Since approximately 600 B.C., cultivated vines were planted and grown in the Rhône Valley region. Where and how the region’s signature grape varietals – Syrah and Viognier – found their way there remains a mystery: some experts claim that Greek aficionados brought the Syrah grape from the Persian city of Shiraz. Other historians believe that the grapes came 50 years later, when Greek populations fled from the rule of Cyrus I, the Persian king. Still others claim that they came from Sicily’s city of Syracuse, introduced by Romans who brought both the Syrah and the Viognier. Finally, there is a section of fans who maintain that the Syrah grape is native to the Rhône region.
These questions may never be resolved; however, what is certain is that during the 13th century, corresponding with the move of the Pope to Avignon, production and trade of Rhône wine picked up tremendously. In fact, it grew to the extent that the Duke of Burgundy banned the import and export of non-Burgundian wines. In 1446, the city of Dijon forbade all wines from Lyon, Tournon and Vienne, arguing that they were "très petit et pauvres vins" - very small and miserable wines. In 1650, in an attempt to defend against forgeries, a set of rules was passed to guarantee the origin of the wine. In 1737, the King decreed that all casks destined for resale should be branded C.D.R., for Côtes du Rhône.
The Rhône Valley played an active role in the establishment of French wine-industry appellations in the 1930s, led by the visionary Baron Le Roy. Just as in Bordeaux and Burgundy, AOC designations guarantee the quality and character of Rhône Valley wines to this day. The culture of striving for quality fostered by the AOCs is just one reason why the top Rhône Valley wines have developed that all-important feature for wine investment success—the strong and sizable secondary market.
Visually, the Rhône Valley is rustic, yet spectacular. The nearly 500-mile river originates in the Swiss Alps and runs all the way to the Mediterranean, but somehow maneuvered a curious detour at Vienne from west to south. Perhaps this turn was Nature’s way of ushering in one of France’s most interesting winemaking regions. Stretching for 150 miles, the Valley’s vineyards are visibly nestled on the slopes that smile down on the river.
While it is referred to as one region, the Rhône Valley can, in fact, be divided into two sub-regions: the Northern and the Southern. With its steeper slopes, the Northern Rhône only accounts for around 5% of the region’s wine production, with the Southern Rhône making up remaining 95%. However, it is that 5% which carries many of France’s most prestigious and luxurious appellations, including Côte-Rôtie, Cornas and Hermitage for reds, and the small yet impressive Condrieu for whites.
Unlike its sister to the south, the Northern Rhone claims a cooler, continental climate directly impacted by the Mediterranean’s notorious mistral wind, particularly during winter’s transition into spring. But with the onset of summer comes warm, gloriously sunny days that support the growth of the area’s signature Syrah grape. The robust fruit, also known as Shiraz, is so treasured that it is the only red varietal allowed to be included in this sub-region’s AOC wines. The whites used for blending include Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne, depending on the appellation. Côte-Rôtie, or, “the roasted slope,” named for its steep, sun-kissed hillsides that face the south, uses white grapes in the greatest amount; however, in Cornas, blending the prized Syrah is completely off the table. All reds with its AOC must be exclusively, 100% Syrah to carry its designation. The same holds true for the whites from the sub-regions of Condrieu and Chateau-Grillet, where the wines are made only from Viognier. Marsanne and Roussanne do appear in the whites from Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, Saint-Joseph and Saint-Péray.
While Northern Rhone wines are diverse, they tend to be described as assertive and bold, but nonetheless elegant. The reds are especially so, given the dominance of Syrah, and these firmly tannic and herbaceous wines often feature concentrated aromas of smoke, spice and dark fruit. Even the Northern whites are richer, drier and closer to full-bodied than many of France’s other white offerings.
In contrast to the north, the Southern Rhône enjoys a more traditionally Mediterranean climate. Replacing the mistral winds are longer, hotter summers that even threaten drought on occasion. Fortunately, irrigation is allowed, averting any long-term disasters come harvest time. The landscapes between north and south are also different, with the south being more craggy and irregular. Replacing the mistral wind are microclimates, which hold the key to the sub-region’s success in growing so many varietals. Still, the wine most identified with the Southern Rhone is Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Predominantly red, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape AOC regulations allow the blending of up to nineteen varietals for production, resulting one of France’s most full-bodied and multi-layered wines. The AOC rules of nearby sub-regions allow even more varietals. The grapes used most often are Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, although Carignan and Cinsault are not far behind. The south’s reds, predominantly made from Grenache, are rich and deeply fruity, with the top tier presenting a unique scent of garrigue, which refers to the blend of fragrant plants, such as juniper, thyme, rosemary and lavender, which grow on the limestone that graces the Mediterranean coast. Reds from the left bank historically have a higher alcohol level
which adds to their warmth, while those from the right bank tend to be a bit less assertive.
The Southern Rhône is blessed with a perfect combination of heat and rugged terrain. Sparing the region from the harsh mistral wind, these attributes help to accommodate a wide variety of grapes with equal facility, thus producing not only notable reds and whites, but also rosés. As many as ninety specific villages use the south’s Cotes du Rhone-Villages appellation, also reflecting its unique diversity. As a result, the Southern Rhône, while steeped in tradition, is thought of as one of the more creative winemaking regions in France.