Crossing the entire Rhone, the region draws its strength from its rich and powerful river that lends its character, as much as it sculpts its soil.
Tucked right up in the north of the Rhône Valley on the river’s right bank we find Condrieu, an appellation celebrated for its legendary white wines. These are made from Viognier grapes, planted on narrow terraces, here in their spiritual homeland. The true Condrieu aficionado will know to move away from the village centre, and will explore the winding maze of hillside vineyards in search of the grapes of this famously aromatic, golden wine.
Exacting standards.On the right bank of the Rhône, the Saint-Joseph vineyard is situated on the 45th parallel, and is planted on steep hillside terraces which date from many centuries ago. Saint-Joseph wine was formerly known as Vin de Mauves; its current name was coined by Jesuits in the 17th century. The appellation is known for its red wines, made predominantly from Syrah, which are powerful and elegant, and, on a smaller scale, for whites made from Roussanne and/or Marsanne. Like their terroir, the appellation winegrowers have demanding standards, seeking to produce only the best wine. But although they’re serious, they’re far from humourless; every year the appellation hosts the National Festival of Comedy.
Over the centuries, Hermitage has built its reputation around one very special hill, and a history wrapped in myth. Originally, the hill was home to a hermitage founded in 1224 by Gaspard de Stérimberg. De Stérimberg was a knight of Blanche de Castile. When he returned battle-weary from the Albigensian crusade, he chose to withdraw from the world and live as a hermit at the top of this granite hill. Others soon joined him, and the new community turned to winegrowing. It’s a charming story, but overlooks the fact that Hermitage owes only its name to the hermit. The vineyard has been there since ancient times, making what the Romans called the “wines of Vienne.” The distinctive vin de paille (straw wine) now being revived by some winemakers is a direct descendant of Gallo-Roman wine making methods.
The Crozes-Hermitage vineyards lie on the 45th parallel, on the left bank of the Rhône. This is the largest northern appellations extending across 11 communes in the Drôme. The prestigious wines of Crozes-Hermitage are available in red (made from Syrah) and white (made from Roussanne and Marsanne). Crozes-Hermitage reds are elegant, well-balanced, easy-drinking wines.
The Cornas vineyards grow on the right bank of the Rhône, on the eastern slopes of the Massif Central. The steep, East Southeast-facing slopes form a natural amphitheatre, protecting the vines from cold winds. Syrah is the appellation’s only authorised grape variety, expressing its full strength and power in this terroir.
The southern Rhone is home to many appellations mostly on the left bank between the cities of Montelimar and Avignon. Here we find Gigondas, with a unique, protected natural environment, where slopes are shaped by human hand to provide a welcoming home for the vines. The vines in Gigondas are nestled at the foot of the Dentelles de Montmirail mountains, their deep roots nourish those of the Gigondas wines, which have so many marvels to offer grapes that make marvelous Gigondas wines. The grey limestone soils of the Dentelles de Montmirail provide unique, well-structured terroirs. These in turn produce red wines with aromas of brandied fruit, developing over time into earthy, truffled notes, while the complex, shimmering rosés display notes of red fruits, almonds, and spices.
A little further south towards Avignon is Vacqueras, neighbouring Gigondas but different. Steep terraced vineyards, woodland plains, vast bands of garrigue scrubland - the wines of Vacqueyras are shaped by their distinctive terroirs, and are available in red, white and rosé. The soils here are very varied, giving the Vacqueyras wines a wealth of different fragrances and flavours. The wines are powerful and full of character, and have a distinctive edge of freshness and finesse.
Chateauneuf du Pape
A document dated 1094 shows that ‘Castrum Novum’, literally translated ‘new castle’, belonged to the bishop of Avignon. Castrum actually means ‘fortified town’, rather than ‘castle’. In 1213 the bishop of Avignon paid homage to Bertrand and Guillaume de Laudun for all they had done in the harbor of Lhers and Châteauneuf Calcernier (Castronovo Calcernarium). TCalcernier refers to the limestone quarry. In 1893, on the initiative of Joseph Ducos, the owner of Château la Nerthe and mayor at that time, the name of the town was officially changed from Châteauneuf Calcernier into Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
The characteristic terroir of Châteauneuf-du-Pape comes from a layer of stones called galets ("pebbles"). The rocks are typically quartzite and remnants of Alpine glaciers that have been smoothed over millennia by the Rhône. The stone retains heat during the day and releases it at night which can have an effect of hastening the ripening of grapes. The Vaucluse department, where Châteauneuf-du-Pape is located, has a Mediterranean climate. This type of climate, found throughout the south of France, is characterized by hot, dry and hot summers (34-38 °C) and cool, wet winters.
When Châteauneuf-du-Pape became the first French appellation contrôlée wine in 1936, 13 different grape varieties were authorized each contributing its characteristics to: colour, structure, fragrance, freshness and longevity. The permitted red and white grape varieties are: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Clairette, Vaccarèse, Bourboulenc, Roussanne, Counoise, Muscardin, Picpoul, Picardan and Terret noir. These diverse varieties came from careful selection by generations of winemakers who, for the most part, gave priority to quality. One of them, Joseph Ducos (a prominent local winegrower who was highly respected by Baron le Roy), played an important role in replanting the Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyards after phylloxera struck in the late 19th century. Owner of La Nerthe and worthy successor of the Marquis Tulle de Villefranche, Ducos undertook an in-depth study of various grape varieties and carried out extensive experiments in his own vineyard, growing ten different varieties chosen according to quality and balance.
Grenache Noir, the main grape variety, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape are a perfect marriage because of the region's meagre dry soils, hot summers with severe, long periods of drought, and mistral which protects against coulure (shot berries) and vine diseases. Grenache contributes warmth and strength and typically display a wide spectrum of flavours while the other grape varieties like Syrah, Cinsault and Mourvèdre achieve balance.
To protect their vineyards, winemakers of Chateauneuf-du-Pape are increasingly using more environmentally friendly methods and an increasing number of winegrowers are moving towards sustainable and/or organic viticulture (avoiding the use of chemical herbicides and pesticides) although many do not seek certification as it is time consuming and costly.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines are often high in alcohol, typically 13-15%, and must be minimum 12.5% under the appellation rules with no chaptalization allowed. Winemaking in the region tends to focus on balancing the high sugar levels in the grape with the tannins and phenols that are common in red Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Following harvest, the grape clusters are rarely destemmed prior to fermentation. The fermentation temperatures are kept high, with the skins being frequently pumped over and punched down for the benefit of tannin levels and colour extraction to achieve the characteristic dark Châteauneuf colour. Beginning in the 1970s, market tendencies to prefer lighter, fruitier wines that can be drunk sooner have prompted some estates to experiment with carbonic maceration. Some winemakers co-ferment the different varieties while others choose to ferment separately and blend together afterwards. Most Grenache is vinified in cement tanks to avoid oxidation while the other grape varieties tend to be made in large oak formats called Foudre.