The Southern Rhone. “This region is renowned for warming, ripely welcoming, and rarely expensive wines of all three colors.” The World Atlas of Wine (Eighth Edition).
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.
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.
Mild winters, warm (often hot), dry summers with an increasing problem of drought mark the Southern Rhone‘s Mediterranean climate. Irrigation is permitted, however there are strict rules, as mentioned in the Rhone Valley Overview.
The terrain is flat thus, unlike in the steeply sloped Northern Rhone, there is little protection from the cold, Mistral wind—a double edged sword as, in the hot summer months, the cooling affect are on the one hand much appreciated, but the intensity of which can be a threat to vines. This circles back to the dominant grape Grenache Noir, which is suitable for—and most commonly planted as—bush trained vines, a configuration that further protects the vines from the strong wind currents.
AOC regulations typically dictate that Grenache Noir dominate red wine blends. THE EXCEPTION TO THE RULE: Chateauneuf-du-Pape (see below). It can be blended with a wide variety of other grapes, but is most common dancing partners include Mourvedre, Syrah, as well as Carignan and Cinsault. (See below for specific AOC regulations).
Regulation for red, rosé, and white wines:
- Distinguish between principal, complementary and other permitted varieties
- State the total minimum proportion of principal and complementary varieties which must be used—which can differentiate between vineyard plantings and final blends. NOTE: any percentages used here refers to the final blend NOT the vineyard planting.
Hierarchy of Southern Rhone Appellations look like this:
- Cotes du Rhone AOC
- Cotes du Rhone Villages AOC
- Cotes du Rhone Villages AOC + named village (currently 20 allowed; example Cotes du Rhone Villages AOC Seguret)
- Individual appellations for the top villages of the Southern Rhone known as cru(i.e., Chateuneuf-du-Pape AOC, Gigondas AOC, Cairanne AOC, etc.)
Also, check out the Other Appellations (below) that are outside this hierarchy.
Cotes du Rhone AOC
My text defines this AOC as a “vast appellation that covers all vineyard land suitable for grape rowing in the Southern Rhone,” excluding the “Other Appellations.” But do note that the term technically does include Northern Rhone wines as well, but the majority of Cotes du Rhones produced come from the flatter vineyards of the Southern Rhone. FUN FACT: Cote du Rhone is the second largest appellation by hectares planted in France, after Bordeaux AOC
Principal varieties for red and rosé wines (max yield 50 hL/ha) include Grenache Noir, Mourvedre, Syrah, and together these varieties must make at least 60% of the of final blend. More specifically, in the Southern Rhone, Grenache Noir alone must account for AT LEAST 30% and together Mourvedre and Sryah must make up at least 20%. (Dude, thems some rules…)
Secondary red varieties include local stuff like Carignan and Cinsault.
Principal varieties for white wines (max yield 51 hL/Ha) include Bourboulenc, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier—together must make up 80% of the final blend.
Secondary varieties include local “minor” varieties like Piquepoul Blanc.
The Oxford notes that the reputation for Cote du Rhone is one of commodity wine, “which must be discouraging for the increasing number of serious quality-minded producers of it—even if this means that their wines are some of France’s best value.” However, these wines are admittedly simple, often light, fruity red wines made from full or semi-carbonic maceration produced by, according to the Oxford, one of the many cooperatives in the region.
TASTING NOTES for Cotes du Rhone AOC, my text notes, are of medium intensity ruby, medium intensity red plum and blackberry fruit, medium acidity, medium tannin (OR NOTE: LOW TANNIN if made from carbonic maceration), medium alcohol and typically no notes of oak usage.
Cotes du Rhone Village AOC
“This useful appellation represents a distinct step up in quality, and often value, from generic Cote du Rhone,” notes the Oxford.
The rules for the Cotes du Rhone Village AOC are similar for the rules of the Cote du Rhone AOC red wines, but final blend must have a minimum of 66% of at least two of the three principal varieties (Grenache Noir, Mourvedre, Syrah) and must include Grenache Noir. NOTE: max yields are lower (44 hL/ha) and even less (41 hL/ha) for Cotes du Rhone Villages AOC + a Named Village.
Max yields are even lower in the Southern Rhone crus (35 hL/ha in CDP and between 36 and 38 in others). So let’s take a look at those now…
Gigondas was the first to win its own appellation back in 1971, and the quality of its tight-knit reds can rival that of Chateauneff-du-Pape,” states the Atlas.
It goes on to describe the land: expanding from the plain east of the River Ouveze up to (“and in some cases embedded in”) the mountain-scape of Dentelles de Montmirail. My text notes that some vineyards see elevation up to 600 m above sea level, which allows for reduced temperatures due to the shading. That reduction in temperature, along with the calcareous soils, means that grapes ripen slowly over an extended maturation period, increasing flavor and aromatics and wines are, as the Atlas notes, “often rather fresher wine than Chateauneuf.”
Additionally, that slightly lower temperature means that the often high-sugar-accumulating dominant grape, Grenache Noir achieves less alcohol here. Gigondas AOC rules that Grenache Noir make up at least 50% of the final blend and include at least one of either Syrah or Mourvedre.
Elevation of Vacqueyras vineyards are not as high as those found in Gigondas, but at 440 m above sea level, still allow for a good diurnal range that doesn’t threaten complete ripening in the cooler vintages. “With its earlier-ripening sandy and stony terrain, [wine] can be headier, more immediate, and a little more rustic than Gigondas,” notes the Atlas.
It’s fair to compare the two AOC’s as the blending rules for red wine are exactly the same: at least 50% Grenache Noir blended with at least one of either Syrah or Mourvedre.
Additionally, Vacqueryras AOC can be applied to rosé and white wines as well—white wines the Atlas describes as “fine, smoky, full-bodied dry white based on Grenache Blanc.
Vinsobres AOC is new to me, and no wonder, it is “kind of” a NOOB, granted AOC status in 2006. FUN Appellation Status FACT: like most Southern Rhone crus, Vinsobres was first accepted as a named village within the Cote du Rhone Village AOC before gaining the AOC status.
Vineyards here are planted at elevations ranging between 200 and 500 m above sea level, which means ample drainage, sunlight and some protection from the Mistral. And, as Captain Obvious likes to point out, the higher the slope, the cooler the temperatures, thus the longer the ripening period resulting in increased flavor intensity of the wines produced.
Vinsobres is dedicated to red wine only and plantings are dominated by Grenache Noir, but my text notes that Syrah is increasing its acreage and thus contributing more flavor intensity, structure, and color to the wines produced.
Want to hear a familiar tune? Final blend must contain at least 50% Grenache Noir and at least one of either Syrah or Mourvedre.
FUN FACT: Rasteau was granted AOC status for red wine in 2009, but had previous already achieved AOC status for its Vins Doux Naturales.
Vineyards are at lower elevations here, reaching just around 100 m above sea level. But the low, south-facing slopes orient the vines in what my text calls a “warm enclave,” thus offering some protection against the Mistral, resulting in ripe, full-bodied wines.
I’m sensing a pattern: Final blend must contain at least 50% Grenache Noir and at least one of either Syrah or Mourvedre.
Most wines fermented in large vats, usually concrete, and matured in large oak. Though my text goes out of its way to note that some higher quality Syrah is aged in small barrels.
Even NOOB-y-er, Carianne was established as an AOC in 2015. The terroir is not as steep or as warm any as other appellations and my text describes the wines produced as “mainly red wines in a fruity and approachable style.” However, the Atlas describes: “Carianne is one of the most exciting wine villages of the Southern Rhone.”
Again, Grenache is the dominant variety for red wine blends, but here only requires 40% in the final blend along with, again, at least one of either Syrah or Mourvedre.
Like Rasteau, Beaumes-de-Venise had a long time appellation status for its Vine Doux Naturel prior to gaining AOC status for its still red wines in 2005.
Here, most vines are planted on slopes which, like in Gigondas, offer shading from the Dentelles de Montmirall mountains.
Red blend rules: Grenache Noir, together (note that difference) with Syrah must make up at least 50% of the blend.
Are you down with CdP or…
FUN FACT: Chateauneuf-du-Pape was the first AOC in France, created in order to protect the name from being used by others outside the region. According to my text, the rules were drawn up in 1923 (by Baron du Roy of Chateau Fortia) and was finally approved in 1936.
What are those rules? Chateauneuf-du-Pape AOC allows the use of 13 grape varieties (18 if including the color variants of five of them….like naming the seven dwarves, eh?) and a minimum alcohol of 12.5% ABV without chaptalization. While that may have been a challenge at the time of writing those rules, the Atlas notes, “Chateauneuf-du-Pape has always had the distinction of having the highest minimum strength of any French wine: 12.5% alcohol. But in this era of global warming, its wines, based substantially on Grenache that demands real ripeness, are rarely less than 14.5% and occasionally reach 16%, presenting a challenge to growers, winemakers—and wine drinkers.”
“The Chateauneuf-du-Pape cliche is the galet, the rounded, heat-absorbing stone found almost exclusively in some of its vineyards, but in reality soils within this relatively small area are extremely varied.” —The Atlas
As large as Chateauneuf-du-Pape is, it should come as no surprise the diverse soils found throughout the appellation: limestone, clay, sandstone and sandy soils—the clay being particularly important for its water holding capacity during the dry summers. The overall low-fertile, fast-draining soils of course help control vine vigor, resulting in smaller crops and riper grapes.
But we cannot deny that the large pebbles, known as galets roules, are a defining feature of many vineyards in the appellation. They’re responsible for absorbing the heat-o-the-sun and radiating that warmth up into the vines at night.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape is home to red and white winemaking, but red wine undoubtedly rules with more than 90% of total production. But FUN FACT: There are no stipulation on principal varieties and/or minimum percentages of blends and it is possible to make single varietal wines. WOOHOO!
Traditionally, red wine blends are dominated by Grenache Noir, and typical dancing partners include Syrah and Mourvedre—the latter of which my text notes is gaining increasing interest, but can only succeed in soils with sufficient moisture. The Atlas notes that the inclusion of Mourvedre “can help rein in the alcoholic excesses of Grenache in hot years.”
When it comes to white wines, the most common varieties used include Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc, and Roussanne. NOTE: Marsanne and Viognier are NOT on the permitted list of AOC wines.
The Atlas notes that many producers own parcels, or lieu-dits, with several different soil types in order to create more diverse ingredients for blending their cuvees. This adds complexity, as well as allows for greater volumes of wine that are commercially viable (if your business is into that kind of thing). My text notes, interestingly that growers believe that the grapes grown on sandier soils produce finer, lighter wines, whereas more structured wines come from those grapes grown on the soils with the larger pebbles. (Makes sense: There’s less water available on the stony soils, thus increasing concentration, right?)
“Red wines here are often tough in youth, thanks to the dry summers, but can age to sumptuous, sometimes gamey, depths of flavor. A perhaps surprising number develop considerable finesse,” notes the Atlas. In general, according to my text, the red wines offer medium ruby color, with medium (+) to pronounced intensity of ripe red plum and blackberry fruit with spice notes and sometimes new oak notes. They tend to have a medium level of acidity, high alcohol and tannins can actually range from medium (-) to high (depending on varietal mix, winemaking method/style, and of course vintage).
White wines are described by the Atlas thusly: “The best of the much rarer whites, all of them succulent in the first few years, can devlope even more exotic scents when fully mature at 10 to 15 years, after an often sulky middle age.” Wines may be fermented in oak, although notably some producers to prefer to preserve the freshness of the primary fruit flavors. Similarly, maturation techniques vary, taking place in either tank or oak and sometimes with a small percentage of new oak barrels as well. However, my text does note that the current trend dictates lighter, more floral and fresher wine styles.
Lastly, a D2 fact I pulled from the Atlas is that the lighter wine styles intended for early drinking typically come from bigger companies and co-operatives, whereas the more “ambitious” and ageworthy examples are more commonly produced by family-owned estates making wines with more “individuality.”
Located across the river from Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Lirac AOC produces mainly red wines and some white and rosés as well, which the Atlas notes can be of better value than those produced in Tavel (below). “With lower permitted yields, it inclines more today to softly fruity reds less dominated by Grenache than Tavel,” it notes. My text elaborates on the high sunshine hours and well-drained, infertile soils, which are conducive to producing such red wines.
Despite the anecdote from the Atlas, the red wine varieties are principally Grenache Noir, Mourvedre, Syrah and Cinsault which together must make up a minimum of 90% of the final blend. high sunlight hours and well-drained, infertile soils means good conditions for growing and ripening
Tavel is noted for its dedication solely to rosé wine production. The AOC allows for 12 principal grape varieties (both black and white), but final blend must include Grenache Noir (THEMS THE RULES!) BUT no principal grape variety must contribute more than 60% (THEM SOME SPECIFIC RULES!).
According to the Atlas, the trend used to be for powerful, dark-pink wines, “a fiery and worthy partner for the strong flavors of many Mediterranean dishes.” But, as I’m sure you can well guess, this has since changed toward lighter, Provencal style wines that are paler, fresher.
My text describes that the typical Tavel rosé is medium pink-orange in color (still, much darker than other rosés), with medium to medium (+) intensity of strawberry and raspberry fruit, medium (+) to full body, and medium alcohol.
OTHER RHONE APPELLATIONS — i.e. “satellite” appellations
These guys surround the main Cotes du Rhone growing area in the Southern Rhone. There are seven in total. The largest are listed below:
Located in the south-east of the Southern Rhone, vines are planted on the southern and western slope of the Mont Ventoux which acts as an important cooling influence due to altitude and cool air coming down through the slopes. “The scattered Ventoux appellation reflects higher elevations and much cooler nights than most Cote du Rhone, which usefully extends the growing season,” notes the Atlas.
The AOC produces red, white, and some rosé wines, but red wine takes the lead at 2/3 of total production. Principal varieties are our good friends Grenache Noir, Syrah, Mourvedre, Carignan and Cinsault that together must create 60% of the blend and must include at least two varieties (THEMS THE RULES!)
Costieres de Nimes AOC
Hotter and more influenced by the Medterranean is Costieres de Nimes, located between the Rhone River and eastern Languedoc, this is the south-west limit of the Rhone Valley region.
Vines are grown on south-west facing slopes, which receive both good sunlight and the breezes off the Mediterranean. Again, 2/3 of wine production is dedicated to red wines, with small proportions of both white and rosé wines also being produced. Here, the three amigos make up the principal grape varieties: Grenache Noir, Mourvedre, and Syrah, which together—or singly—must make up a minimum of 50% of the final blend (NOTE: Less than in Ventoux or Costieres de Nimes).
“These are robust, sun-swept wines of interest, particularly the juicy expressions of Grenache Noir grown on Chateauneuf-like giant pebbles,” comments the Atlas.
Located in the south-east of Rhone Valley, Luberon AOC borders Provence. Here vines are planted on both gentle slopes or flat land. “The landscape can sometimes seem to have more personality than the produce,” says the Atlas. We find some familiarity with the principal varieties: Grenache Noir, Syrah, and Mourvedre. The rules of the blending game dictate that the final product include at least two of these varieties which together—or singly—make up 50% of the final blend.
Now we’re back at the top—at the northernmost appellation in the Southern Rhone. “The parched Mistral-swept landscape here is arguably better known for its truffles than its spicy, compact reds and improving whites,” notes the Atlas.
But, when talking about wine, we are talking predominantly of red blends. Rules of the game: at least 50% of the final blend must include principal varieties Grenache Noir and/or Syrah. The wines are said to be lighter in style than areas to the south (makes sense since it’s obviously cooler).
This is where wine-production freedom rings in the Southern Rhone, as producers may create IGP-labeled wines from Rhone varieties OR international varieties. My text offers this FUN FACT as an example: In the department of the Gard (home to Costieres de Nimes AOC), Merlot is the third most planted variety and Cabernet Sauvignon the fifth.
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