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, let’s get started.
For a simplified version of this series, please read the original Northern Rhone Overview and Southern Rhone Overview, which are more appropriate for WSET Level 3 studies.
“Rhone, one of the most important wine rivers, linking a range of vineyards as dissimilar as those of Chateauneuf-du-Pape in southern France, sparkling syssel, and Fendant du Valais in Switzerland. In wine circles, however, the term Rhone usually means the fashionable wines made in the Rhone Valley.” (The Oxford)
Indeed, the main geological feature that both the Northern and Southern Rhone have in common is the Rhone River, which runs through them both. However it is there where much of the similarity between the two stop. The two regions are separated by a vast, 30 mile stretch of vine-free terrain—a gap that seems to signify the vast difference in grape growing environment and winemaking styles
Think about the below facts in terms of grape growing and winemaking styles.
Being further inland, the Northern Rhone maintains a continental climate; closer to the Mediterranean, the Southern Rhone maintains a Mediterranean climate. For the most part, the vineyards of the Northern Rhone are located along steep slopes over looking the Rhone River; the area under vine in the Southern Rhone is significantly greater, with vineyards spread out over a larger area, many of which are a considerable distance away from the River itself. The Northern Rhone consists of clearly defined AOCs or crus; the Southern Rhone has both individual AOCs, or crus, but also produces a large volume of basic Cote du Rhone AOC and Cote du Rhone Village wines as well as IGP wines.
NOTE: The term Cote du Rhone does apply to AOC wines made in both the North and the South, but the majority of the Cote du Rhone AOC wines are produced in the South. According to my text, the appellations Cotes du Rhone AOC and Cotes du Rhone Villages AOC together produce around 60% of all wine produced in the Rhone Valley as a whole. The Oxford further notes that the Rhone regularly produces more AOC wine than any French region, other than Bordeaux.
Conversely, the Northern Rhone is described by the Oxford as “the most important Rhone district in terms of the prestige of its wines,” naming the undeniably prestigious Cote-Rotie and Hermitage as example crus of note and calling them “serious rivals to the great names of Bordeaux and Burgundy in quality and, especially, longevity of their best wines.”
We’ll get into the specific geological and climatic defining features of each region in subsequent articles. But one thing I do have to mention is the Mistral—a strong, cold northwesterly wind that blows through the Rhone valley and southern France into the Mediterranean. It affects both the Northern and Southern Rhone regions, albeit slightly differently, but it is certainly an environmental features worth defining straight away.
GRAPE VARIETIES—Head’s up, there’s a lot. Stick with me, and don’t say I didn’t warn you…
Syrah—The only red wine variety used in the Northern Rhone crus. Syrah is a vigorous variety, but is very susceptible to wind, thus needs attentive vine training in order to protect it from the Mistral. In the Northern Rhone, Syrah vines are often tied to one or two poles, as trellising is not possible. The vines are also susceptible to mites, botrytis and a disease called “Syrah decline,” defined as a “mysterious fatal phenomenon affecting Syrah exclusively,” by the Oxford. It’s a disorder that typically affects the graft-point of the vine, it will become swollen, bulbous, eventually splitting the wood and killing the vine. The Oxford notes the vine may continue to function normally for a few vintages, but eventually leaves will turn red during the growing season, greatly affecting the health and vigor of the vine, eventually leading to death.
Moving on from that sad fact…
Syrah is late budding and mid to late ripening. “It’s distinctively savory qualities are much reduced once the yield is allowed to rise and it has a tendency to lose aroma and acidity rapidly if left too long on the vine,” notes the Oxford.
In the cellar, winemakers need to be cognizant of the fact that Syrah is prone to reduction. Thus, many conduct more frequent pumpovers to engage the fermenting must with more oxygen and wines are often aged in oak in order to continue a gentle, progressive oxygen integration.
Typical Syrah wines are deep ruby with medium to pronounced intensity aromas and flavors of violet, plum (NOTE: red plum in cooler versus black plum in warmer vintages and/or sites), blackberry, black pepper and herbal notes. Acidity and tannin range from medium to high.
In Rhone blends, Syrah adds structure, fruit, and color.
Grenache Noir— This is high yielding variety and late-ripening variety (ripening later, the Oxford notes, than Cabernet Sauvignon) that needs a warm climate in order to ripen fully. Because it ripens late, it will be affected by early autumn rains. “With its strong wood and upright growth, Grenache Noir is well suited to traditional bush vine viticulture in hot, dry, windy vineyards,” notes the Oxford. (Sound like any place we’re going?) An added advantage is that bush training allows for easier and consistent short-pruning on the part of the grower, thus a great way to control vine vigor. Grenache Noir does well on dry, low fertility soils and has good drought tolerance but is prone to coulure as well as fungal diseases such as downy mildew, phomopsis, botrytis, as well as necrosis or bacterial blight (a disease that kills leaves and shoots and eventually the plant; the disease is combatted by planting only disease-free stock and avoiding contamination from pruning tools).
The Grenache Noir grapes are said to accumulate sugar levels quickly—an issue for dry wine, but makes it suitable for Vin Doux Naturel (naturally sweet wines produced in the South of France). The Oxford states, “In regions allowing a relatively long growing cycle it can achieve heady sugar levels, and indeed does not achieve full physiological ripeness without them.”
As a wine, Grenache Noir is typically paler than most reds, although, as the Oxford notes, low yields can concentrate both color and tannins in some Chateuneuf-du-Pape wines. It’s noted for oxidizing easily, which will also reduce color, thus typically Grenache Noir will be fermented and aged in either concrete vats or stainless steel tanks to reduce oxygen exposure.
In Rhone blends, it is the major component in Southern Rhone blends along with Syrah and Mourvedre. It contributes pale ruby color, ripe red fruits, spicy and herbal notes, along with high alcohol, and low to medium tannins.
Mourvedre—A personal favorite grape of mine, this guy is late budding, late ripening, naturally low-yielding, and only thrives in warm to hot climates. My text stresses that this grape needs high temperatures, particularly at the end of the growing season, in order to ripen completely. And the Oxford notes, “It cannot be grown successfully much further north than the Southern Rhone.” Despite the need for heat, this is not a drought-resistant grape. In fact, Mourvedre requires small but regular amounts of water throughout the growing season. This can be achieved by planting vines in, for example, deep, calcareous soils with good water-holding capacity. They look the best with short haircuts (i.e., vines thrive best best when pruned short) and are suitable to either cordon or bush training.
Its vines are prone to mites, leafhoppers and sour rot (a disease that affects ripening bunches due to insect or bird damage to grapes, which then become prone to bacteria and fungi).
Contrary to Grenache Noir, Mourvedre is prone to reduction, thus requires oxygen during the winemaking process and is, consequentially, typically aged in old oak.
“In southern France, Mourvedre produces wines considered useful for their structure, intense fruit, and, in good years, perfume often redolent of blackberries,” states the Oxford. While it is the principal variety in the red and rosé wines of Bandol AOC as well as Provence, the Oxford further notes that in Chateuneuff-du-Pape it has become an increasingly popular blending component due to its naturally lower sugar levels as compared to Grenache.
Indeed, in the Rhone, specifically the Southern Rhone, Mourvedre is a team player in blends, contributing deep ruby color, intense aromas of blackberries, blueberries and violets, along with high alcohol and high, firm tannins.
Cinsault—Late budding, high-yielding with good drought and heat resistance. However, it’s noted in my text and in the Oxford that yields must be restricted in order to produce quality fruit and wine. In fact, the Oxford has this to say: “Its best wines by far come from vines that yield less than 40 hL/ha, it can all too easily be persuaded to yield generously and unremarkably.”
The vines are prone to Esca and Eutypa dieback as well as mites and grape moths. And if grown on soils with excessive lime, will suffer from chlorosis (D1 term: a yellowing of leaf tissue due to a lack of chlorophyll, leading to issues with photosynthesis and thus grape development, reducing yields as well as the overall vine balance and health of the vine).
“The wines it produces tend to be lighter, softer, and, in extreme youth, more aromatic and charmingly cherry-fruited than most of its peers,” states the Oxford. As such, it’s particularly suited to rosé production and is planted for that particular purpose throughout the South of France.
In Southern Rhone blends, Cinsault is used as a small part of red blends, typically those that are produced in a way that preserves fresh, primary fruit flavors. Cinsault contributes a light ruby color, medium to medium (+) intensity of fresh red fruits, along with high alcohol and low to medium tannins.
NOTE: The fresh aromatics known to the variety are said to be most evident within the first year of production. Therefore, as you can imagine, wines with a significant percentage of Cinsault included are usually those intended for early drinking.
Carignan—This dude is a late-budder (avoiding spring frosts) and a late-ripener (requiring an overall warm climate and long growing season). It’s also a high-yielder, which means that if this is not managed properly, resulting wines will lack any aromatic or flavor intensity. According to my text, reduction in yields of Cinsault vines happens naturally with age at about 50 years and beyond.
I love this description from the Oxford: “Its bunches keep such a tenacious hold on the vine that it does not adapt well to mechanical harvesting and is mainly grown in bush vines.” (I’m just picturing tight bunches of grapes, cloistered together, clinging to dear life and mother vine.) Perhaps because of that “tenacious hold,” among other factors, the vine is sensitive to both to powdery and downy mildew, prone to rot as well as grape moth infestation.
It’s noted both in my text and in the Oxford that the total plantings of Carignan has greatly reduced over the years. At one point, the grape was the number one planted variety of the Languedoc-Roussillon, but due to the EU vine pull scheme, it fell down to fifth place by 2011.
“In much of the southern France [Carignan‘s] wine is high in everything—acidity, tannins, colour, bitterness—but finesse in charm,” states the Oxford. This, it goes on to say, provides a kind of double trouble—varietal wines are neither appropriate (or pleasant) to drink young, but are unworthy of maturation.
Despite that kind of gross description, my text notes that some winemakers will actually seek out these attributes either for blending purposes or for producing wines with carbonic maceration. Whereas the Oxford, on the other hand, seems to offer the opinion that these winemaking techniques are utilized to mask the less-than-pleasant innate qualities of the grape: “The astringency of basic red from the Languedoc has owned much to Carignan‘s ubiquity, although blending with Cinsault or Grenache helped considerably, and carbonic maceration helped disguise, if not exactly compensate for, Carignan‘s lack of youthful charm.”
Well, if you drink one, what you’ll find are wines that are medium ruby in color with simple fruit aromas and flavors of blackberry fruits, along with high acidity and high tannins. These wines are typically unoaked (and, as mentioned, produced utilizing carbonic maceration). The majority, according to my book are acceptable to good, although wines produced from the aforementioned old vines, may actually produce wines with more intensity and variety of black fruits, along with earthy and spicy notes that can be of very good or outstanding quality.
In terms of the Southern Rhone, it will most likely play a small part in red and rosé blends adding the aforementioned qualities to the party mix.
Viognier—An early-budding variety that is fairly drought resistant, but prone to powdery mildew as well as spring frost (like any other late budder). It must be pretty vulnerable to strong winds like the Mistral, because my text notes that it’s best grown on trellises or attached to poles in order to prevent wind damage. The vines are prone to poor flowering and fruit set and, thus, yields tend to be both low and unpredictable. Further, harvest time must be chosen accurately—the pronounced aromas known to Viognier are only present when the grapes are fully ripe BUT if left too long on the vine, the grapes will lose their flavor as well as their acidity, rapidly increase in sugar and, as a result, make unbalanced, unflavorful wines.
Typical Viognier is medium lemon or gold in color, high in alcohol and give off “a very particular perfume redolent of apricots, peaches, and blossom sometimes with a deeply savoury undertow,” describes the Oxford. My text adds to this description low-intensity honeysuckle, lemon, apricot fruit, an oily texture, medium acidity, and full body along with medium to high alcohol.
In the Northern Rhone, it is made as either a varietal wine—most notably in Condrieu—or is used as part of a blend—most notably in the red wines of Cote-Rotie, where up to 20% of the white grape is allowed to be co-fermented with Syrah. In the Southern Rhone, it is usually found as part of a white wine blend.
Marsanne—If you are at all familiar with the white wines of the Rhone, you are no doubt familiar with the blending buddies Marsanne and Roussanne (below). Of the two, it is certainly the “less easy” one, if you like. My text describes the varietal Marsanne as medium lemon in color (sometimes gold) with low-intensity honeysuckle, lemon and apricot fruits, an oily texture with medium acidity, a full body and medium to high alcohol. However, I think the Oxford gets some of the funkier notes more exactly when it describes the deep colored wine as “full bodied with a heady, if often heavy, aroma of glue, sometimes honeysuckle, verging occasionally on almonds, sometimes bitter in youth.” It is that kind of earthy, heady funk, that I actually quite enjoy.
Regarding the grape itself, Marsanne is a late budding variety (avoiding spring frosts), noted for its high vigor. “The vine’s relatively productivity has doubtless been a factor in its popularity,” notes the Oxford, but goes on to say that “modern winemaking techniques have helped mitigate Marsanne‘s tendency to flab.” So it is that yields must be kept low in order to produce high quality wines. The vines are said to thrive best on stony, low fertile soils in order to help keep total yields down. Thus some of the most successful wines are those produced from the grapes grown on the steep slopes of the Northern Rhone valley.
The Marsanne grapevines are noted for being particularly prone to powdery mildew, mites, and botrytis bunch rot.
Beyond the tasting notes listed above, Marsanne is produced as either a varietal or blended wine in the Northern Rhone, as stated typically with Roussanne. It engages with the same partner in many regions of the Southern Rhone, but note, it is not one of the “chosen varieties” of the famed Chateauneuf-du-Pape, where, as the Oxford notes, Grenache Blanc (below) supplies some of the same characteristics in its stead.
Roussanne—”Roussanne‘s irregular yields, tendency to powdery mildew and rot, and poor wind resistance all but eradicated it from the Northern Rhone,” says the Oxford. And yet, here it is. This late-budding white variety succeeds best on low-fertile, well-drained soils and is notably more difficult to grow than it’s partner in wine crime, Marsanne (above) and is, therefore, less commonly grown in the Rhone. In addition to the issues listed above, my text also adds botrytis and mites to the long list of vine issues.
In terms of the wine it produces, I must again quote the Oxford: “Roussanne‘s chief attribute is its haunting aroma, something akin to a particularly refreshing herb tea.” A typical varietal Roussanne is medium lemon in color (sometimes gold) with medium to medium (+) intensity of aromas that include pear along with those herbal notes mentioned by the Oxford. It can have between medium and medium (+) acidity and medium to high alcohol. Because of its tendency to oxidize, Roussanne is known to age faster than Marsanne.
In the Rhone, Roussanne is typically blended with other varieties, specifically, as noted, Marsanne in the Northern Rhone. In the Southern Rhone you can find Roussanne dancing with other varieties as well, including Clairette and Grenache Blanc. NOTE that it is is, however, made as a varietal wine in both regions.
Grenache Blanc—We have another early-budder folks, but good news, since Grenache Blanc finds its home namely in the warm South of France as well as Spain, it is very rarely affected by spring frost. And in the Rhone, it is predominantly grown in the Mediterranean climate of the Southern Rhone, where it plays a prominent role in dry white blends (and a little Vin Doux Naturels), where its tendency to reach high levels of alcohol levels is a seen as a benefit.
Like Grenache Noir, Grenache Blanc has good wind resistance and has similar growing issues as its red varietal counter part (which, I think-slash-hope is referring to the fact[s] that it’s prone to coulure as well as fungal diseases such as downy mildew, phomopsis, botrytis, as well as necrosis or bacterial blight, and also the fact that it oxidizes easily].
In blends in contributes low intensity ripe green fruit, floral notes, high alcohol, and low acid, according to my text. A bit fuller description from the Oxford offers, “If carefully pruned and vinified, it can produce richly flavored, full-bodied varietals that share some characteristics with Marsanne and can be worthy of aging in small oak barrels.”
Clairette—This is another vigorous variety who does well to be planted on low-fertile, dry soils. So, good news we’re talking about the Southern Rhone and its low rainfall atmosphere. Good news again: it’s another vine that grows with an upright posture, so it can stand up (literally) to the gusty Mistral. In order to control vigor, my text notes, growers do well to prune the vines short as well as remove excess buds.
The Oxford elaborates, “Its small, thick-skinned grapes ripen relatively late, but can ripen dangerously fast at the end of the growing season.” So it is that those growers must choose their picking dates carefully to ensure properly developed fruit and balanced wines.
That attention to detail needs to further extend into the cellar. Clairette, like the Grenaches and Roussanne, oxidizes easily, so a reductive winemaking environment is idyllic.
In a Southern Rhone blend, Clairette is said to add freshness of fruit and florals: white flower, fennel, apple and grapefruit notes. It contributes high alcohol and low to medium (-) acid.
Bourboulenc—We have another late ripener here—but great news: The grapes themselves form in loose bunches and develop thick skins, so we finally have a variety resistant to botrytis and, thus, it can succeed in its innate late-ripening nature. Bourboulenc is said to thrive best in warm, dry locations (like most late-ripeners) and is thus suited to the Southern Rhone.
As a wine in the Rhone region, Bourboulenc is most commonly found in Southern Rhone blends contributing lemon flavor, medium (+) acidity and medium alcohol.
Production of Red Cru Level Wines (i.e. the “nicer” stuff)
These are the grapes that are more commonly harvested by hand—especially so in the Northern Rhone where the vast majority of crus are located on steep slopes overlooking the Rhone River. The fruit will then be transported via small crates to ensure the berries stay in tact. Upon reception at the cellar, grapes may be destemmed (especially if working with naturally high-tannic/high-phenolic varieties), chilled and cold-soaked for anywhere between 1 to 3 days in order to extract color. Less tannic varieties may be left as whole bunches (with stem inclusion) to intensify aromatics and structure.
Fermentation is commonly conducted in stainless steel or large concrete tanks, per tradition, however a few winemakers do utilize open-top wood fermenters for better integration of oak tannin and flavor. Fermentation, which can take place via commercial or native yeast, is typically warm in order to further extract color, flavor, and tannins. Post-fermentation maceration skin contact can last anywhere between 20 and 30 days and winemakers will practice regular punchdowns, pumpovers, and rack and returns depending on the variety used and wine style desired. The wines then typically mature for anywhere between 12 and 24 months oak. It’s noted that larger, neutral vessels are typical for Grenache Noir (which is easily overwhelmed by oak flavors), whereas Syrah and Mourvedre are more commonly matured in smaller barrels with a small percentage of new oak.
Production of Inexpensive, High-Volume Red Wines
As noted above, the vast amount of the less expensive wines are produced in the Southern Rhone, where land is typically flatter. Thus, its common for grapes to be machine-harvested. This means that the grapes need to be processed quickly (especially those varieties that oxidize easily) as the machines tend to smoosh the grapes which means they will start to oxidize and/or become infected with environmental bacterias. (Yes, smoosh is the correct terminology. Please write that on your exam papers.)
The exception to the machine-harvest rule are those grapes that will undergo either carbonic maceration or some kind of whole bunch fermentation. Carbonic maceration is common for those grapes that produce lighter colors and tannins and for those winemakers looking to create wines for early consumption. My text also notes that some winemakers will even use flash détante or thermovinification in order to quickly produce a fruity, low-tannin, easy drinking style.
As you can imagine, these wines are inoculated with cultured yeast to ensure a complete fermentation. If undergoing a “typical” ferment (i.e., not thermovinification), then fermentation temperatures typically sit around the mid-range in order to retain fruit flavors and avoid excessive tannin extraction.
Any post-fermentation maceration that takes place will be significantly shorter than the cru level wines, as there are less tannins that need softening, but also because producers are typically creating early-drinking wines and it will save them both the time and cost to not mature the wines for very long. Maturation typically takes place in stainless steel just a few months before bottling and release.
Rosé Wine Production
When we talk about rosé wine production, we’re stereotypically thinking of the wines of Tavel in the Southern Rhone, though do note there are other regions that produce rosé wines as well. But if Tavel is setting the benchmark for what a typical Rhone rosé is, then we’re talking about the short maceration process. Following that short initial cold soak, wine production will continue as it would fro a typical white wine. Wines are aged in large oak vessels, large concrete vats, or stainless steel tanks—however some folks do age a percentage of their schmancy rosé wines in small (old/neutral) oak to add a bit of texture and body.
White winemaking really depends on the style the winemaker wishes to produce. Generically speaking, fermentation will take place a mid-range temperature in order to retain the primary fruit characteristics. ML is often avoided in order to maintain the natural acidity and most wines will be aged in either large old oak casks or stainless steel tanks.
White wines made from the more voluptuous white Rhone varieties will usually not undergo lees stirring, as that could create an excessively fat wine.
IT’S THE BIZ: WINE LAW AND REGULATIONS
Since a lot of the specific rules and regulations will be covered in conjunction with specific AOCs, I’m including just a few broad wine biz facts here.
- About that Irrigation…AOCs may apply for permission to irrigate under strict conditions: proof of water stress to vines, no irrigation permitted after veraison, and irrigation cannot be utilized to exceed the maximum yield allowed by the individual AOC.
- Most major wine producing companies as well as the largest negociants are based in the Northern Rhone BUT operate across both the Northern Rhone and the Southern Rhone. Name drop example: Guigal.
- Conversely, cooperatives are more important in the Southern Rhone than in the north.
- Top Rhone export markets: US, UK, Belgium
- As the value of Rhone wine has risen, more growers are taking it upon themselves to bottle their own wines rather than selling to negociants or participating in a cooperative.
- There is a itsy bitsy en primeur market for the very top wines from the very top estates inside the very top AOCs.
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