In this instalment of our guide to French wine, we travel to one of the largest wine-growing regions in the country: the Côtes du Rhône, or the Rhone Valley in English. The vineyards along the valley of one of the greatest rivers in France produce some of the world’s top wines. Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Hermitage, for example, feature as two of the most highly prized labels in any discerning cellar. In this guide, we take a look at the history behind this ancient wine, the areas that produce it and the grapes they grow. We also offer tips on how to combine food with a Côtes du Rhône wine for a foodie match made in heaven.
Côtes du Rhône wines – a bit of history
The Greeks began growing grapes in Marseille a few centuries before the Romans arrived, but it was the Italians who planted the first vineyards along the Rhone. In the first century the Romans discovered the excellent soil along the deep valley, formed in the rift between the Massif Central and the Alps. Easy-river transportation carried the wine to Rome where it had a reputation as one of the most highly-prized.
In medieval times, monks in the area revived grape production and the quality of their wines soon caught the attention of the highest in the Roman Catholic church. The move of the Papal Seat by Pope Clement V to Avignon in 1308 did the rest and Côtes du Rhône wines became the preferred tipple of popes. The most famous Côtes du Rhône label, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, dates back to this time.
Although regulations on the quality and production of Rhone Valley wines were introduced in the 17th century it wasn’t until 300 years later that the area received its first official recognition. Baron le Roy from the Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyards, and something of a pioneer in the valley, obtained Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) status for his wine in 1933. There are now over 30.
Did you know? Côtes du Rhône is the producer of French red wine par excellence – almost 90% are reds with just 3% white and 7% rosé.
The North and South divide
Nestling in the south-west of France, the Rhone Valley forms a corridor from the Mediterranean to Northern Europe. Vines grow along some 250km of the river between Avignon in the south and Vienne in the north. Around 70,000 hectares are under vineyards along the Rhone Valley, the second largest area in France after Burgundy, with a production of 372 million bottles in 2016.
Geological characteristics divide the wine growing areas into two very distinct areas: north and south.
The northern section of the Côtes du Rhône contains almost 20 AOCs and here the wine-growing areas are long and narrow. Confined within the sheer river valleys, vineyards are often impossibly steep. This together with the markedly cooler climate leads to less grape production.
The Syrah grape predominates here to the extent that the area is known as the “kingdom of Syrah”. Among the most famous crus are Côte Rôtie, Condrieu, Château Grillet, Hermitage and Saint Joseph. Red wine produced in the north Côtes du Rhône is strong, almost creamy and has a slightly spicy aftertaste. Whites tend to have a floral bouquet.
The southern part of the valley flattens out allowing vineyards to extend further. Warmer weather allows for greater grape production in the area that contains 12 AOCs. The world famous Châteneauf-du-Pape hails from here as do other prestigious crus such as Beaumes de Venise and Vacqueryras.
Red wine from this part of the Rhone Valley is full bodied with a strong essence of red fruit. Whites are full and punchy, and rosés have a full, fresh taste.
Did you know? Helicopters are used to distribute materials on some of the steepest vineyards in the north where all cultivation and harvest is done by hand.
Main types of grapes in the Rhone Valley
The king of the red grapes is the Grenache, the most widely grown in the area and responsible for the red fruit (blackcurrant mostly) aftertaste in the red wines. Syrah grows exceptionally well in the north and its deep colour – almost black at its best – and peppery taste are key characteristics in Côtes du Rhône wines.
Viognier, a white grape, is unusual in that it’s native to the Rhone Valley. Its perfume has a hint of musk and spices, and gives white wines from the area their unique mellow taste. Marsanne, a fruity grape with a touch of hazelnut, is another white grape that predominates.
However, few Côtes du Rhône wines come with a single grape. The vast majority are a blend of several from different parts of the valley and from different producers.
Did you know? The unique geological characteristics of the Rhone Valley, formed between giant mountain ranges and once flooded by the Mediterranean, give the area its four types of soil: limestone, granite, sandy silica and clay, all present in Côtes du Rhône wines.
Best Côtes du Rhône vintages
Compared to other French wine growing areas, the Rhone Valley has had fewer true vintage years this century. However, some years have been exceptional. In the north, 2015 was one of the best on record with 2010 and 2009 coming a close second. In the south, 2016 was classed by the experts as “a rare vintage”. 2015, 2010 and 2005 were also among the best.
Did you know? Rhone Valley wines are best drunk within three to five years of production. There are exceptions to this rule, but Côtes du Rhône wines are generally not ones to cellar for the grandchildren.
Given their full-body and strong tastes, Rhone Valley reds need food that can match their strength and vitality. They pair well with any meat cooked in any way, but come into their own with heartier dishes. Châteneauf-du-Pape matches exceptionally well with game birds while any Rhone Valley red will love a stew – the local cassoulet is an example. You can even enjoy them at their best with spicy dishes.
Rhone Valley whites offer great pairing with fish and seafood, and go down a treat with goats cheeses. Choose fruit such as locally grown melon or figs for sweet whites from Beaumes de Venise.
Did you know? Rhone Valley whites should be served at between 8 and 10 degrees, and reds at just below room temperature.
Taste Côtes du Rhône wines for yourself
How better to discover the world of Rhone Valley wines than from the river itself and from on board a luxury hotel barge? Our Rhone cruises take you down the majestic river calling at legendary Côtes du Rhône destinations on the way – Valence, Viviers, Châteneauf-du-Pape, Avignon… Visit the vineyards and taste the wines when you dine on board. Book your Rhone Valley voyage of discovery now!
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