The Rhône river originates high in the glaciers of the Swiss Alps and flows by such cities as Geneva, Lyon, and Avignon on its way down to the Mediterranean. Navigable from Lyon to the ocean, the Rhône has historically been a hugely important transportation corridor, and remains so today with important highways and train lines running through its valley. It’s therefore not surprising to hear that the hillsides along the river have been planted with vines since at least Roman times, and likely even before.
Two very distinct regions make up the Rhône wine region. In the northern Rhône, syrah rules. Here the valley is narrow, and the hillsides on either side are steep. The climate is semi-continental, with the merest hint of Mediterranean influence. The Northern Rhône is the home of such fabled appellations as Côte Rotie and Hermitage. Despite the fame of the red wines from this region, other styles are made too, such as the rich viogniers of Condrieu and the sparkling wines of St. Péray. Special mention should also go to the vineyards of Seyssuel, directly across the river from Côte-Rotie. This historically significant area is currently being revitalized and is expected to gain AOP status in the coming years.
Heading south, between Valence and Montélimar there are hardly any vineyards, save a small area called Brézème. Then the valley becomes much broader and the climate changes to warmer, drier, Mediterranean type. Grenache takes over as the dominant grape, though tens of different varieties are grown, with mourvèdre, syrah, and cinsault playing the most prominent supporting roles.
The southern Rhône encompasses a huge area and accounts for 95% of the whole region’s output. There is a well-defined hierarchy to the vineyards here: the most basic wines fall under the umbrella of Côtes du Rhône. One step up is Côtes du Rhône Villages, then Côtes du Rhône Villages with a named village. Finally there are the crus that get their own appellations, such as Rasteau, Gigondas, Tavel or, most famously, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, with its powerful, brooding, long-lived reds. Each of these have their own, more stringent production rules.
Also included in the Rhône wine region are a handful of outlying areas: Duché d’Uzès, Costières de Nîmes, Lubéron, and Diois to name a few. Geographically and stylistically, they are a bit further afield, but administratively they are all contained within the big tent of the Rhône.