The Rhône Valley
Crozes-Hermitage is an appellation that should probably be split in two, due to the contrast between its sub-zones.
The appellation essentially surrounds the hill of Hermitage. To the south is the plain, called the Terrace de Chassis. The land here is fairly flat, with the soil consisting of galets, alluvial stones like those found in Châteauneuf du Pape. The vines share land with fruit trees (which are irrigated), and it is one of the hotter areas of the northern Rhône. Vineyard work is mechanizable on the plain, and this is where much of the wine of the appellation is made.
The northern sector is all steep hills, granite soils, and cooler temperatures. In many places, the soils and exposures are the same as Hermitage.
Wines from the southern sector have a tendency to be fruitier, softer, and more accessible at a younger age. The wines from the northern sector by contrast tend to be harder, darker, and more tannic, needing more time to fully develop.
The vineyards of Condrieu are spread across seven villages south of Côte-Rotie. The appellation reaches down to Saint-Joseph, where there are some intermingling vineyards. Viognier is the sole grape allowed in the appellation and it is common practice to give the wines some wood aging.
The A.O.C. was established in 1940 but slowly diminished in size. By 1970 there were only 14 hectares of Viognier left; the grape was facing extinction, as these were the only Viognier vines remaining in the world. Things started to turn around for Condrieu in the early 1990s with a revival of wines from this region, largely credited to the Guigal négociant. Today there are 130 hectares of Viognier growing in this A.O.C.
Saint-Joseph stretches 60km along the right bank of the Rhône. With Cornas at its southern border, the A.O.C. stretches until the vineyards start to intermingle with Condrieu in the north. The appellation can be roughly divided into three sectors: the original appellation in the south, the middle sector (dominated by the St. Désirat co-op) that spans from Serrières to Sarras, and the northern sector.
Originally the Saint-Joseph appellation covered only six villages in the southern sector. This historical heart of the appellation is the home of "classic" Saint-Josephs, and is where most of the well-known estates are located. In 1969 the INAO decided to extend the appellation to 20 more villages, mostly to the north of the existing Saint-Joseph vineyards. When the reputation of the appellation suffered due to the influx of large quantities of lower quality wines, a decision was made to cut out many of the lesser vineyards. However, the appellation was not cut back to its original boundaries, resulting in a patchwork of vineyards.
This north-south extension helps to create a variety of climates: Mediterranean influences are more dominant in the south while continental influences are seen further north. The other significant climatological factors are altitude and exposure: lower hillside vineyards are hotter and get more sun, while higher elevation vineyards on the plateau are much cooler and fresher.
The I.G.P. Collines Rhodaniennes designation covers much of the viticultural area of the Northern Rhône. With less stringent rules than the A.O.C.s, this I.G.P. designation covers experimental wines that don't meet appellation criteria, such as those produced with unauthorized grape varieties or wines that have residual sugar.
The I.G.P. designation also covers wines made from fruit grown outside of the A.O.C. zones. Since the A.O.C.s cover only a narrow band of land along the borders of the Rhône, many producers have vineyard land that falls outside of the appellations. This includes some historically important viticultural areas, such as the Vin de Vienne, that are being reclaimed and bottled as I.G.P. Collines Rhodaniennes.