Home > Rhone 2020 En Primeur > A guide to Southern Rhone
This fascinating region is home to some of France’s most characterful and best-value wines. Here Mark Pardoe MW explains how to navigate the Southern Rhône, from Châteauneuf-du-Pape where terroir speaks volumes, to the village wines where climate is key.
We tend to talk about the wines of the Rhône Valley as a single entity, but the Northern and Southern regions are very different. Not only is the North (known as septentrionale in French) much smaller and more densely planted than the South, but also its climate is continental. In addition, in the North the only permitted red grape variety is Syrah.
The South (méridionale) has a Mediterranean climate, which is accompanied periodically by the cold and persistent Mistral wind. Here, Grenache dominates the red wines, albeit supported by a wide canon of other varieties, including Syrah. You could say that the only thing the two regions have in common is the name of the river that connects them.
The Southern Rhône is not just different from the North; it’s also not like any other major wine region in France. When you travel through Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne or, indeed, the Northern Rhône, you have a sense of rolling waves of vineyards planted on all the available land. The Southern Rhône is much less homogeneous: it’s a land of mixed farming, with olives, lavender, sunflowers or artichokes just as prevalent as vines.
Climate, not terroir
The focal point of the South is Châteauneuf-du-Pape, whose vineyards are planted predominantly, but not exclusively, on land covered by galets roulés (pudding stones) from glacial deposits. The best wines here are famous, collectable, heady and powerful, and dominated by Grenache – but this is about as precise as Southern Rhône terroir becomes. In fact, it could be argued that the wines of the Southern Rhône are defined more by climate than geology.
So, away from the touchstone of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, it can be difficult to navigate the wines of the Southern Rhône. The region is responsible for most of the volume from the Rhône (the North produces only 5%), with much of it is sold as simple Côtes du Rhône. This means there are extremes of price and quality. Yet – partly because of its more disparate identity and less reliance on terroir – this is home to some of the most creative wine producers in France. There is also superb value for money to be found.
Value and Villages
A good place to begin is with the Côtes du Rhône Villages – a big appellation lying mostly north-east of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The best known of the villages, like Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Vinsobres, are permitted to sell their wines under their village name, and the best can command prices approaching Châteauneuf-du-Pape. But there is value to be found in the other promoted villages, such as Rasteau, Cairanne and, especially, Lirac. This latter village sits apart from the others to the west of the Rhône, and tends to be rather overlooked.
There are many more candidates that can identify themselves by adding their name to the Côtes du Rhône-Villages appellation. Some are rarely seen, but Massif d’Uchaux, Visan and Valréas are worth seeking out.
Here is a selection of the Côtes du Rhône Villages, with those entitled to be sold just by the name of the village in bold. The rest (of which there are 20, and rising) must append their regional name to the appellation: Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Vinsobres, Cairanne, Rasteau, Beaumes de Venise (for red as well as sweet), Lirac, Tavel (only for rosé), Valréas, Visan, Rochegude, Séguret, Massif d’Uchaux, Plan de Dieu.
Yet the presence of a village name is not in itself a guarantee of better quality. Some are little better than “ordinary” Côtes du Rhône, so other clues need to be sought.