Tuesday, January 12, 2010

CQ's Wine Guide to France Part 6: Rhone


The wines of the Rhone are not classified into a cru system. Varietals are usually blended and some appellations are very large while others are miniscule. To make matters even more confusing, red and white varietals are often blended. The only rule of thumb exists in that Northern Rhone reds are typically dominated by Syrah and those of the South are usually made mostly from Grenache. Otherwise the style of the wines is highly dependent on ratings and cultural bias and must be individually discussed.


For the most part, the climate in the Rhone is hot. To the north, the vineyards are also swept by the Mistral, a wind that blows through and cools vineyards during the hot summer. The hot sun and persistent sunlight causes optimal ripening of grapes and makes the vines vigorous. Grape growers often go through vineyards clipping off whole bunches of grapes during the summer and cutting back leaves so the vines put their energy into the ripening of remaining grape clusters. For white wine production, the struggle is to keep acidity in the grapes, so the best whites come from high elevations.

Northern Rhone
  1. Hermitage: mostly Syrah, up to 10% Marsanne and Roussane allowed. Syrupy, fruity wines. Rich and full-bodied
  2. Cote Rotie: Mostly Syrah, up to 10% Viognier. “Roasted Coast”. Full, rich, gamey wines.
  3. Condrieu: 100% Viognier. The best wines have a peachy, floral nose with undertones of bacon, and are crisp and citrusy on the palate.
  4. Cornas: 100% Syrah. Earthy, full-throttle red wines.
  5. Cotes-du-Rhones: usually a combination of Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre. Producer often determines quality of the wines. Some good values still to be had.
Southern Rhone
  1. Chateauneuf du Pape: Traditionally Grenache dominated, but new world style producers are favoring Syrah. Up to thirteen different varietal allowed, both white and red. Large population of Bretanonmyces yeasts can give some wines a fashionable leathery smell. Some connoisseurs view this as a flaw.
  2. Gigondas: Grenache based. Scents of garrigue and bright cherries. The names means “happy place” in the local dialect.
  3. Vacqueyras: Serious Grenache based wines with a decidedly earthy and tannic edge.
  4. Beaumes-de-Venise: Sweet fortified wine made from Muscat (blanc a petits grains). Vin Doux Naturel winemaking was patented in the 15th by the King of Majorca and codified by Arnauld de Villaneuve hundreds of years before Port or Sherry were being fortified.
  1. Syrah – thick skinned, tannic red grape. Medium to full-bodied wines with forward fruit and spice and often a gamey edge. The best examples are made in the Northern Rhone, although some Chateauneuf du Pape producers are favoring this varietal now.
  2. Grenache – extremely vigorous varietal that likes heat and dry soils. Often mistaken for Pinot Noir in blind tasting, medium bodied, medium tannins, floral or herbal scented. Favored in the Southern Rhone.
  3. Mourvedre – Thick skinned, high tannin, deeply colored, spicy, and gamey. Added to Cote-du-Rhone especially for body, texture, and structure. Also favored in Provence and other parts of Southern France.
  4. Viognier – Highly aromatic grape used in the Northern Rhone exclusively in Condrieu and Chateau Grillet appellations. Medium to full-bodied wines that tend to lack acid unless grown at high altitudes.
  5. Roussane – The famed white grape of Hermitage. Similar to Viognier aromatically but with more acid. Often combined with Marsanne, a “filler grape”, with similar but less complex characteristics.
Major Producers
  1. Guigal: Highly regarded producer making negociant and estate wines in the Northern Rhone. Innovator green harvest and individual berry selection before fermentation.
  2. Chateau Beaucastel: Famous producer of Chateauneuf. Grenache based wines often inflicted with “Bret” giving them a very gamey nose. Highly sought after cult wines
  3. Chateau Grillet: Monopole AOC in the Northern Rhone producing high acid Viognier wines at a high elevation.
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