best, which can continue to thrive up to twenty years. The best vintages are 2010, 2012, 2015 and 2016 and were all great years for the Rhône. Good examples of southern Rhône wines and particularly very good Châteauneuf du Pape can be aged for much longer with some of the best vintages of Châteauneuf du Pape being 2000, 2001, 2005, 2009, 2015, 2016 and 2017. Any older and they start to become very ‘hit and miss’ in quality at this stage.