All About Rhône Wines Contributed by Jeff Pipes, Pipestone Winery
The Rhône River flows through eastern France and empties into the Mediterranean Sea. Generally, this wine growing area is blessed by a warm, sunny Mediterranean climate very similar to that in California. It receives very little summer rain and the grapes are able to become very ripe. Unlike in most of the wine producing regions of France (Burgundy and Bordeaux) where it rains all summer and rarely gets above 85 degrees.
You will hear people talk about many different Rhone wine districts, but essentially you can simplify it into Northern Rhône and Southern Rhône. The Northern Rhône
appellations of Hermitage and Cote-Rôtie represent serious rivals, in terms of cost and ageablity, to the great wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Most Northern Rhône red wines are single variety wines made from the Syrah grape. Viognier is the white variety. The Northern Rhône has a temperate climate and rainfall is more than two inches per month during the growing season.
The Southern Rhône on the other hand has a true Mediterranean climate and receives very little rain during the growing season and harvest period. The wines produced here are blends of several grape varieties, usually containing Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre and, to a lesser extent, Cinsault and Carignane. The most famous districts in this region are Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the Cotes du Rhône.
Here is a brief review of four of the main Rhône grape varieties.
Viognier - Viognier may be the world's least widely planted premium grape -- but currently one of the most prized. In the vineyard, yields and acid levels tend to be low and susceptibility to disease and rot high. In the winery, it is very temperamental. But once in the bottle or the glass, a well made Viognier comes with a deep, yellow color and an exquisite, exotic bouquet – apricots, pears and tropical fruits. In the Northern Rhône, Viognier is the basis of the wines of Condrieu and Chateau-Grillet.
Syrah – A very dark and flavorful grape that is easy to work with – Healthy, early ripening, resistant to mildew and rot, suitable for winemaking in a variety of styles. At its best, Syrah can slug it out with high end Cabernet and Pinot Noir. As a single varietal, Syrah is the basis for the great reds of the Northern Rhône: as an ingredient in blends, it contributes much of the character and aging potential for wines of the Southern Rhone. Shiraz (Australian for Syrah) has a distinguished history Down Under, being the most widely planted grape in that country.
Grenache – Probably the worlds most widely planted red grape, largely in France and Spain. Grenache’s reputation would soar if it were treated more respectfully by growers and planted in more suitable locations. Early budding and late ripening, Grenache has a tendency toward high sugar/alcohol levels if not planted in the right areas or cropped back. It needs devigorating soils where it can produce Exquisite, luscious wines. Grenache is the basis for the great Southern Rhône blends, usually making up to 60% to 80% of the blend in both Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the Cotes du Rhône.
Mourvèdre (Mataro) -- Like Grenache, the Mourvèdre grape is probably Spanish in origin. Under the name Mataro – or no name at all – it has been part of California “field blends” for more than a century. It produces sturdy wines with good acid and some astringency and can develop enticing blackberry aromas and flavors. Mourvèdre produces meaty, intense wines that age well. Rarely bottled alone, it goes into the better quality Southern Rhône blends where it adds a wildness and complexity to the wine.