- Q & A
France - Rhone
The Rhone Valley is 125 miles long beginning at the Southern end of Burgundy near Lyon and extending along the Rhone River to Avignon. Its largest appellation, Cotes du Rhone, was granted AOC status in 1937. The Rhone boasts 163 communes, 17 villages and the oldest vines in France. Nearly 96% of its production is red. The first vines were planted here by the Greeks in 600 BC.
The Rhone is two distinct districts in one. The soil in the Northern Rhone, between Vienne and Valence, is made of decomposed granite. The Southern part of the Northern Rhone varies by appellation from brown limestone, fossil-rich soil, marl, sandstone and sand. The Southern Rhone sports rocks and pebbles the size of footballs. As river flows south from Vienne, the valley becomes very steep. The weather is very hot and dry, primarily from legendary Mistral wind which blows up to 200 days per year.
From the North, the principle areas are:
Cote Rottie and Condrieu:
First vineyard in Rhone is Cote Rotie, means "Roasted Slope." It is only 300 acres. Syrah is the only red grape grown here. The white grape, Viognier, is often added to the red to soften Syrah's tough tannins. Cote Rotie is composed of two hills, Cote Brune and Cote Blonde. Legend has it that the Lord of Joseph, the city just below the vineyards, had two daughters, one fair and one dark. He named the two vineyards after them as one has dark soil the other light, producing corresponding wines. Both produce big, powerful wines, which age well.
Condrieu only produces wine made exclusively from the Viognier grape, considered the oldest grape in France; it almost disappeared in the 1960s because vines had degenerated due to low yields and a short life span. Modern methods were developed to extend the life of the vine. This increased planting from 18 acres to 42 and prices have more than doubled. Chateau Grille is the smallest, privately owned AOC in France, only 6 acres.
2,000 acres. Took on hyphenated name of its famous neighbor, Hermitage. Also made from Syrah, but not in a league with the other appellations. Rousanne and Marsanne are used for white and generally make impressive wines.
320 acres. The Reds from here are very powerful and long aging. Intense violet, raspberry flavors for reds; lemony, floral, jasmine hints in whites. Granite soil and a very high sun exposure are what accounts for the high extract and alcohols. They also add small amounts of Rousanne and Marsanne to tone down the ferocity of the reds.
750 acres. Reds totally Syrah based. Tends to be lighter in style than Hermitage and can also have some white grapes added to the red to soften.
150 acres. Richer and darker, but not as elegant as Hermitage, and usually 100% Syrah.
The Southern Rhone is completely different in style, soil and varieties. Chateauneuf du Pape boasts the highest minimum alcohol level in France, 12.5%. Many can go as high as 15%. From two to 13 different varieties can be used in the various areas. Tavel only makes rosé from Grenache and Clairette to which three other white grapes are added. Lirac simple reds from accepted varieties.
The Southern Rhone:
Chateauneuf du Pape:
The best known area in the Rhone. The term means "new home of the pope." The appellation can use up to 13 grape different grape varieties, four of which are white. The principal red grapes are Grenache, Carignan, Cinsault and Mourvedre next. Some Syrah is also used.
The history of Chateauneuf du Pape would make a fascinating movie. At the turn of the fourteenth century the church had become very powerful and the popes meddled in the state's internal affairs. Philippe le Bel, King of France, resisted Pope Boniface VIII's interference to the point of having him jailed when he visited France. The pope died shortly after he was released (after agreeing to Philippe's demands) and the new pope, Benoit, died just two years into his reign.
Philippe then convinced the French cardinals to install a French Bishop, Bertrand de Got, as Pope and established a second papacy in Avignon and built a chateau for his new pope christening it Chateauneuf fu Pape.
Bertrand de Got was born in Bordeaux and had planted vines on his own estate, Clement. He changed his name to Clement (becoming known as Pope Clement). His winery in Bordeaux (feeling the need to publicize its now-famous former owner) changed its name to Chateau Pape Clement, a name that it still uses today. Pope Clement was credited with the beginning of vine planting near Avignon, but it was his successor, Pope John XXII, who was responsible for the major development and expansion of the vineyards.
White Chateauneuf du Pape was first made at the request of the priests. They found 15% alcohol red wines just too much to handle at the first mass in the morning (who wouldn't?). So, white vines were planted to make a lighter styled wine for the service. Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc is sometimes referred to as vin de messe or Wine of the Mass.
The dual papacies lasted less than 90 years when the idea was abandoned and the Vatican went back to housing the only pope. But, the vineyards and wine live on.
The soil of the area is as diverse as its history. Instead of red clay as in Burgundy, or chalk and limestone being present like those of so many other prime viticultural areas, it sports rocks! Not just stones or pebbles, but rocks the size of softballs. Many estates are evaluated by the number and size of the stones in their vineyards. These stones are not just for looks. They provide excellent water drainage and retain the day's heat keeping the vines warm at night.
Uses the same red grapes as Chateauneuf du Pape but no white grapes. Wines are longer-lived and bigger.
Beaumes de Vinese:
Produces excellent dessert wine from the Muscat grape.