Among my all-time favorite wines are the luscious reds from France’s southern Rhone Valley. More specifically, I’m referring to the Grenache-based blends from the appellations of Côtes-du-Rhône, Gigondas, Lirac and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Wine drinkers are familiar with the wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne, but how familiar are they with the wines from the Rhone Valley? It’s among the largest quality wine-producing regions in the world, and of all the red wines produced in France, nowhere will you find a wider variety of exciting offerings than the Rhone.
About the Valley
The Rhone River begins in the Swiss Alps, flows west into Lake Geneva, passes through the vineyards of Savoie and joins the Saône River in Lyon. From there, it flows south for about 250 miles into the Mediterranean; it’s the area between the city of Vienne to the north and Avignon, a commune, to the south that connect, the Rhone Valley. Some of the world’s finest wines are produced along this stretch of river.
The Rhone Valley is considered as one wine region, though it contains two distinct areas with different climates, and is home to different grape varieties. The northern Rhone occupies a 45-mile stretch from Vienne to the city of Valence. The climate here is continental, with hot summers, cool autumns and cold winters. The cool fall weather means that the early-ripening Syrah grape is the single red variety used in the wines.
After a gap of about 37 miles and just south of the city of Montèlimar, the Southern Rhone begins. The climate here is Mediterranean, with hotter and dryer summers, warmer autumns and milder winters. The weather here is perfect for the late-ripening Grenache grape. The wines of the southern Rhone are blends of the signature Grenache, with Syrah and Mourvèdre making up most of the rest. Smaller amounts of Cinsaut and Carignan are sometimes added.
A dominant climatic feature of the Rhone Valley is the strong, cold north wind, known as the Mistral. Because it’s so strong, the vines need to be staked to withstand its onslaught. However, the improved air circulation inhibits diseases and also reduces the size of the grapes, which concentrates their flavors.
Côtes-du-Rhône is a huge wine area that accounts for more than 80% of the production for the region. In fact, it is the second largest appellation next to Bordeaux. The wines are some of the best values in the southern Rhone and maybe the world, and are fruit driven, reliable and perfect for everyday drinking. By appellation law, more than 20 grape varieties are allowed to be used in the blend.
Côtes-du-Rhône wines are medium bodied, loaded with red and black fruit, with fresh acidity and spice, so they are extremely food friendly and pair well with a wide variety of dishes. They are great with any type of meat, whether it is grilled, roasted, braised or stewed.
The village of Gigondas is in the Dentelles de Montmirail Mountains not far from the more famous area of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The wines are blends of up to 80% Grenache, along with at least 15% Syrah and Mourvèdre. Other authorized grape varieties can be used up to a maximum of 10%.
Gigondas is often called a baby Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but I think the wines deserve to stand up on their own. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is more structured and concentrated while Gigondas tends to show more bright fruit and fresh acidity.
Gigondas wines are not cheap, as they cost more than Côtes-du-Rhône, but are considerably less than Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Dollar-for-dollar and given what you get in quality, the wines are a good value. Pair Gigondas with robust stews and casseroles.
Lirac is just across the Rhone River to the west of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The wines are made with varying blends of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvédre and Cinsault. They are loaded with flavors of rich, red berry, blackberry, herb, and baking spices, and often a hint of anise.
Lirac wines are great values, priced somewhere between a Gigondas and a Côtes-du-Rhône. Pair Lirac wines with strong flavored meats like lamb and duck breast. Try it slightly chilled, with grilled fish.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the most famous village and the star of the southern Rhone Valley. Here, Grenache is considered to be at its very best, due to excellent exposure of the vines to the sun. The climate is very hot, so the grapes get fully ripe, sweet and fruity at harvest. Along with Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsaut are also included in the blend; however, the proportions can vary significantly from producer to producer and, in some cases, all 13 permitted grape varieties are included.
These wines can be very age-worthy with incredible depth and concentration. Over time, they develop complex aromas like dried fruit, baking spice, coffee and leather. Châteauneuf-du-Pape pairs with game dishes and foods with intense and complex flavors, as well as beef and lamb dishes.
A Few to Try
• 2015 Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Loaded with aromas and flavors of blackberry, black cherry and black raspberry, with hints of cola and leather. This richly textured wine is drinking well now, but will be better in a few years and for at least another 20 years. Priced in the high $80s.
• 2015 Domaine Le Clos des Cazaux “La Tour Sarrasine” Gigondas. Plush and smooth textured, this full-bodied wine shows lots of red and dark fruit flavors along with notes of spice and licorice. Priced in the mid $20s.
• 2015 Château de Ségriès “Cuvée Réservée” Lirac. Rich and concentrated with aromas and flavors of blackberry and blueberry, with hints of licorice and herb. Priced in the high teens.
• 2015 Domaine Pélaquié Côtes-du-Rhône. Full-flavored with notes of fresh black and blue fruit, spice and a hint of floral. Priced in the mid- to low-teens.
Whether you go for a classic Châteauneuf-du-Pape or a wallet-friendly Côtes-du-Rhône, know it’s easy to fall in love with the red wines of the southern Rhone. Cheers.
Sam Audia is a former advertising and marketing professional with more than 20 years of experience in the wine and spirits industry. He is a Wine Specialist and buyer at Bay Ridge Wine & Spirits, in Annapolis, holds a Certification Diploma from the Sommelier Society of America and Intermediate and Advanced Certificates from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. He can be reached at [email protected].