North and south, two very distinct regions
France’s wine growing “Rhone Valley” in reality covers two very distinct wine growing regions, separated by a vine-free gap of approximately 30 miles.
Whilst the A.O.C. Cotes de Rhone can in theory come from both the North and the South, in practice the two zones producer remarkably distinct wines. By far the greatest volume of wine comes from the flatter rolling hills of the south, home to Chateauneuf-du-Pape and other old favourites like Gigondas, Vacqueras and Lirac, as well as the majority of the ever popular ‘Cotes du Rhone’ . Blending is the order of the day in the South with Grenache forming the backbone of many cuvees. The late ripening Mouvedre is also common, alongside increasing amounts of Syrah plus Carignan, and Cinsaut (and a few others!). The whites are dominated by Marsanne and Roussanne. In the Northern Rhone the landscape is distinctly different, the valley being far steeper and the vineyards more perilous. Here, at least for the reds, Syrah is the undisputed King producing wines of spice, pepper and dark fruits that have the potential to age as long as almost anything out there. When it comes to whites, Marsanne and Roussanne are the most common, but there is also the aromatic delights of Viognier to consider, found at its very finest in the northern vineyards of Condrieu. Up and down the quality scale the Rhone stands out today for offering serious wines made by small quality conscious growers at very reasonable prices. A stellar run of recent vintages (barring the obvious 2002) and a wider pool of quality wine making talent than ever before has see the Rhone in recent years very much regaining its position front of mind for many of the world’s great wine collectors. And the region is not stagnant either. Alongside the great established names such as Rostaing, Chave, Sorrel, Perret, Pegau, Vieux Télégraphe, Clos des Papes and Mont Redon you have plenty of young guns snapping at their heels. An area that seems particularly alive in this respect is Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Domaine de la Barroche, Jean-Paul Versino and Pierre Usseglio are three of the young stars who have already built up great reputations. In the north Cornas and St Joseph are two up and coming regions that are also starting to generate a lot of excitement. The former, renowned for dark inky wines as big in stature as the best Hermitage, has two outstanding producers flying the quality flag Thierry Allemand and new-comer Mathieu Barret of Domaine du Coulet; whilst in the wider St Joseph appellation there are some glorious pockets of vineyard grown on east to south facing granitic slopes, the wines here are very different in style to Cornas, they are less muscular but none the less have the potential to reach a quality, complexity and finesse not far off that of Côte Rôtie. Men such as André Perret, Jean-Louis Chave and François Villard are the region’s great champions.