Guy Chatfield

All roads lead to Rhône

Look beyond the obvious and you’ll find plenty to discover in this fascinating region.

Photo: JAUBERT French Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

When we reach for the restaurant wine list, or spend time pondering the shelves of our favourite merchants, in the world of wine there are some “known knowns” as Donald Rumsfeld once opined. Rioja, Sancerre and Chianti continue to enjoy widespread distribution as their “soft brand” recognisable status hold enough credibility for the average wine drinker to feel comfortable selecting. Apropos of this, the Rhône Valley strikes me as a region that many people drink from, but possibly few really know.

The river Rhône itself begins as streams of meltwater high in the Rhône Glacier in the Swiss Alps, flowing for just over 500 miles south emptying into the Mediterranean Sea; the wine-producing section of the valley is located in the bottom fifth of the river’s length, deep in the south of France.

The valley itself is the result of a clash of two “local” geological entities – the Alps and the Massif Central mountain ranges – 300 million years ago. It was the meeting of these two bodies that exposed the various soil types that define the wines. With the demarcation line sitting between the towns of Montelimar in the south and St Peray in the north, the wine region is neatly divided into two; granitic rocks define the wines of the Northern Rhône, and the ancient marine sediment helps create the signature style of the south. The region is further split into smaller identifiable areas or “communes” differentiated more by their soil structure than the village they surround. This trait is widespread in the other French wine regions.

The wines from the vineyards of St Joseph are the ones to seek out to experience how utterly superb the Syrah grape can be.

Although vines had naturally existed in the region it was around the fourth century BC that cultivation occurred properly through the Greek colonists around what is now the city of Marseille. Production was stepped up considerably during Roman occupation in the first century AD, so much so that the quality was said to even rival the wines of the mother country. Interestingly, the peripheral business of making amphorae to transport the wine also blossomed in the Rhône, and it was through archaeological finds and research of these vessels it has been proven that the region has some of the oldest vineyards in continual use in the world.

There are tangible differences between the two sections of the region; firstly, although by no means definitively, it can be said that the volume end of the market comes from the south, and the value end comes from the north.

Accounting for just under 60% of the total volume of Rhône wines produced, the household name of Côtes du Rhône hail from the southern section, which is also home to the über-famous Chateauneuf du Papes – arguably one of the best-known “soft” brands of red wine available. Both these wines are dominated by the Grenache grape, a variety that blossoms here to produce wines of heady fullness with warm, rich tones of blackcurrant and spice. The mouth-drying tannins are not so stark here and these medium to full bodied blends – regularly containing the other Rhône stalwart grapes like Mourvedre and Cinsault – are deliciously round and generous, hence their wide appeal.

It is the Northern Rhône, dominated by the Syrah grape, that is home to wines of structural elegance that can command a higher selling price. Sometimes confused for its New World sibling, Shiraz (essentially the same plant), the expression of the grape found in the Rhône is a bigger, more muscular beast; deep in colour, rich in flavours of blackberry, blueberry and violet with a tannic structure that is superb for ageing but can often knock the proverbial socks off. What sets it apart from the New Wold “pretender” is the signature notes of spice and often earthy ground pepper. My own personal recommendation is that the wines from the vineyards of St Joseph are the ones to seek out to experience how utterly superb the Syrah grape can be.

The complexity, elegance and regional differentiation of wines in this beautiful region have had me enthralled for years; their drinkability in so many different situations emphasise their versatility and I can only implore you to stray from the wonderful “known knowns” to the superb “known unknowns” – they will reward you handsomely if you do.

Maggie Pagano

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