France’s Rhône Valley is one of the most important wine regions of the world following the north-south course of the Rhône river for close to 150 miles from Lyon to the Rhône Delta, near the Mediterranean coast. So diverse are the soil types and microclimates that region is divided into north and south, with the resultant wines reflecting that diversity both stylistically and in quality.
The grapes originating and thriving throughout the valley we’ve come to know as “Rhône varietals” also assume different roles in the north versus the south. Syrah is the dominant red grape in the northern Rhône, while in the southern Rhône, Grenache and Mourvedre are combined with Syrah to craft “GSM” blends. Prevailing northern white Rhône varietals include Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, while Clairette, Grenache Blanc, and Bourboulenc are also key to winemaking in the South.
North vs. South
Although only comprising about 5% of the total production of Rhône wines, northern vineyards are home to many of the wines with the highest reputations, and, oftentimes, prices. Wines made predominantly from Syrah grown in the impossibly steep slopes of the Côte Rôtie (the “roasted slope”) and the pedigreed Hermitage lieux dits (“named sites”) are elegant, powerful, and the most age-worthy. Excellent examples of Côte Rôtie wines can be found within the Etienne and Marcel Guigal family label. For wines with typical expression of the Hermitage appellation, look for the Jaboulet, M. Chapoutier, or Domaine Jean-Louis Chave brands. These are bold, spicy wines with tannic structure.
The Southern Rhône is where the vast majority of wine from the region is made and is also home to France’s most approachable wines. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the largest of all crus in the valley, is the most prestigious, and, created in 1929, is France’s first wine appellation. Meaning the “pope’s new castle,” many wineries in the Southern Rhône look to Châteauneuf-du-Pape as the standard for quality. And while up to 13 varietals are permitted, Grenache dominates these full-bodied, richly-textured, red fruit forward blends. Château de Beaucastel is a prominent producer whose wines exhibit savory and powerful flavors of red fruit and herbs. For a version with more finesse and elegance, look for Château de la Font du Loup, a small, family-owned winery producing wine from 110 year-old vines.
Unifying the distinct characteristics of the northern and southern Rhône is the regional Côtes du Rhône, and the tighter Côtes du Rhônes-Villages appellations where France’s best values in reds, rosés, and whites can be found. The latter category results in more structured, complex wines, while the former in more fruity, softer wines. The best reds of the southern Rhône emanate aromas of garrigue, or the local herbs, such as lavender, rosemary, and juniper. These qualities can be reliably be found in other recently upgraded site-specific appellations including Gigondas and Vacqueyras.
Rhône Style Wine in the New World
Like other wine grapes from Europe, Rhône varietals were transported into the New World during the colonial era. While not as quickly accepted as Bordeaux varietals, pioneers quickly realized California’s central coast—more specifically Paso Robles—was ideally-suited to grow Rhône grapes. The Perrin family of Beaucastel partnered with importer Robert Haas to establish Tablas Creek Vineyards in 1997, one of the first wineries in Paso Robles, as well as a leader in the California Rhône movement. Joining other “Rhône Rangers,” Tablas Creek helped establish Paso as a veritable “Rhône Zone,” and today there are over 200 wineries in the region with a focus on these grapes. Wines from Tablas Creek—reds, whites, and roses—are all modeled on Château de Beaucastel standards for quality, vinification, and viticulture. For a delicious New World expression of wine inspired by Châteauneuf de Pape, try Esprit de Tablas Rouge. Based on Mourvedre, with additions from the best lots of Grenache, Syrah, and Counoise the wine is earthy and meaty with red fruit and floral notes.
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