Wine has been produced in the Rhône Valley for over 500 years, with
some of the vineyards being amongst the oldest in France. Syrah rules, or the south with a mix of
Mediterranean grapes. In the north, the two stars are: Hermitage, grown on an imposing granite hillside
above the town of Tain and best put away in the back of the cellar for a
decade; and Côte Rôtie, a
star appellation made famous by Guigal's single-vineyard wines, yet home to
dozens of fine producers as yet less well known. The sheer hillsides
overlooking the river have to be terraced to make production possible.
St Joseph and Cornas also provide wines of weight and worth,
but the best source for good value is Crozes-Hermitage, a satellite appellation which
has come alive in the last few years with the arrival of young blood.
The river valley widens out south of Valence into Côtes du Rhône country on the windy
alluvial plains and the lower slopes of the hills. It is a most imposing sight
during the cold, clear, blue skies of Mistral conditions. The best of the wine
villages of the Côtes du Rhône have been promoted to their own
appellations - Vinsobres, Vacqueyras - close in quality to the better known
The king of the southern Rhône is Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Here the galets
roulés, rounded rocks from the ancient river bed, provide the context
for gloriously rich red wines, redolent of the heat and the herbs of the south,
enhanced by the complexity which comes from blending several grape varieties.
Thirteen are permitted in all, but Grenache
usually dominates, along with Syrah and Mourvèdre in support. A fine vintage needs
eight to 10 years cellaring for best results.
If your taste runs to fuller, richer, relatively exotic white wines, then
perhaps a white Hermitage or Châteauneuf-du-Pape from the Rhône
Valley would suit better - or else a marvellously perfumed, heady Condrieu, headquarters of the Viognier grape.