The Rhône Valley must be fairly unique amongst wine regions in that it is actually two separate regions joined together in name only by a very well-known river.
But the fact that it is so disjointed works very much in its favour as this has led to a massive variety of grape types being used to make wine and a wide-ranging variation in soils and climates. These extremes have resulted in one of the most interesting and diverse vineyard regions in the world which is second only behind Bordeaux in terms of the volume of appellation controlee wine that it produces.
Whilst amphorae have been found in the Rhône Valley dating back to the 1st century BC it is likely that these contained wine from Spain. In AD 71 Pliny the Elder, a noted writer and connoisseur of his day, said that the Allobroges were producing an excellent wine in Vienne and that they fetched a high price. Apparently the Allobroges exported their wine not only to Rome, but also to Britain. After the Romans left no doubt viticulture continued but there are hardly any records left of winemaking until the late Middle Ages and it seems that there was no trade in Rhône wines before the 14th century. The wine made at the time must have been of good quality because when Pope Clement V moved the papal court to Avignon in 1309 three quarters of the wine consumed came from the Rhône.
Urban V moved back to Rome for 3 years from 1367 – 70 and even planted a vine from the Cotes du Rhône there. The final Pope in Avignon, Gregory XI, returned to Rome in 1377 but he and his entourage continued to sup the wines of the Rhône. Chateauneuf-du-Pape owes its name (the Pope’s new castle) thanks to John XXII who had a summer palace 16km north of Avignon.
The success of Rhône wine made the Burgundians to the north jealous. They too had benefitted from the largesse of the papacy and had developed in to a major wine-producing region but did not relish the competition from the south so they basically put severe restrictions on non-Burgundian wine travelling through their territory. These travel restrictions remained in force until the 16th century with the result that the wines of the Rhône were not available in England and the Low countries or Paris until the 17th century. Fortunately transport methods improved and costs fell allowing merchants to divert away from Burgundy and ship their wine from the lower reaches of the Loire.
The northern Rhône is dominated by steep terraces snaking along the river itself. Although it only provides 5% of the total Rhône production it provides the majority of the fine wine for the region with the most notable wines coming from the Cote Rotie and Hermitage appellations. The region is influenced by its continental climate with cold, hard winters and warm summers whose effects are exaggerated by the steep slopes of the vineyards which are expensive to work but maximise the available sunlight. There has been great expansion since the 1980’s as the top vineyards were recognized as being able to craft great value fine wine. Syrah is the only permitted red grape variety whereas white wine lovers can indulge themselves with Viognier, Marsanne and Roussane. Most viticulture and winemaking is undertaken by family holdings but over 50% of the wines are produced by merchants of which the most famous are Guigal, Chapoutier, Jaboulet and Delas. Guigal in particular with his single vineyard holdings in Cote Rotie has done much to raise awareness of the northern Rhône.
This region has only the river in common with the north as the countryside is flatter with much more vegetation and a definite Mediterranean feel and climate. One of the main hazards to successful vine growing is the mistral, a cold wind, that blows down the valley but this is countered by the fact that if drought persists then some limited irrigation is permitted. In contrast to the north most wines are blends with the dominant grape being Grenache rather than Syrah which is further supplemented by Carignan, Cinsaut and Mouvedre. The most well-known appellation is of course Chateauneuf-du-Pape and they famously permit up to 13 different grape varieties to be blended together though in practice this is very rare. Co-operatives dominate and are responsible for about 70% of production but the negociants of the northern Rhône have a long tradition of blending and bottling wine from the southern Rhône. Finally one of the most distinctive traditions is their love of sweet wine with examples from Rasteau, Beaumes de Venise and Rancio.
Wines and producers
- E. Guigal
- Jean-Louis Chave