Wine has been produced in the Rhône Valley for over 500 years, with some of its vineyards being amongst the oldest in France. Syrah rules over the south with a mix of Mediterranean grapes, while 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 also 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 Gigondas.
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 that are redolent of the heat and herbs of the south, and 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.