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Rhône Valley Reds – A Brief Overview

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The Rhône Valley benefits from a unique terroir that leads to fruit-forward, notable red wines for collecting and everyday enjoyment

The heart and soul of the Rhône Valley can be found in its distinctive grape Syrah.  Most Americans probably learned about Syrah by its alter-ego name Shiraz, which is how the Aussies refer to it, as do the South Africans.  Many wine enthusiasts have sipped this varietal wine while debating whether its origin is French or Middle Eastern.  Recently, DNA testing has helped quell the discussion as the grape has been shown to be a cross between Dureza and Mondeause Blanc, clearly French.

A Ginormous Region

The northern climate of the Rhône Valley is continental with strong winds called mistrel, which often damage the vines.  The steep-banked vineyards travel along the Rhône River and stretch from Lyon at the southern end of Beaujolais to Avignon, covering roughly 120 miles.  There’s an empty stretch of 30 miles creating a natural gap, which delineates the north from the south region.

Distinguished appellation of Crozes-Hermitage

Northern Rhone Syrah from Crozes Hermitage

There are eight appellations in northern Rhône.  The most noteworthy Rhône Valley reds are:

  • Côte-Rôtie (which means roasted hillside) and Hermitage enjoy the most well-regarded reputations for producing expensive, age-worthy wines.
  • Cornas only produces 100% Syrah wines since blending is not allowed.
  • In Condrieu and Château Grillet, Syrah is frequently blended with Viognier for increased fragrance.
  • Crozes-Hermitage, near the town of Tain, produces many blended fruit-driven, soft tannin Syrahs designed for early consumption.  They are not heavy with alcohol and pack a blueberry and blackberry flavor profile.  The blending partner for Syrah in this region is Marsanne, as it provides balance.

The northern and southern Rhône Valleys are quite dissimilar when comparing viticulture.  In southern regions, with its 12 appellations, the main blending partner of Syrah is Grenache.  These wines are intensely flavorful with mellowed tannins due to oak aging.

It is not uncommon for winemakers to combine up to ten varietals in a Rhone Valley red wine blend.  This reliance on blending produces medium to full-bodied wine with high alcohol and relatively low acidity and tannins. They are also much more affordable. The largest appellation, Côtes du Rhône accounts for more than 60% of production.  Ninety villages in southern Rhône are allowed to use the designation Côtes du Rhône-Villages, signaling higher-quality production.

Wine Cave in France

Northern Rhone Syrah aging in barrels

Southern Rhône

The most distinguished appellations in southern Rhône are:

  • World-renown Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where the blending is ratcheted up allowing for upwards of 13 different varietals.  The primary blending partners are Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah and Cinsaut. The galets, large rounded stones that have been washed down the mountains during the violent storms are a signature trademark of this area.
  • Tavel has carved out an exceptional reputation for rosés made from Grenache and Cinsaut, primarily.
  • In Vacqueyras, wines are bold, complex and richly textured.  The region earned crus status in 1990. Blends are typically 60-70% Grenache with the balance Syrah  and/or Mourvèdre, and when barrel aged use the old foudre or cement vats.

Other top crus include Rasteau, Gigondas and Lirac.  Grenache Noir and Carignan are two more red wines of the Rhône Valley.

If you haven’t tried French Syrah, the closet flavor profile would be a California Zinfandel as both show flavors of black currant, spice and cedar. Santé!

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