How to navigate the Rhône: a guide to the region’s wines
The best wines come with a story and few places have one as compelling as the Côtes du Rhône.
When we talk about ‘the Old World’, we’re talking seriously ancient. Remnants of clay amphora, uncovered by archeologists, suggest the Etruscans started viticulture in the Rhône Valley, but we really have the Romans to thank for some of the wines that we enjoy today. Keen to keep their legions happy, vino was the order of the day.
Nowadays, Côtes du Rhône is loved all over the world for its quality, versatility and charm. I’m often asked to recommend a wine and, most of the time, I’ll reach for the Rhône. Why? Because, whatever the weather, wherever you are and whether you’re pairing it with food, or just sipping it socially, there’s a wine for the occasion.
… a pyramid for quality …
The Rhône’s distinctive terroir is relatively easy to navigate, thanks to the region’s ‘pyramid’ structure for quality: at the top end there are the famous ‘Crus’, seventeen of them, including the celebrated Côte Rôtie in the north and Chateauneuf-du-Pape down south. Then there are the Côtes du Rhône ‘Villages’ wines, with the top ones also adding the village name to the label, like Sablet or Séguret. Each Cru or named village is deemed to offer a distinctive quality to its wine. At the base level, the regional wines, labelled Côtes du Rhône, offer incredible value and simple drinking pleasure. What’s more, this structure encourages ambitious producers to improve quality because it is possible to be promoted through the ranks, as one of my favourite Crus, Gigondas, has done.
The winemakers of Côtes du Rhône are master blenders. Whilst in the north of the region, seductively spicy Syrah is the only red grape permitted in Côte Rôtie and Hermitage, further south it will make up part of a bigger blend, with up to 18 permitted in the coveted Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Gorgeous sunny-fruited Grenache rules down south, with the highly structured Mourvèdre also used extensively to achieve the perfect balance.
It’s all about alchemy, as blending means the winemaker can create a palate of flavours, taking the best qualities of the individual grape varieties to make something special. Unusually for the wine world, this also extends to white grapes being used in red blends.
Côtes du Rhône is most famous for its red wines, but it would be a crime to neglect the whites. In the north, the hugely fashionable Condrieu is made exclusively from Viognier, a grape so beguiling that it’s hard to believe it came close to extinction just fifty years ago. Across the wider region, Marsanne, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc are the lead partners in exciting blends, offering enticing aromas and beautiful body.
Sinking the pink is currently the height of fashion, but Côtes du Rhône has some history here too thanks to Tavel, an historic appellation producing exclusively rosé wines which used to supply France’s King Louis XIV. These days, the Rhône’s rosés are every bit as appealing as those from nearby Provence.
The Rhône Valley is celebrated for its gastronomy, so it’s little surprise that Côtes du Rhône wines are coveted by top chefs and sommeliers. The reds boast the region’s famous ‘garrigue’ aromas – an enchanting mix of sun-baked herbs and scrub – along with ripe black fruit flavours, the perfect partner for roast lamb, or a meaty pasta dish.
Rosé is a style that offers so much more than summer sipping, making a memorable match for Asian dishes, like Thai green curry, with its bright, juicy red berry flavours. I think rosé is a great match for so many foods, but it has a real affinity with spice.
The whites, with their sophisticated stone fruit aromas and texture, offer a seductive selection for Mediterranean fish dishes, such as Bouillabaisse, or the king of comfort food, a chicken roasted with rosemary, garlic and lemon.
A version of this piece first appeared in Culture Whisper.