Lesson 9 – The Rhône

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Sommelier School

Lesson 9

The Rhône


During the Summer Semester we covered the two best known areas of France so far – Bordeaux and Burgundy. With the start of the Fall Semester we will now move on to the Rhône. The Rhône area of France is located in the Southeast part of the country. It is nestled between Burgundy to the north and Provence and Languedoc to the south. The Rhône itself is divided into a North and South.  Out of the two areas, the Southern Rhône produces about 90% of all the wine from the entire region. As a result, most of the value wines of the Rhône come from the South. The North is predominantly Syrah while the South is predominantly Grenache. However, these are not the only two varietals used. Many more are used depending on the AOC which I’ll cover below. As far as style, the southern wines will tend to be more approachable early being Grenache-based. Northern Rhône wines typically need longer to mature being Syrah-based. Also, the vast majority of the wine produced here is red; over 90% in fact. Rosé wines are next at about 6% and white make up the remainder.

Source: Oeuvre personnelle via Wikipedia

Author: Lofo7

Something that affects the entire Rhône is call the mistral. This is a cold, dry wind typically from the northwest that can blow at high speeds (up to 90mph). Growers are known to plant their young vines at an angle to counteract this wind. Also, trees (usually Poplar and Cypress) are used to help block the wind. One of the benefits from the mistral is it can help prevent frost from developing. However, it can literally blow off the fruit, shoots, and leaves from the vines. Related to this is the climate. The Northern Rhône is considered a continental climate. Remember that means colder winters and warmer summers. The Southern Rhône is considered a Mediterranean climate. This means it is more prone to sudden change and storms than the north, but has milder winters and hot summers.

 Let’s start with the North. The North AOCs are:

  • Côte Rôtie
  • St-Joseph
  • Condrieu
  • Château-Grillet
  • Crozes-Hermitage
  • Hermitage
  • Cornas
  • St-Péray
  • Clairette de Die – Not always considered part of Northern Rhône
  • Châtillon-en-Diois – Not always considered part of Northern Rhône

Of these AOCs the most well know are Côte Rôtie, Condrieu, and Hermitage. Let’s go into more detail with these right now.

Côte Rôtie means the “roasted slopes.” And during the summer the sun’s heat is roasting these slopes. Wine from this area has been made since the 2nd Century BC when the Romans entered the area. The main grape here is Syrah. However, up to 20% Viognier can be used in the blend. Normally this percentage is around 5. One thing to note about this AOC is the regulation that the grapes need to be cofermented. So instead of each varietal being fermented separately and then blended for bottling, the blend is determined prior to fermentation. Viognier is used to add a floral component to the wine to combine with typically bacon components from the Syrah. Wines from here can last up to 25 years.


When it comes to the soil, there are two main types based upon which side of the mountain the vines are on. The northern side, also known as Côte Brune (brown slope), is predominantly made up of iron-rich schist. Schist is a fancy name for mineral-rich rock with minerals such as micas, chlorite, talc, hornblende, and graphite. The southern side, also known as Côte Blonde, is a granite and schist soil. Other aspects of these areas are the difficulty in maintaining the vineyards. Slopes of up to 60% gradient prevent automation. A system of pulleys and and monorails are necessary. With these steep slopes also introduces the factor of erosion. To combat that growers use various methods such as walls, terracing (like cutting steps into the mountain), and literally move soil washed down the slopes up to the top in buckets. What is so important with this soil is it’s ability to store heat from the day to help keep the vines warm at night.

Next we will talk about Condrieu. Just south of Côte Rôtie, here it is the white grape Viognier that is king. Wines here are made with 100% Viognier. Long ago, wines from here were sweet to semi-sweet. Over time the winemakers have moved to a dry white. Like Côte Rôtie, winemaking has been happening here since Roman times. This difference is that it is thought that the Viognier grape is native Condrieu whereas the Syrah grape was brought to Côte Rôtie. The soil here becomes more granite. The climate is the same as Côte Rôtie also. In Condrieu they also have hard to reach slopes where the Viognier loves to grow. Within Condrieu there is a community called Château-Grillet that also produces only Viognier by a single producer.

On to Hermitage. Hermitage is near the southern part of this region. It is also very small. Currently only 345 acres under vine. Legend says that the Knight Gaspard de Stérimberg returned from the Albigensian Crusade and was given permission by the Queen of France to build a small refuge in which to recover from his wounds. Once there he became a hermit. The AOC is located on a south-facing slope (protected from the mistral) overlooking the town of Tain. Just like the rest of Rhône, Syrah is the main grape. However up to 15% total of the white varietals Roussanne and Marsanne are permitted. Wines from this AOC are highly regarded and can last up to 30 years. There are white wines made from a blend of Roussanne and Marsanne with Marsanne being the main varietal used. 

Within Hermitage, there are marked differences in quality depending on where the vineyards are on the slopes. And while the slopes may not be as steep as Côte Rôtie, they are still steep enough to prevent automation. Soils here are mostly granite with limestone and flint. Terracing is also used here to help with erosion. Many vineyards were ranked, so to speak, by wine the wine merchant André Jullien in the late 19th century. Wines from here were also used to help with the quality of Bordeaux wines. And even the ancient Roman writers Pliny and Martial praised the wines from here.

Worth mentioning with Hermitage is also Crozes-Hermitage. This AOC surrounds Hermitage on its eastern side. It follows the same regulations as Hermitage for its red wines – Syrah with up to a total of 15% Roussanne and Marsanne. Whites are also Roussanne and Marssanne. While the overall quality is not of the same level as Hermitage, and can vary greatly, it is still considered decent. 

 Next we will hit the South. The South AOCs are:

  • Côtes du Rhône – Technically able to be used in the North, but very rare
  • Côtes du Rhône Villages
  • Côtes du Rhône Villages – 20 specific villages
  • Côtes de Vivarais
  • Coteaux de Tricastin
  • Châteauneuf-du-Pape
  • Haut-Comat
  • Lirac
  • Gigondas
  • Beaumes-de-Venise
  • Tavel
  • Côtes de Ventoux
  • Coteaux de Pierrevert
  • Côtes du Lubéron

Of these we will concentrate on a few. Namely Côtes du Rhône and Villages, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

First let’s take care of Côtes de Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages. Côtes du Rhône is an all-encomapssing AOC for the Rhône region. While technically wines from Northern Rhône can be made under this AOC, almost all of these wines are from the south. The reason for this is that most of the north has already been designated with AOCs and there aren’t many vineyards outside on an established AOC. 

This AOC is basically the basis of the modern system in France. To quote Wikipedia (just because it’s worded so well):

“In the mid 17th century the right-bank district of Côte du Rhône had issued regulations to govern the quality of its wine and in 1737 the king ordered that casks of wine shipped from the nearby river port of Roquemaure should be branded with the letters CDR to introduce a system of protecting its origin. The rules for its Côte du Rhône thus formed the very early basis of today’s nationwide AOC system governed by the INAO. The name was changed to Côtes du Rhône when the left-bank wines were included in the appellation some hundred years later. The appellation received full recognition by a High Court decision in 1937, and the rules were revised in 1996 and 2001 to take into account new conditions of production.”

Reds, whites, and Rosés are all made within this AOC. The regulations concerning varietals are:

  • Reds and Rosés – Must contain up to 40% Grenache (except in the Northern Rhône where Syrah is the pricipal varietal), plus Syrah and/or Mouvèdre. Up to 30% total of any of the following: Camarèse, Carignan, Cinsault, Clairette Rosé, Counoise, Grenache Gris, Muscardin, Vaccarèse, Picpoul Noir, and Terret Noir. For white grapes, up to 5% total of the following can be used: Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Picpoul, Rousanne, Bourboulenc, Ungi Blanc, and Viognier.
  • Whites – These must have a minimum blend of 80% Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, Bourboulenc, and Viognier. After that, up to 20% total of Ugni Blanc and/or Picpoul.

For the more specific Côtes du Rhône Villages, these are considered higher quality wines. There are 95 communities that can use this AOC, however currently only 18 can actually put their name at the end of the AOC (e.g. Côtes du Rhône Rasteau AOC) referred to as Côtes du Rhône Villages + named village. Again reds, whites, and rosés are produced. The regulations concerning varietals are: 

  • Reds – Must contain up to 50% Grenache plus a minimum of 20% Syrah and/or Mouvèdre. Up to 20% total of any of the following: Camarèse, Carignan, Cinsault, Clairette Rosé, Counoise, Grenache Gris, Muscardin, Vaccarèse, Picpoul Noir, and Terret Noir. 
  • Whites – The approved varietals are Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, Bourboulenc, and Viognier.
  • Rosés – Must contain up to 50% Grenache plus a minimum of 20% Syrah and/or Mouvèdre. Up to 20% total of any of the following: Camarèse, Carignan, Cinsault, Clairette Rosé, Counoise, Grenache Gris, Muscardin, Vaccarèse, Picpoul Noir, and Terret Noir. For white varietals up to 20% total of:  Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, Bourboulenc, and Viognier, and up to 20% Ugni Blanc and/or Picpoul. 

For just Côtes du Rhône Villages the wines must be at least 12% alcohol. For those that can append their village name, they must be at least 12.5% alcohol for the reds and 12.0% alcohol for the whites and rosés. All of the Côtes du Rhône Villages + named village are in Southern Rhône. Here is a list of those villages: 

  • Cairanne
  • Chusclan
  • Laudun
  • Massif d’Uchaux
  • Plan de Dieu
  • Puyméras
  • Rasteau
  • Roaix
  • Rochegude
  • Rousset-les-Vignes
  • Sablet
  • Saint Gervais
  • Saint Maurice
  • Saint-Pantaléon-les-Vignes
  • Séguret
  • Signargues
  • Valréas
  • Visan

Next we will cover Châteauneuf-du-Pape. This is the center-piece and darling of Rhône. Historically tied to Pope Clement V, who moved the papacy to Avignon as he was previously the Archbishop of Bordeaux. For 70 years, the papacy was located here.  While there was wine being grown in the area, it wasn’t know for it’s quality. The Popes here were fond of Burgundian wines. Over time however, the quality of the wines here improved as the Popes also were drinking the local wines. The wines here became known as Vin du Pape. Pope Clement V’s successor, Pope John XXII built the castle here that became known as Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The entire AOC is located between Avignon and Orange.

As far as the soil, the popular story is that it is composed of galets, a round stone that absorbs heat well. Galets are not found everywhere in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. However where it is found, its heat-absorbing properties are welcome. Other parts of Châteauneuf-du-Pape do not require galets as they would do more harm than good – mostly on south-facing slopes. 

As an AOC, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the first. In 1923 the first AOC rules were created for Châteauneuf-du-Pape to help prevent fraud. Part of those rules specified 10 different varietals that can be used to make the wines from here. In 1936 those rules were changed to allow 13 varietals. In addition to this, the land that can be used to grow these varietals must be arid enough to grow lavender and thyme. The minimum alcohol level also must be at least 12.5% though it is usually at least 14%.  

Like previously mentioned, 13 varietals are approved to be used in Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine. In actuality, 15 varietals are allowed as there are two that have a Noir and Blanc version. Grenache is normally the main varietal blended with Syrah, and Mouvèdre. After that Cinsault and Counoise are the most used. The remaining varietals are Vaccarèse, Picpoul Noir, Picpoul Blanc, Muscardin, Terret Noir, Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Roussanne, and Picardan. Even though all 13/15 varietals are available to be used, very few producers actually use all 13/15. And only one grows and uses all of them – Château de Beaucastel.

A small amount of white wines are made here. About 5% total. These wines normally are a blend of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Bourboulenc, Clairette, and Picpoul Blanc. Rosé wines are not allowed in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. 

The other AOCs here in the Southern Rhône are worth exploring but outside the scope and depth for this lesson. Two AOCs to consider though are Gigondas and Tavel. Gigondas is known as the little brother of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. However, it doesn’t follow the same regulations. Its red must be a maximum of 80% Grenache and at least 15% Syrah and Mourvèdre. The remainder (10% max) of quite a few other varietals. Tavel is known for its dry rosés. The primary varietals are normally Grenache and Cinsault. Syrah and Mourvèdre are also added.

The Rhône can be a very interesting place for wine. We only scratched the surface of it, but this is enough to give you the basics of what to know. I hope you were able to learn a lot here. Next week we will cover the Loire Valley.


Mark V. Fusco

Aspiring Sommelier in Training

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