The Rhône provides similarities with the Loire Valley rather than Bordeaux or Burgundy, in that it produces many wine types, from red white and rosé, still and sparkling, as well as one of the world’s most popular sweet wines. But as the Loire has become famous for both light and white wines, the Rhône offers warmer climate reds of enormous stature. A vast range of micro-climates are encompassed by the Rhône’s river valley, rising in the snow clad Alps of Switzerland and exiting through the arid heat of the Mediterranean coastline, just west of Marseille.

It is the last stretch of the river’s journey between Vienne in the north and Avignon in the south that provides the wine region we know as the Rhône.

Unlike Bordeaux the Rhône, often regarded as one continuous vineyard region, actually is defined by two distinct areas: Northern Rhône and Southern Rhône, with a vine free landscape along part of the river separating the two by some 40 miles.

Both areas operate an Appellation Contrôlée system (AC) similar to other fine wine regions of France. The lowliest is the catch-all Appellation Côtes-du-Rhône which applies to wines made in both northern and southern areas, this is followed by Côtes-du-Rhône Villages and applied to less than 20 villages located in the south alone, with the term Crus appended to notable world class wines, the bulk of which are found in the north with a lesser amount from the southern region.


Although Roman occupation is evident, it was somewhat patchy within the Rhône valley. Amphorae the classic Roman wine vessel have been unearthed here although most records show wine was brought from other French and indeed Spanish regions during Roman control. It appears that wine already made and generally imported relieved the thirst of the Roman elite, rather than early evidence of vine experimentation as in other parts of France.

The middle ages provides us with the start of one of the region’s two best known historical tales. The first being the relocation of the papal court to Avignon. It was Pope John XXII who built the new Chateau for his summer residence and gave us the Pope’s new Castle – Châteauneuf-du-Pape, mainly destroyed by the German Air Force in the Second World War. The second tale involves the return of one Gaspard de Sterimberg, a crusader who returned from the Holy Land. Gaspard sought and was granted leave to build an isolated chapel dedicated to St Christopher our former guardian of travel.

It was in this chapel, high on a hill where he lived and prayed for some 30 years as a hermit, hence granting the hill its present name – Hermitage.

Principal Regions – Northern Rhône

Not the easiest of landscapes to cultivate vines, with a view from the river of sharp, sloping banks, often densely wooded with myriad man-made terraces. These steep sides show evidence of many pulley systems to bring baskets of grapes down, or pulling back up containers of rain-washed soil.

The vast majority of red wines here use the dark, tannic, Syrah grape (often called Shiraz in the Southern Hemisphere) making dense, muscular wines often needing considerable ageing – some 5 to 10 years is common – to soften the wine and offer up their unique peppery, tarry richness. The two stars of the area are Hermitage offering a dense, rich, gamey style, and Côte-Rôtie, with its trademark perfumed bouquet from the ‘roasted slopes’ of Ampuis.

Should you wish to taste an early drinking style, then Crôzes-Hermitage would be a suitable and less expensive choice to illustrate the regions qualities. Alternatively St-Joseph will offer younger, smoother blackberry tastes which can be approached even earlier in its maturing phase.

The world though, still beats a path to Côte-Rôtie and the path often ends at the vineyard of one man Marcel Guigal whose single vineyard wines, under the names of La Landonne, La Turque, and La Mouline, frequently command stratospheric prices globally. 30 miles south of Côte-Rôtie lies the tiny region of Hermitage on the famed hill above the tiny town of Tain.

From this high suntrap emanates one of the aristocrats of the Northern Rhône – Hermitage, using the Syrah grape with an occasional blending of white Marsanne. Its winemakers are also world famous names such as  Jaboulet, Chapoutier and Chave.

Adjacent to Côte-Rôtie is the tiny region of Condrieu, producing even finer amounts of the inordinately priced white wine, made exclusively from the Viognier grape, with their peach and apricot stashed flavours and providing the wine culturati around the world with probably their most fashionable drink.

Two other quirky wines are worthy of note. Once again the Syrah grape offers something of an occasional bargain in the form of Cornas, whilst from the expressive Marsanne grape comes the less than fashionable Saint-Péray sparkler.

The Southern Rhône

A considerably larger appellation, with the benefit of a warmer climate producing a raft of wines that vary considerably in quality, but with over 100,000 acres under vine, Côtes du Rhône has become the people’s ambassador of the region. However, the region’s best known hero is of course Châteauneuf-du-Pape, often a bully of a wine with a rich beefy style emanating from the blending of up to thirteen permitted red grapes, although in practice it is Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre that take centre stage. These red styles carry the crushed pepper of the Syrah grape with the softening warm and often alcoholic nuances of Grenache. Expect the wine to be a little closed for the first few years of its life, but a general guide would be to drink around five years after harvest.

A tiny percentage of white Châteauneuf-du-Pape is made from the Roussanne grape and can be something of a surprise when you find an interesting producer, although overpowering alcohol and a somewhat quirky style is common.

Two styles from the area, and near neighbours to Châteauneuf, are Gigondas and Vacqueyras. Gigondas will often offer a similar flavour profile to its expensive neighbour but at half the price, and often performs more reliably albeit with a less sophisticated, more rustic style. Vacqueyras, now an upgraded Côtes du Rhône-Villages, offers a lighter style although almost as much power after three to four years bottle age.

I suppose it is the proximity to Provence that allows this region to continue its well deserved confidence in the production of rosé. Not commonly known here, but with our new found delight in all things pink, the rosés of Tavel and Lirac can offer the adventurous some of the finest examples in France.

Another surprising wine used by restaurants on ubiquitous dessert trolleys from here to New York is Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, a sweet wine fortified with eau de vie. This honeyed, golden coloured wine from the juicy Muscat grape is probably the world’s best known sweet wine. Another lesser-known after-dinner wine, would be the oak aged tawny coloured Rasteau.

One surprising little find down here, which I have delighted in for years around the town of Die, is their off-dry sparkling Crémant, and the grapey Champagne look-alike, Clairette de Die.

Taste Chart



As has been described the Rhône is Syrah’s heartland, although Australia has now made the grape its own under the guise of Shiraz named after the early Persian city where it was reputed to have been grown.

Syrah is a full-bodied, intense black grape, that due to its thick dark skin has the capacity to age for a considerable period. Syrah clearly likes a warmer climate compared to Pinot Noir, grown further north in France.

Distinct flavours, principally the spicy sensation of crushed back pepper, cinnamon and cloves, mingle with ripe blackberries and raspberries.

Notably less tannin than Cabernet Sauvignon, so the basic Syrah reds can be approached earlier.


Although once something of a rarity, Viognier is now being planted beyond the tiny region of Condrieu. Part of the Languedoc now hosts respectable plantings as do areas in Australia and California looking to add to their palate of flavours.

Viognier offers a sublime perfumed, bouquet with distinct hints of peach, nectarine and apricots, although its rarity as a wine is mainly due to its unreliability as a robust cropping fruit and adverse weather conditions can leave a grower with little or no fruit to work with more often than not.