Week 3 of 4 Week France course // Rhône Valley
Rhône Valley - A brief introduction to the region
In preparation for week 3 of our Online Tour De France we are briefly exploring Rhone.
The Rhone Valley Has played a huge role in the history of French commerce and trade. It has also served an equally important role in being the source of fine wines from some of the most iconic grape growing regions in the world. The history is deep and rich and this blog will only scratch the surface of appellations that make up the region.
This warm region grows many of the grapes that also thrive in Australia. Shiraz (or Syrah in the French vernacular) is the hero red grape of the northern Rhone, with some single vineyard cuvées now selling for the same prices as First Growth Bordeaux.
Here is a brief overview…
Image from Wine Folly
Cote Rotie; Côte-Rôtie is one of the most famous of the northern Rhône appellations. It has only really been recognised as a top-quality wine-producing area since the 1970s, with Guigal being the main impetus behind its revival. The two best slopes, Côte Brune and Côte Blonde, rise steeply behind Ampuis and overlook the river.
The wines are made from the Syrah grape, however up to 20 percent of Viogner can be used in the blend, adding finesse, elegance and floral characteristics to the wine.
Condrieu; Condrieu is to Viognier what the Côte de Nuits is to Pinot Noir. Guigal accounts for 45 percent of the appellation’s production. The vineyards are adjacent to those of Côte-Rôtie, but not as steep. The best Condrieu wines are produced from soils that are on narrow, south-facing or south-east-facing terraces of granite – where the average vine age is around 50 years old.
St Joseph; St Joseph is the second-largest appellation in the Northern Rhône with 50 growers producing wines from over 600 hectares of vineyards. Established in 1956, over 90 percent of the wine is red – made exclusively from the Syrah grape. The white wines, meanwhile, are typically a blend of Marsanne and Roussanne varieties. Typically, even the finest St Josephs are slightly lighter and faster-maturing than the wines of Hermitage, as St Joseph's east-facing vineyards lose the sun up to two hours earlier in the crucial ripening season.
Hermitage; Hermitage is the most famous of all the northern Rhône appellations. The hill of Hermitage is situated above the town of Tain and overlooks the town of Tournon, just across the river. Hermitage has 120 hectares and produces tiny quantities of very long-lived reds. The vines were grown in Roman times, although local folklore claims their origins to be nearly 600 years earlier. The name ‘Hermitage’ first appeared in the 16th century, derived from a legend of the 13th century Crusade, involving a wounded knight called Gaspard de Stérimberg, who made refuge on the hill, planted vines and became a hermit.
The wines are powerful, with a deep colour and firm tannins, developing into some of the finest examples in France, with the potential to age for many decades. Eighty percent of the wine produced is red, however up to 15 percent of white grapes can be used in the blend.
The white wines are made from the Marsanne and Roussanne grapes. Great white Hermitage has the ability to age, taking on the fruit characters of apricots and peaches, often giving a very nutty finish. The best examples in great vintages can last 50 years.
Crozes-Hermitage; Crôzes-Hermitage is the largest Appellation in the Northern Rhône, producing 10 times the volume of Hermitage and over half of the Northern Rhône’s total production. The appellation was created in 1937 with the single commune of Crozes, which is situated northeast of the hill of Hermitage. Wines are now produced from 11 different communes. Its vineyards surround the hill of Hermitage on equally hilly terrain where richer soils produce wines that are softer and fruitier, with a more forward style. The Syrah variety is used, but legally Marsanne and Roussanne can be added to the blend (up to 15 percent).
The wines can vary hugely in quality and style, and the majority of the reds tend to be fairly light.
Cornas; Cornas is situated directly south of St. Joseph, and to the west of the river Rhône. It is 12km south of Tournon and directly east of Valence. Importantly, temperatures here are hotter than Hermitage, which is only 7km away. Cornas is a small appellation located in a south-facing semi-amphitheatre with granite-rich soils. The appellation was established in 1938 and only red wines are made, produced solely from the Syrah grape. A contributing factor to the style of the wines is the granitic soil; the wines are made traditionally and often spend two years in oak.
They are also strong and powerful – a cross between Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, but typically displaying less elegance and finesse. Cornas can have a slightly raw and rustic side to them. Young Cornas can be deep and dense, almost pitch black in colour and ferociously tannic. After five to 10 years of ageing the best examples take on a more elegant and complex character, marked by aromas of sous bois and wild animals.
Into the South….
In the Mediterranean climate of the southern Rhone, Grenache takes the lead, usually blended with Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault and varieties suited to this hot, dry region.
Cotes Du Rhone is one of the largest so-called generic appellations in France. With it’s 16 named villages its quality can vary enormously. But the best offer incredible value for money against some of the more celebrated regions in the area.
Chateauneufdu-Pape is the top drop in the south. The name translates as the “pope’s new castle,” and refers to when the Roman Catholic Church was in Avignon (between 1309–1377). The region has written records of vineyards dating back to 11–, but winemaking has been here longer than that!
It is made with up to 13 allowable types of grapes, both red and white. While the red wine is better known, around one in every 16 bottles of Chateauneufdu-Pape produced is white. Top producers include Château Rayas, Château La Nerthe and Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe to name a few.
Each sub-region in the Rhone produces a style that is unique and idiosyncratic. So there is no hard and fast rule for food pairing.
St.Joseph is a typically lighter Syrah that uses less oak aging. As they mature, they pair well with game, red meats such as grilled ribs, or white meats.
These wines produce a spicy palette of ripe flavours of black fruit, coffee and pepper, provincial herbs, tobacco and leather. With its full-bodied nature and high levels of tannin, Chateauneuf du Pape pairs well with many of the same foods as Bordeaux. This includes game dishes such as wild boar and most red meats, working well with beef and lamb.