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Rhône


Wine By Region Right Europe Right France Right Rhône Right Costières de Nîmes   Côtes du Rhône   Northern Rhône   Southern Rhône


Rhone vineyards

Vineyards in the Rhône. Photo by Phillip Capper. License: Creative Commons SA 2.0 Generic.

Often classified as one of the three best regions in France (along with Bordeaux and Burgundy), the Rhône Valley is a very large, warm region known in the wine world for its variety of earthy red wines. Rhône wine is produced mainly from Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre. Wines in which all three are blended are known as GSM blends, and have become popular across the world. Some regions of the Rhône use only Syrah.

Bordeaux wines are stereotypically classified as full-bodied styles, while Burgundies are considered light and elegant (though this is not always true). The wines of the Rhône are considered to be medium-bodied. Known for their bright, vibrant flavors of spice, brought on by the warmth of the climate, Rhône wines also tend to have flavors of dark fruit, herbs, coffee, and earth.

Terroir is moderately important in the Rhône, although not as much as in some other regions. There's a great amount of diversity among the wines, but producers and governments haven't found it worthwhile to do any classifications of the wines. As a result, no Rhône wines are officially given high status, and reputation tends to determine prices, making the appellation similar to Western wine regions. Despite its size and the high number of inexpensive wines produced there, the Rhône is widely considered a quality-oriented region. But it's also one of the best bargain regions in the world, with many world-class wines costing under $50. However, there are also some expensive boutique cuvées, mostly in the northern part of the Rhône.

Red wines here are so well-known that the region's white wines are often glossed over. In fact, white wine in general has been rapidly dropping out of popularity in recent years. However, most critics consider white Hermitage at least as good as the red, which is saying something since red Hermitage is indisputably world-class. The Viognier-based whites of the Condrieu appellation also have critical acclaim.

Just like Bordeaux's, the Rhône's wine styles have been replicated all across the world. Rhône styles are most often found in Australia, where the majority of Syrah and GSM blends in the world are manufactured. Syrah tends to make much different wine in Australia than it does in the Rhône, but GSM blends from the Rhône and Australia often have the same warm, spicy flavors. The Rhone Rangers association in the United States is an organization whose purpose is to bring Rhône grapes to California, Washington, Idaho and Virginia; the mission has apparently been successful, with many good Rhône styles now produced in North America.

History

It is not known exactly when the Rhône got started as a wine region; it is likely to have been in the 3rd or 4th century B.C. There is some speculation that Syrah originated in the region, but ampelographers (analysts of grapes) seem to concur that no grapes at all originated in the Rhône. The first attempts to make wine in the region were made by the Greeks, and ended in failure because of the overly warm climate.

It was not until around the time French wine in general was beginning to develop, that the Romans began to succeed in their efforts to make good wine in the region. Still, there were numerous viticultural difficulties and the rise and fall of empires proved more important anyway. However, in the 14th century French wine began to boom, and with a convenient location for export on the Rhône river, the eponymous region began to see success.

By the 17th century, the Rhône had reached its current high status as a wine region. Regulations were put into effect to guard against wine fraud, which was becoming common at that time. In the late 19th century, Châteauneuf-du-Pape became the first wine region to draw up specific regulations governing the kind of wine produced there. Châteauneuf's regulations were so complete that one of the rules even banned the flying of unidentified flying objects over the vineyards.

In the last century or so, Rhône wines have collectively taken their biggest qualitative step yet, and are now in the same league as the greats of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Two factors have helped the Rhône to become even more competitive within the last decade: the fact that many wines are reasonably priced, and the fact that reds are coming more into favor across the world. The Rhône is one of the best places for well-valued reds, and so the region is becoming even more successful into the 21st century.

Climate and Viticulture

The general Rhône climate can be described in one word: hot. To put it simply, the appellation's location in the deep south of France makes its weather extremely balmy, almost as balmy as that of Provence. Of course, there are many warmer wine regions in the world, but there are probably no others that are this successful.

One major factor redeems the Rhône Valley's hot climate: the river. All the great vineyards are situated along the Rhône river, which provides the maritime influence that changes good wines into great wines. However, the influence of soil is not to be underestimated: the schist and granite found here is also highly influential in the wines produced. There is great diversity in soil among the vineyards.

Grape Varieties

Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre are by far the most common red grapes here. When they are blended together, the result is known as a "GSM blend". However, these are not the only grapes in the Rhône, and they are not always blended together. Carignan, Cinsaut, Picpoul Noir, and Terret Noir are four other grapes that are often used in the reds. In the northern Rhône Syrah is the main grape, producing many varietal wines, whereas Grenache is the most common in the southern Rhône.

There are fewer white grapes. In the northern part of the Rhône only three are used: Marsanne, Roussanne, and Viognier. Marsanne and Roussanne are the source of Hermitage Blanc, while Viognier is used to make Condrieu. In the southern Rhône, the same grapes are used along with Bourboulenc, Carignan Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul Blanc, and Trebbiano.

Major Producers

Of course, there are a number of famous producers in the Rhône. There are many boutique producers in the region, who routinely receive high ratings from critics for their limited-production, high-price cuvées. Here are some of the most widely praised, exclusive producers:

However, the majority of people reading this site will be looking for producers of inexpensive Rhône wine. The fact is that there are simply too many to list. We can, however, list a few large producers whose wines are reasonably priced and commonly exported, as well as of generally high quality:

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