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The Rhône Valley consists of the Northern Rhône and the Southern Rhône – two distinct regions separated by almost 50 kilometers of land that is nearly empty of grapes. They are linked geographically by the Rhône River, which starts in the Swiss Alps and empties into the Mediterranean Sea near Marseille.
If one were to start from Lyon and drive south, you would see the industrial extension of the city disappear and steep, imposing hillsides covered with vines rise on either side of you. After a little over an hour, the sky starts to open up, the hills become more subdued and you start to see the familiar “garrigue” from Provence cover the ground.
Looks are just the beginning, however – these two regions differ in nearly every way.
In the Northern Rhône, Syrah is the major grape, and the only grape from which AOC red wine wines can be made. The white grapes are Viognier, Marsanne and Rousanne. It is colder here in the winter but summers are warm and dry, and hillside vineyards help to increase the sun’s influence. Soils are composed of schist and granite, and most vineyards tightly surround the right and left banks of the river (Crozes-Hermitage and Hermitage are the only two on the left). The steepness of the hillsides makes the vines labor intensive and a manual harvest is almost always required. Together, all of the smaller AOCs in the Northern Rhône only account for 5% of the total production of the Rhône Valley. The best red wines here rival those of Bordeaux and Burgundy in aging potential and prestige.
The Southern Rhône is much larger, and overall, much flatter, although there are many places where small hillside vineyards exist. As the Rhône flows south the Mediterranean influence increases, warming vineyards more consistently year-round. The mistral wind keeps the hot summers dry, and helps reduce mildew and fungal disease. Some winemakers also think the mistral has a drying affect on the grapes, causing them to lose water and acidity and phenolics to concentrate.
In the Southern Rhône, red, white, rosé and fortified wines are made. The majority are blends – 23 varieties are permitted. The main red grape is Grenache, but Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault are also widely grown. For whites, the best for quality wines are Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc and Clairette. It is generally known for quantity vs. the Northern Rhône’s quality, but that does not mean that there are no quality wines to be found here. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the star AOC of the region, famous for its full-bodied, Grenache-based wines. Châteauneuf-du-Pape white can be equally rich and delicious. Most of the production comes from the Côtes du Rhône AOC, a vast area with many different terroirs. It is composed of mostly very small producers, less than half of whom have their own winemaking equipment. These old family plots are sometimes planted with very old vines, making them outstanding values.
Southern Rhône wines share a similar gamey quality with the Northern Rhône, but expressed via many more grapes and appellations. They are also more approachable when young and share a rustic nature.
In general, the Rhône Valley is a cornucopia of different appellations and grapes. You can find just about any wine from all price points here. There is even a rosé only appellation: Tavel; and two that include fortified wine: Rasteau and Beaumes-de-Venise.