Did you join us for a tour of the Northern Rhône? Well here’s part deux as we explore the slightly more intricate Southern Rhône region…
[Information based on WSET Level 3 material]
I discussed a bit about the Southern Rhône climate and terroir in a previous post. But, I’ll go ahead and set the scene here…
Compared to the Northern Rhône, the lay of the land is quite flat. This means two things: 1) vineyards receive more direct sun exposure, as there are no hills to act as shade and 2) for that same reason, the vineyards are more exposed to the mistral wind that blows through the length of the Rhône region, both North and South, but gains the most speed here in the South. (And for that reason, many grapegrowers plant windbreaks to add a barrier.) This affects how grapevines are trained. For example, Grenache, the most widely planted red wine grape, is often bush-trained low to the ground to protect it from the winds as well as to allow it to absorb the heat from the soils. Syrah, on the other hand, is more fragile, so succeeds better when attached to a supportive trellising system.
The climate in the Southern Rhône is Mediterannean, with mild winters and warm dry summers. Although, take note that though the winters are technically mild, the mistral makes the temperature feel colder. I’d also like to point out here that, while the bush-training shields Grenache from the mistral, it’s also affective in shielding grapes from too much sun exposure, as Grenache is a vigorous grape variety that can potentially over-yield, producing lower quality fruit, or over-ripen, producing flavors that are overtly jammy. But it is a heat-loving grape, which is why it is so successful in the warm, dry Southern Rhône region.
Another vineyard concern is drought during those dry summer months.
A bit about the grapes…
- As mentioned, Grenache is the most widely planted black grape.
- Mourvédre is at its northern-most limit of where it can ripen fully here in the Southern Rhône, so thrives in the warmest sites of the region.
- Syrah is also widely planted, but it tends to struggle in the hottest sites.
- Cinsault is a variety that, though delicate in its flavors, is quite drought-tolerant, thus suitable to the terroir and climate of the Southern Rhône.
In regards to winemaking, more often than not red wine production is based on blending multiple varieties. This is due, in part, to those environmental concerns listed above which results in year-to-year vintage variation (less reliable crop yield and quality estimates). It also has to do with the variety of grapes planted—each ripen more successfully in certain terrain, at different paces, and yield different flavor and aroma profiles that winemakers can utilize to create a well-balanced successful wine despite vintage variation.
When it comes to white grapes, as with the reds, there are a wide variety planted and the wines are most usually blends as well. As in the Northern Rhône, Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne are all widely planted and, again like in the North, the best white wines are fuller-bodied, rich in texture, low in acid and high in alcohol with quite subtle aromas that do not benefit from new oak usage. Additional white varieties include Clairette, Grenache Blanc, and Bourboulenc.
Regional, village appellations and the crus…
Côtes du Rhône, is a generic appellation that covers wines made from grapes sourced throughout the Southern Rhône. The Côtes du Rhône appellation accounts for more than half of the entire production of the Southern Rhône region and, as you may have predicted or may have tasted, the wines are typically simple, medium bodied wines. This is different than the Côtes du Rhône Villages. To qualify for village status, there are more stringent minimum alcohol levels, maximum yields, and a greater percentage of the red blends must be made with Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvédre. (NOTE: There are a few villages that can put their name on the Côtes du Rhône Villages label if and only if 100% of the grapes are sourced from that named village. These guys are the créme de la créme outside of the wines that qualify for cru status [and by the way, these guys can apply for crus status if they want] and have more body, structure, and spice-filled notes than the generic Côtes du Rhône.)
Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the largest of the Southern Rhône crus. FUN FACT: The CDP is the first French wine region to have Appellation contrôlée status. The area s predominantly flat, but has a wide range of aspects and soil types, thus a wide variety of successfully planted grape varieties—13 in total. SOIL FACT: Many of the primary grape-growing sites are filled with large stones, or galets. These absorb the heat of the sun, help warm the vines (particularly important during wind storms), and help aid ripening. FUN FACT: I recently listened to a podcast all about the Southern Rhône, and the winemaker being interviewed said that those galets, during the warmest summer months, can reach 55°C (131°F), so if you touch one, you’ll burn your hand. Hot Rocks.
Grenache is the main grape planted—some of which is made into single varietal wine.
Tavel and Lirac
FUN FACT: These are the only two crus on the west bank of the Rhône River. The two regions are most famous for their rosé production, made predominantly from Grenache and Cinsault. The resulting wines are full-bodied when compared to those coming out of Provence (we’ll get there soon…promise. As such, they’re intensely flavored and aromatic and can actually age in the bottle over time, developing even more complexity. Only rosé can be produced in Tavel. Lirac, conversely, produces both red and white wines similar in style to those found in the CDP.
Like the Loire Valley, rosé made in the the Rhône can be achieved by either short maceration or direct press.
Gigondas and Vacqueyras
These two regions, located off to the east keep the Grenache-based blend tradition and are said to be similar in style to those found in the CDP: full-bodied, filled with spice notes. In fact, there’s a note that these wines “can be as good as those that come from the more famous appellation.” But, given CDP’s history and reputation, they’ll probably always take a back seat in the consumer eye.
Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise
I will do a full post on sweet wine production, as this is a specific focus for the WSET exam, but I do want to make a note here that there is a dedicated AC for fortified Muscats: Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise.
How’d I do? Anything you want to add about the Southern Rhône regions and its wines? Any favorites out there?
Alright…it’s about time I had another theme-appropriate wine review. Ya’ll ready for this…
About the Wine: Côtes-du-Rhône White Belleruche
(The bottle didn’t say, but according to a post-tasting Google search, the wine is a blend of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Viognier, Clairette, and Bourboulenc [percentages unknown].)
Appearance: pale lemon
Aroma: pronounced, youthful aromas of green apple, lemon, lime, blossom, grass, wet stone, vanilla, and pastry
Palate: dry, high acid, medium alcohol, medium (-) body, medium (+) intensity of flavors: lemon, lime, green apple, blossom, grass, lemongrass, toast, vanilla, pastry
Finish is medium in length.
Conclusion: Based on the WSET criteria, I concluded that this wine is a good win and that you should enjoy it now, as it does not have the potential for aging.
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