Here comes the fun part of every regional focus—the tasting. As always, make sure to read through the Rhone Valley Overview, Northern Rhone, and Southern Rhone articles before jumping in here. It’ll help put all the tasting and technical notes into perspective.
Larger and more spread out than the Northern Rhone, there’s no denying that we’re going to cover a good bit of detail here. With its varied terroir, the Southern Rhone comes with a larger variety of grapes grown and wine produced—good news if you want a diversified tasting experience. Indeed, most wines here are blends—red, white, and rosé, though red undeniably dominates. And, as The Oxford Companion to Wine (Fourth Edition) notes, though some winemakers do experiment with Syrah (the dominant grape of the Northern Rhone), here in the south, it’s far too warm for the grape to “ripen gracefully.” Thus, it is Grenache—at over double the planting—that is the Southern Rhone‘s most planted red wine grape.
Welcome to the Northern Rhone. If you’ve not yet read through the Rhone Overview, please do so as there are quite a few key terms—not to mention grape varieties—you’ll want to learn before moving forward.
Here we’re diving into the Northern Rhone. Located further inland and away from the influence of the Mediterranean, it has an overall continental climate. Winters are cold, summers are warm, and rain falls predominantly in the autumn and winter months.
It’s noted that the Mistral wind, which flows throughout the Rhone Valley, both north and south, is a bit more fierce in these parts due to the fact that the valley is quite narrow and sandwiched between steep slopes, acting like a funnel for the cold wind current. The good news is that this decreases fungal disease pressure as well as reduces vine vigor and, thus, yields, resulting in the highly concentrated red wines for which the Northern Rhone is most famous. The bad news is that the Northern Rhone‘s claim-to-fame grape, Syrah, is quite susceptible to wind, so you’ll find most of these vines tied to poles for extra protection.
INTERESTING GEOGRAPHICAL NOTE: the distance between the most northern and most southern vineyards of the Northern Rhone is about 40 miles, which means there is a bit better ripening in the warmer, southern regions.
Of course, just like almost anywhere else, the best vineyards are those located on the steep, here often terraced, slopes overlooking the Rhone River. The altitude and aspect increase sunlight exposure, influence (like light reflection and heat retention) from the river water and better drainage. But this also means that most vineyards are worked by hand—a contributing factor to the overall pricey prices of the wines produced. “Their produce is aimed in the main at the fine wine connoisseur rather than at the mass market.” (The Oxford Companion to Wine [4th Edition])
After Alsace, the Rhone Valley is probably my next favorite French wine region. The diversity in terrain, climate, and soils, makes for a whole host of grape varieties and wine styles. Much modern winemaking in my home state of California takes its literal and figurative roots from the Rhone, so the history, along with comparative tastings, are of particular interest to me.
Today, we start with an overview of the Rhone Valley. A lot will focus on signature grape varieties of both the Northern and Southern Rhone, as well as some key terms and facts that will help us moving forward. Because my text doesn’t go into the winemaking history of the region, I’m not going to cover that in detail during this series, though I may drop an interesting anecdote here and there if it is relevant to the material being discussed. If interested, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Fourth Edition), does have a good historical synopsis. And if you’re interested in the California-French Rhone connection, I highly recommend American Rhone: How Maverick Winemakers Changed the Way Americans Drink by Patrick J. Comiskey.
Alright, alright, alright…it is the exciting conclusion to our Bordeaux series, looking at the business side of things. If you haven’t read through the France Overview, Bordeaux Overview, the Left Bank, and Right Bank articles, please do-so, as there are a lot of key terms and facts that will help this section make a bit more sense. Also, check out the Bordeaux tastings, as it puts a lot of that knowledge into palate-perspective.