Some of my favorite big, bold, red wines come from the Rhone Valley in southeast France. This is the home of syrah and syrah-blended wines, and there are some great ones.
The Rhone River runs for approximately 125 miles from Lyon in the north to Avignon in the south. Vineyards here date back to the Roman times. The valley is divided into two distinct areas: the Northern Rhone and the Southern Rhone. Both areas produce red and white wines.
The whites are a blend of numerous varieties, however, when one thinks of the Rhone, it’s the reds that really shine. Northern Rhone reds are comprised of mainly syrah grapes, while the Southern Rhone reds are consistently blended with several varieties. Grenache tends to dominate the blend, with the addition mostly of syrah, mourvedre, and cincault. Occasionally, other varietals, including whites, are part of the mix in both areas.
The river in the Northern Rhone region has very steep walls with vineyards surrounding it. A famous wind called the “Mistral” blows aggressively through the entire valley, but is mostly noted here in the north because of the topography. There are some noted appellations for reds from this area.
Cote-Rotie is a big wine with lots of power and flavor. Aromatic notes of raspberry, violet, smoky bacon, pepper, blackberry, and leather are common and it needs a lot of time in the bottle to develop. Saint-Joseph wines are generally lighter and easier drinking. Cornas, which are big and long-lived like Cote-Rotie, have rich blackberry flavors and lots of tannin.
On the right bank of the Northern Rhone lies perhaps this region’s most renown red, Hermitage. Chock-full of blackberry, herbs, and spices, it is full-bodied, tannic, long-lived, and certainly one the finest reds in the world. Straddling it just to the south is its cousin Crozes-Hermitage. Less concentrated and elegant than Hermitage, it represents a good value.
In the Southern Rhone, the river valley opens up a bit more and is not as steep. It’s also warmer here. There is Lirac, whose reds are softer and rounder. Then, there is Cotes du Rhone Villages. This larger sub-region is made up of numerous villages that are allowed to wear their name on the label, although the appellation on the bottle simply states the generic Cotes du Rhone Villages. There are many good quality, inexpensive reds here. Several of the villages have been upgraded to their own appellations, such as Gigondas, whose wine is chunky and dense, but a good value.
Finally, in the deep south, there is perhaps the most well-known of all Rhone reds, Chateauneuf-du-Pape. These are massive, chewy, dense reds that are very long-lived.
Aside from the aforementioned main red appellations, there are numerous small, up-and-coming areas that produce faster maturing reds at a fraction of the cost. Coteaux du Tricastin, Cotes du Vivarais, Cotes du Ventoux, Cotes du Luberon, and Costieres de Nimes are prime examples of such areas. In your search for any reds from this entire region, you may find many in your local wine shops simply labeled “Cotes du Rhone.” Even though they don’t say it, they are usually from the south and made of a blend of numerous grapes.
If you enjoy full-flavored, spicy red wines, you’ll love those from the Rhone.
© Edward Finstein, “The Wine Doctor” 2015. “The Wine Doctor” is Edward Finstein, award-winning author, TV/radio host, renowned wine journalist, international wine judge, professor of wine and consultant. Visit him at his website (winedoctor.ca), on Twitter (twitter.com/drwineknow), where he blogs (thewinedoctor.blogspot.com), at Doc’s Grapevine (winedoctor.ca/docs-grapevine.html, or on Facebook (facebook.com/EdwardDocFinstein?fref=ts).