For ease of describing the Rhône Valley, we will associate the region by two distinct areas: The Northern Rhône and the Southern Rhône. The Northern Rhône, follows the River Rhône essentially from Vienne in the north down to Valence in the south. Many of their vineyards are planted on slopes situated next to the river as the valley is quite narrow and steep. There is a cold strong wind in this area, called the mistral, which can quickly damage the vines, so the valley serves as protection. The black grape variety, Syrah, dominates in the Northern Rhône. In fact, in many of the smaller appellations and crus, it is the only black grape variety allowed and produced. These wines tend to be a deep color and boast bold black fruit flavors with black pepper and florals. There are a few areas that allow for production of the white grape varieties: Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne. Particularly, Condrieu and Château-Grillet appellations have a reputation for high-quality Viognier. The noteworthy crus of Northern Rhône for red wine include (but not limited to) Côte-Rôtie, Saint-Joseph, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, and Cornas.
To the south and closer to the Mediterranean Sea lies the much larger region of the Southern Rhône. With greater vineyard areas, the Southern Rhône is focused on predominantly red wine, but showcasing a vast range of red, white, and rosé wines from high-quality to inexpensive. Here the climate is considerably more warmer than in the north and the vineyards are on flatter terrain. The mistral winds are still of concern, so many of the vines are trained low to the ground for protection. To absorb some of the heat, many of the best vineyard sites have very stony soils. Particularly, in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the stones (or galets) are large and completely cover the soil surface. Black grape varieties Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Cinsault do best in this warm, sunny climate. Hence why you often see the term “GSM” Blend (meaning Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre) coined from this region, which many other regions have now adopted and use for their blends using these grape varietals. While white grape varieties are a minority to this region, Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, and Bourboulenc are grown here. Notable cru areas are Tavel, Lirac, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, and the infamous, Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Generic appellations of Côte du Rhône and Côte du Rhône Villages account for more than half of the entire production with the Southern Rhône, but don’t let the generic term fool you; These appellations, although not cru status, are also putting out some spectacular quality wines!