Understanding AOC: Côtes du Rhône

Now that the big 3 of France are out of the way, it is time to begin exploring the other fine regions of the wine capital of the world.  In this post we will be looking at getting a better understanding of what is in the bottle with regards to the Rhône region in the southern part of France.

Like the majority of other French regions, labels are non-varietal specific in favor of point of origin.  That said, the Rhône isn’t all too difficult to get a handle on, unless you really begin scratching below the surface, a portion of which we will touch on here, but more will be delved into at a later date.

There are 4 classifications for Rhône wines that you will see on the labels:

  • Regional: Simply states “Côtes du Rhône” on the label and can come from anywhere in the greater region.
  • Côtes du Rhône Villages: These come from lower yields with higher alcohol leading to a more ageable wines.
  • Côtes du Rhône Villages + Named Village: There are currently 21 designated villages that can place their name on the label.  These are sought after for both regional style and terroir expression.  The named villages are as follows:
  • St-Pantaléon-les-Vignes
  • St-Maurice-sur-Eygues
  • Gadagne
  • Saint-Gervais
  • Suze-la-Rousse
  • Sainte-Cécile
  • Rochegude
  • Chusclan
  • Rousset-les-Vignes
  • Visan
  • Puyméras
  • Séguret
  • Valréas
  • Vinsobres
  • Roaix
  • Sablet
  • Sinargues
  • Laudun
  • Massif d’Uchaux
  • Plan de Dieu
  • Vaison la Romaine
  • Cru: There are 17 defined Crus that can be listed on the labels, this is the highest level of Rhône wines, similar to the Grand Crus of Burgundy & Bordeaux, although they do not state “Cru” – just the name of the Cru.  Terroir is the defining factor, and in the finest expressions, a vineyard name will be listed on the label as well.  Market regard defines pricing on Cru wines, not necessarily the AOC itself.  This explains why the highly sought after and more famous areas like Châteauneuf-du-Pape (CdP) are priced higher than Tavel.  CdPs are regarded as some of the highest class wines in the world and therefore average around $70 in a store, while a bottle of Tavel, which is less recognizable, might retail around $30.  In all honesty, the Tavel might be a better wine, but being less recognized, prices at a more aggressive level for consumer attention.

As with the majority of French AOC regions, you’ll want more regional specific sub-regions for the finest expressions of terroir, same as Burgundy or Bordeaux.

From the get go, to keep the Rhône simple, it can be split into 2 major areas (with notable Crus listed below):

Northern Rhône:

  • Côte-Rôtie
  • Condrieu
  • Saint-Joseph
  • Hermitage
  • Crozes-Hermitage
  • Cornas

Southern Rhône:

  • Tavel
  • Gigondas
  • Beaumes de Venise
  • Vacqueyras
  • Châteauneuf-du-Pape
  • Luberon

Next up are the grapes.  While the Northern Rhône is easy to wrap one’s head around, the south is a bit more complicated, but we will make an effort to keep things as simple as possible.  Not a comprehensive list, but all the major players are here:

Northern Rhône:

  • Syrah (red) – the sole red grape growth of the north, can be blended with a bit of Viognier (you read that right, they can and will blend some white wine in their red wine in this region)
  • Viognier (white) – The dominant white grape in the Northern Rhône
  • Marsanne (white)
  • Roussanne (white)

Southern Rhône:

  • Grenache (red) – Typically the dominant grape for southern red blends
  • Syrah (red) – generally the second most used red for southern blends, seen in the north as well
  • Mourvèdre (red) – almost always the third most used red for blends in the south
  • Carignan (red)
  • Cinsault (red)
  • Grenache Blanc (white) – the dominant white grape growth in the south
  • Clairette (white)
  • Viognier (white) – seen in the north as well
  • Marsanne (white) – seen in the north as well
  • Roussanne (white) – seen in the north as well
  • Bourboulenc (white)

Probably the most confusing wine for figuring out what is in the bottle is CdP in the Southern Rhône.  There are traditionally 13 grape varieties (whites & reds) allowed in Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines, but truth be told, current listings have mutations and variations listed increasing the list to 18.  Not all producers use the full list of allotted grapes in CdP.  As we stated before, we are just scratching the surface here, we will go into greater detail for CdP in its own post at a later date.  If this section of this post is feeling over your head, don’t worry, just buy a bottle of CdP and enjoy, its amazing stuff!  Remember the producer if you love it (snapping a photo is always best), generally they will stick to their blend percentages vintage after vintage.  House stylings rule in this area over making sure you know it has whatever percentage of grapes T, U, V, W, X, Y, and Z.

So basically, if you have a red from the north, it is Syrah (possibly blended with some Viognier), and if you have a white, it is generally a Viognier with Marsanne and Roussanne blended in (in that order).  And if you have a southern red, it is typically a Grenache (dominated) , Syrah, and Mourvèdre blend, and if you have a white, it is typically a house-blend from the allowed whites.  As we always note, there are exceptions to the rules.  A good example is the number of single varietal Viognier wines that are starting to show up in the marketplace.

One final note as we scratch the surface of the Côtes du Rhône AOC, the Northern Rhône has a generally cooler climate, hence the focus on whites that handle the cooler climate much better.  The Southern Rhône has a more mediterranean climate, and its warmth leans more towards handling grapes that thrive in warmer climates for their growing seasons.

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