A river runs through it. I guess I could’ve called this article by the aforementioned sentence, the title of a pretty incredible book and a decent movie of the same name, but that’s for another time. The Rhone Valley is one of the most incredible places for wine on earth. And right through it meanders the Rhone River (which coincidentally becomes the Rhine once it crosses the border with Germany).
The region boasts three major red and three major white grape varieties. The red are Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. The white are Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne. Wine geeks will always reference these grapes as “Rhone” varietals, even though they are grown all over the world. The growers in California have become a loose affiliation known affectionately as the Rhone Rangers, and these grapes are being cultivated in Spain, Australia, South Africa, Chile and my favorite, Washington State. You can also find Syrah from Oregon’s Umpqua Valley, Viognier grown in Texas and Virginia, and many Rhone varietals in Italy’s Tuscany, Sicily and Sardinia.
The Rhone region itself is divided Northern and Southern, the dividing line delineated by grape variety in simplistic terms. To the North of the region, the only red grape variety permitted is Syrah, though there are some white grape varieties grown as well - Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne primarily. To the South, Grenache is king of the red grapes, and a whole host of red and white grapes are permitted.
One of the region’s most famous AOCs is Chateauneuf-du-Pape, located in the Southern Rhone village of the same name near the town of Avignon. The literal translation is roughly, “the Pope’s new castle,” and was evoked when Pope Clement V relocated the Papal headquarters in 1308, and the subsequent 70 years in the Catholic church were known as the Avignon Papacy. The wine itself was permitted to be a blend of all grape varieties grown in the appellation - red and white and included 4 of the aforementioned primary grapes (Grenache (Noir), Syrah, Mourvedre and Roussanne) as well as red grapes Cinsault, Counoise, Muscardin, Picquepoul Noir, Terret Noir and Vaccarese, and white grapes Bourboulenc, Clairette Blanc, Clairette Rose, Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris, Picardin, Piquepoul Blanc and Piquepoul Gris. 18 grapes in total! Yet few these days go beyond a straight-up Grenache (Noir), Syrah, and Mourvedre blend.
Newer appellations in the Southern part of Rhone include Gigondas (made official in 1971), Vacqueyras (1990), Beaume-de-Venise (2005), Vinsobres (2006), Plan de Dieu (2006) and Gadagne (2012). The wines of this region - Northern and Southern - are remarkable values for the price - at any price - and those building a wine cellar should look at this region for wines that can age well (some such as Hermitage from Northern Rhone and Chateauneuf-du-Pape from the Southern Rhone upwards of twenty years or more).
Take a look at some of these wines:
By Kevin Keith