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The source of the Rhône River is in the Valais region of the Swiss Alps. Once it reaches France it runs through the city of Lyon and then long-distance south to empty into the Mediterranean Sea. It’s one of the longest and most important rivers in France, and the proximity of the vineyards to the river facilitated the exportation of the region’s wines and helped create their international renown.
The region is divided into two major, distinct vineyard areas, the northern area (called “Rhône Septentrional”) and the southern area (“Rhône Meridional”), also colloquially known as the “Northern” and “Southern Rhône.”The two vineyard areas are separated by approximately 64km (40 miles) which are planted with fruit trees and other types of agriculture, as they are not appropriate terrain for vineyards. The Mistral, the strong, cold wind that blows down the entire Rhône Valley, plays an important role in viticulture here, helping to dry the grapes and keeping cryptogamic sicknesses like mildew to a minimum, and playing a role in the training of the vines to resist the wind.
The northern vineyards come into view roughly an hour south of Lyon and continue uninterrupted to the city of Valence, about 72km (45 miles) to the south. The climate here is semi-continental (like Burgundy) but with a slight Mediterranean influence, particularly in the southern part of the northern vineyards. The primary soils are granite, schist, and mica. The area is visually remarkable for its very steep hillsides descending abruptly down to the Rhône. The slopes are so steep that centuries ago, stone terraces were built to guard against erosion and make it possible to plant and work the vines. Sometimes only one row of vines can be planted on a single terrace! It’s quite difficult to work on such steep slopes, contributing to the higher prices of the Northern wines.
As in Burgundy just to the north, the use of grape varieties in the Northern Rhône is mostly mono-varietal; in the cooler climate, just one grape variety can produce a balanced, complex wine. In appellations Côte Rôtie, Saint Joseph, Cornas, Hermitage and CrozesHermitage (Croze being the largest appellationof the Northern Rhône), Syrah is the traditional grape variety planted. There is a difference in style between the small vineyard area of the Left Bank (Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage), where the red wines are rich and complex, and the right bank (where most of the vineyards lie), where they are more austere and tannic particularly in their youth. The best of these wines are long-lived and with time express tremendous complexity and balance, particularly Côte Rôtie and Hermitage. The hill of Hermitage, rising above the town of Tainl’Hermitage with its emblematic chapel at the top, is an especially striking landmark, offering perfect exposition for the Syrah grapes.
The Northern Rhône is essentially a red wine-producing region, but 5% of the fine wines produced there are white. The Viognier grape finds its perfect terroir in two appellations, Condrieu and Château Grillet, the latter being one of the smallest appellations in France with just one estate. These fragrant, rich, floral wines are among the finest white wines in France. Two other white grape varieties are also planted in the North: Marsanne and Roussanne. These find their most complex expression in Saint Joseph white, Hermitage white (a highly coveted wine for its complexity and scarcity), Crozes-Hermitage white, and the region’s only sparkling white, Saint Péray, which is also the southern-most appellation of the Northern Rhône. The appellation also makes a still, dry white wine.
The Southern Rhône vineyards begin about 80km (50 miles) south of Valence. As you travel south, one slowly notices a change in the scenery. Deciduous trees give way to cypress and parasol pines, the ground gets notably dryer, and if it’s been raining, the sun usually comes out. We have entered the Mediterranean climate that characterizes this region: hot, dry summers and temperate winters, although the Mistral still brings cold and windy conditions from the north on a regular basis. This is historically Provence, with its colorful culture, outdoor markets, lavender fields, and historic hilltop villages.
This is the home of the ubiquitous appellation “Côtes du Rhône,” the largest and most common of the region. While there are some Côtes du Rhône vineyards in the northern Rhône, the southern Rhône has far and away the most of these vineyards. We have left the land of monovarietal wines, and the soils and topography have also changed. The steep slopes are gone, giving way to great plains with gentler slopes, and the soils are limestone, clay, and sand. The grape varieties have changed as well. Here where the heat produces wines rich in alcohol, other grape varieties are needed to create a blended wine to achieve balance and complexity. Syrah is still present, as is viognier, but they are blending grapes and are usually not allowed to be used exclusively in a wine.
Here as well, 95% of the wines produced are red. Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre (the famous “GSM” blend) are the primary blending grapes, sometimes with Cinsault and/or Carignan added for extra color and aromas. In addition to the basic Côtes du Rhône appellation, there is a pyramid of appellations reaching up to Côtes due Rhône Villages (22 villages whose terroir is notable enough to put the name of the village on the label) and then the “Crus,” 9 villages whose vineyards are the most prestigious and complex of the southern appellations, and therefore have the right to put only the name of the village on the label.
The largest of the Crus is also the oldest and the most prestigious: Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Chateauneuf is known for a very particular terroir, one consisting mostly of “galetsroulées,” very large limestone rocks that were left after the Rhône receded from the land many millions of years ago. The vineyards literally grow out of the rounded rocks, which can go down as much as 5 meters before hitting the soil. The roots of the vines therefore must travel very far down into the soil to find any water or nutrients. The poor soil gives rise to wines of great richness, finesse, and complexity.
The southern Rhône also produces a great many rosé wines, and about 5% of the production is white wines. These are usually rich and fragrant, incorporating blends of Clairette, Viognier, Bourboulenc, White Grenache, and other local varieties.
© Lauriann Greene, 2021
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