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In this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers discusses France’s Rhône Valley. Listeners will learn about all the appellations that make up the region that produces some of the finest red and white wines in the world.
Listeners will also learn about the unique differences between the northern and southern Rhône. The northern Rhône produces 5 percent of the total wine in the Rhône Valley and is best known for its Syrah and Viognier. The southern Rhône produces the other 95 percent of the region’s wine and is more commonly found on the American market. Despite these distinctions, Beavers explains why wines from both Rhône Valley regions are worth tasting.
Tune in to become an expert on the Rhône Valley and its wines.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and I went down a duet rabbit hole this weekend. And I gotta say, “Endless Love” or “Baby Come to Me” are the best duets out there. I miss karaoke so much.
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 13 of VinePair’s “Wine 101 Podcast,” Season 2. My name is Keith Beavers. I’m the tasting director of VinePair. How are you doing?
I’m sure you see Côtes du Rhône or Rhône wine all over the place. Every supermarket, every wine shop. Let’s break it down a little bit to understand, what is the Rhône? What are we doing here? What’s the Rhône? It’s wonderful.
I feel like the words “Côtes du Rhône” American wine drinkers are very familiar with. And it seems like everywhere you go in the United States, no matter whether it’s a wine shop or a boutique wine shop, a liquor store, or a supermarket, there’s always a Côtes du Rhône in the French section. I also feel that Côtes du Rhône is very popular in America, but it’s not so popular like Malbec, where everyone’s ravenous for it. It’s almost a go-to European wine for Americans, which is really cool. The thing is, Côtes du Rhône is just one wine that comes from the Rhône Valley in France.
When you buy an affordable Côtes du Rhône on a Tuesday night for burgers, you’re just scratching the surface of the possibilities of what you can enjoy from the Rhône. Partly why we’re secretly obsessed with Côtes du Rhône wine and the reason why it’s on all the shelves, I think, is because in the 1980s, there was a small group of winemakers in California. One of them was Randall Grahm from Bonny Doon. There was Bob Lindquist from Qupé. They decided it was their mission in life to make wine from varieties that were native to the Rhône Valley. These were grapes that were just sitting around in California in vineyards, not really being paid attention to. They decided to grab that by the horns and create this new style of California wine at a time when Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay were the dominant wines of the region.
I believe this is the moment in our history where we started being curious about wines made from grapes that are pretty much native to or thrive in the Rhône Valley. Today, besides just the ubiquitous Côtes du Rhône wine, which is awesome and we’re going to get to it, but there are so many other great wines from the Rhône. You may not know it because it doesn’t say Côtes du Rhône on the bottle all the time. Let’s get you familiar with the Rhône wine region of France, because the Rhône Valley growing region of France has a dual personality. Let’s get into it.
The Rhône River begins in a mountain reservoir in south-central Switzerland. It then flows west through Switzerland, through the Alps. It dumps into Lake Geneva, and then continues on the other side of that lake, eventually making its way into France. Once this river gets into France, it starts to head south. As it gets further south, when it gets past the town of Lyon, it begins to cut through the Central Massif and the Alps. The Central Massif is that large piece of land we talked about in the Burgundian episode. From Lyon, it goes south and cuts through a very continental climate full of schist and granite. As it moves south, it leaves this continental granite-like land and goes into a more Mediterranean climate, where the land flattens out a little bit. It’s a lot warmer. And eventually, it dumps into the Mediterranean. This is the Rhône River.
The thing about the Rhône River is it is one of the major trade rivers throughout the history of Europe. Thus, humans have been hanging out around this river for a very long time. Wine has been around for a long time. This is Europe. This is France. We had the Greeks doing it. We had the Romans there. The dukes of Burgundy were there. Wine has been made for a long time in a lot of places in Europe. As usual, the history is deep, complex with twists and turns. I love it, and I can’t talk all about it, but just know that there’s been human activity here for a very long time. One of the reasons why we can’t get into all these really fun and cool stories is because this region is pretty huge. It spans 150 miles of the Rhône River, from Lyon down to the Mediterranean. From Lyon, going south, the first 60 or so miles of this river is what is considered the northern Rhône. It’s one section of the Rhône wine-growing region.
Then there’s about a 25-miles-or-so gap along the river between vineyards. Then, the last 60 miles or so is what is called the southern Rhône. A good way to start understanding this region is that there is the northern Rhône and then there was the southern Rhône. With that big gap between the two wine-growing regions, it’s pretty interesting why it’s all one region. It’s all in this one valley, but they are very different wine regions within this region. It’s almost as if a wine-growing region has dual personalities. The northern part of the Rhône only produces about 5 percent of the total output of the entire region. It’s here in these granite, poor soils that hug the Rhône River where Syrah shines the brightest. This is also the area where they believe the vine was first cultivated in this area when it was called Gaul back in the day before the Romans.
In the northern Rhône, Syrah is the only red variety allowed to be grown and made into wine. For white, it’s a grape called Viognier. For the northern Rhône, because it produces so much less than the south, I can get a little bit into it. The most northern appellation of the northern Rhône is an appellation called Côte-Rôtie, otherwise known as the roasted slope. It’s named that because of the way the vineyards are trained. They get a ton of sun but what you guys should know about the Côte-Rôtie region is that it is small and the majority of the wines are expensive. The unique thing about this appellation is that they often blend Syrah with the white wine Viognier. It’s an absolutely stunning result for a wine. You have this roasted, peppery, awesome Syrah blended with this very floral, aromatic Viognier, which makes these awesome, supple, smooth wines. They’re expensive, but if you get a chance, wow.
Now, this is on the left bank of the river. As we keep going south on the left bank, we hit the next appellation called Condrieu. I’m so bad at French. But this wine appellation only does Viognier. It’s a small appellation so it can be expensive but this appellation is how America fell in love with Viognier. If you see Viognier a lot in California, that is because of the popularity of this appellation. When done right, Viognier is stunning, almost dizzying with its floral notes, very aromatic. It’s a very satisfying white wine when it’s done in small quantities and this appellation does it.
Still in that bank of the river going south, you hit this large appellation called Saint-Joseph. You will see a good amount of Saint-Joseph on the market. If it’s red, it’s going to be all Syrah. It gets very close to the crazy, pure expressions I’ll talk about in a second but it’s awesome. It’s affordable, spicy, peppery, and it’s good. They also make white wine, and it’s not Viognier. There are two other white wine varieties in the Rhône that are often made and blended together with a grape by the name of Marsanne and a grape by the name of Roussanne. The wines made from these grapes are super cool. They’re almost savory, a little bit peppery, oily but not in a bad way. It has a viscosity to them, beautiful stuff. White Saint-Joseph would probably be a blend of one of those two, not Viognier. Viognier stops at Condrieu.
From the middle of Saint-Joseph, if you cross the river over to the right bank, there is a hill right on the river. That hill is full of granite, and it is its own little appellation that makes some of the best, most expressive Syrah in the world. If you follow me on Instagram @VinePairKeith, at one point I had an opportunity to taste one of these wines recently. No words, it will blow your mind. Some of the smokiest, peppery, savoriest, umami-est, concentrated, age-worthy wine in the world is grown on the Hill of Hermitage. It’s named after a knight that was in the Crusades. He came back and ended up being a hermit on that hill. It’s a legend. I don’t even know if it’s real or not, but this is it. This is the pinnacle of Syrah. It’s expensive stuff.
Wines from Hermitage will age 30 years or more. This is where Syrah is. It’s everything, but it’s expensive. It’s almost impossible to approach, only on special occasions and all that. However, what’s really awesome is there’s a larger appellation that surrounds that small little hill. It’s called Crozes-Hermitage. This area also grows primarily Syrah. It’s not just going to have that crazy concentration as you would get in Hermitage, but it’s a larger appellation, and it is an awesome expression of Syrah. Whereas Saint-Joseph is dark, smoky, easy to drink, and more depth of fruit, the Syrah from Crozes-Hermitage has this awesome bright, cinnamon orange peel feel to them, along with the pepper and along with the savory. They’re a little bit lighter, they’re a little more acidity, they’re very approachable. They do whites here as well, and it’s usually a blend of Roussanne and Marsanne. But it’s the Syrah’s in Crozes-Hermitage that I think is a great introduction to a Syrah from the northern Rhône. Then, you can move around from there, but Crozes-Hermitage is an awesome place.
Back over on the left bank just south of Saint-Joseph, is one of the smallest wine regions in France called Cornas. This place is the deep, dark, concentrated wine that Saint-Joseph can’t be. It is a nice, age-worthy alternative to the craziness of Hermitage. The Syrahs in Cornas are deep, dark, and smoky and have almost a mocha-heaviness to them. They’re just powerful wines and they can age a long time as well, but they’re approachable earlier than the wines of Hermitage. That’s basically the northern Rhône we’re going to see on the market. There are a couple of other small things going on in the northern Rhône that we don’t really see so much here. There is an estate that is literally one appellation. There’s also an area that does sparkling wine from Roussanne and Marsanne, but you’re not going to see a lot of that here.
With the northern Rhône, if you noticed when you see the wine labels, you’re going to see Saint-Joseph, you’re going to see Condrieu. You’re not going to see Côtes du Rhône. You’re just going to see those words. The northern Rhône is not something you’ll see on a label, but those appellations I just mentioned are what you will see. If you see Saint-Joseph, you know, “OK, northern Rhône, that’s only Syrah, I got it.”
Now, everything changes 25 miles south of the northern Rhône. The northern Rhône is basically 5 percent of the total output of the Rhône region. The southern Rhône is the other 95 percent. The majority of the wine from the Rhône that we see on the market, in the United States, is from the southern Rhône. It is huge! It’s very flat land. It’s not as hilly and granitic as far as the continental climate. We’re in a Mediterranean climate here. It sprawls out and is centered around this city called Orange. This is a much warmer area. It gets more sun, and Syrah doesn’t jive well in this area. It doesn’t ripen that well. Down here, there’s a whole different list of varieties that are used that are not used in the north. There’s a couple, but not much. Actually, there are well over 20 varieties of grape that are allowed to be used in the southern Rhône to make wine. It’s crazy.
This is where Châteauneuf-du-Pape is, one of the most famous noble wine regions in France, in the southern Rhône. This is the area where the blueprint for the appellation system of France, which inspired every other country, this is where it began. And part of it was in response to fraud because of the popularity of the wine in the area. Crazy cool story, I wish I could tell you all of it but what I will say, what’s important is the number of varieties that are used in this place is a result of that. It was a list of varieties that were in the area that could be used. To this day, you can still use them. The thing is, the majority of the winemakers in this area basically use two varieties, Grenache and Mourvèdre. There are other varieties like Carignan, Counoise, and Cinsault were other red varieties of grapes they used to blend into it.
Then, there are all these other varieties you can use, and that’s a general statement. Trends change because Mourvèdre is more popular today. It wasn’t always that popular, but those are the main varieties. There are all these other varieties that winemakers can use to make small amounts and blends to make the individual wines their own. There’s some white wine here, but the Rhône Valley in general, wine lovers, is a red wine region. There is white wine being made in the south, Châteauneuf-du-Pape does have white wine and in some other areas and it’s usually going to be a blend of Roussanne and Marsanne. It’s just a very, comparatively, extremely small amount.
This is how the southern Rhône shakes out for you guys to understand. It’s a three-tiered system. I want to start from the outside, and I’m going to work in. At the beginning of this episode, I talked about a wine called Côtes du Rhône. This category is almost 50 percent of the entire output of the Rhône. If the southern Rhône has 95 percent of the output, the majority of the Côtes du Rhône that you’re buying for $15 a bottle is going to be from the southern Rhône. Now, some of the grapes might be sourced from the northern Rhône. Côtes du Rhône AOC appellation from France can have wine from anywhere in the valley, north or south. That’s almost 200 villages with vines they can source from. That’s why it’s usually good, young burger wine.
Then there’s Côtes-du-Rhône Villages. You remember the village idea from the Burgundy episode. It’s basically villages. This is a category of wine in the Rhône where you’re getting a little more geographical. You’re not necessarily going to be sourcing from all over the Rhône. You’re sourcing from 48 specific villages and the vines within those villages. Those villages at some point, if they gain reputation in recognition, can be elevated to the next category. That category is Côtes-du-Rhône Villages as well, but with a geographical name. Right now, and it’ll always change, but there are 21 villages that can put their names on the label. I can’t go through all the names now and some are pretty long, but when you’re going to a wine shop you can say, “Can I get a Côtes-du-Rhône Villages with a geographical name to it?” They’ll know what you’re talking about.
The next level itself is an actual appellation. You’ve gone from Côtes-du-Rhône in general, to Côtes-du-Rhône Villages, to Côtes-du-Rhône Villages with an actual geographical name, to that geographical name becoming the actual appellation. That’s when we have Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Vacqueyras, and Gigondas. Actually, before 2009, I sold Côtes-du-Rhône Rasteau, which was a village with a geographical name. Then, after 2009, a couple of vintages later, I sold just “Rasteau” because it was elevated from a village with a geographical name to an actual appellation. It’s crazy, it’s wine. This stuff happens all the time. In all these Gigondas and Vacqueyras that I mention, when you see the bottle, it’s just going to say that. It’s not going to say Côtes-du-Rhône, it’s just going to say Vacqueyras, Gigondas, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
These are all wines that are blends of what is being used in the area, but because of their terroir and because of their traditions of making wine in those areas, they are different. Therefore, they can be separated out and called their own thing. It’s how wine works. If you guys have ever had Châteauneuf-du-Pape or any of the wines from the southern Rhône that are actually from these deep concentrated appellations, is they’re big, full-bodied wines. Across the river from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône River, is one of the only primarily rosé regions in France called Tavel. Provence does a bunch of rosé, but they also do red wine and white wine.
Tavel only does rosé. This is very cool. The varieties are Grenache, Mourvèdre, and a little bit of Claret, which is a white blending variety. These rosés are deep ruby red. They’re refreshing and serve chilled, of course, but they have moderate acidity. There’s more weight on the palate, but they are savory. You sometimes get a little bit of tannin in there, and what’s cool about the rosé wines of Tavel is that they actually age. I’ve heard of them aging up to 10 years, but the norm is five years. They don’t get a lot of play on the American market, but when you find one, grab it. They’re really cool, and they’re awesome with food.
All right, guys, that is a Rhône Valley snapshot. That is the Rhône. Now, you can go out there into wine shops, go to the Rhône section and say, “I know what all of that means. Is that a Châteauneauf-du-Pape? That’s 100 percent Syrah. Syrah is really good. Oh, Gigondas? I know the blend.”
That is going to be so much fun. Enjoy!
@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcast from. It really helps get the word out there. And now, for some totally awesome credits.
“Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. And I mean, a big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Published: April 22, 2021