Rhone, France Wine Region
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Check out some of the new trends currently sweeping the world of wine. Shiraz Viognier blends are popping up all over the place; Viognier is being talked about as the new, sexy white sensation, and old vine Grenache is winning many fans with its particularly heroic and ripe fruit flavours. Strangely enough, all of these styles originate in the Rhône Valley and their popularity is part of the Rhône renaissance now sweeping the globe.
Within the Rhône sit some of the finest and most historic vineyards in France, with grapes such as Syrah as well as Grenache showing their incredible best. Generally, the Rhône can be broken into North and South. In the North, the wines are predominantly Syrah, with tiny amounts of Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne also found, while the South is better known for Grenache-based blended reds.
Running South from Lyon, the Northern Rhône begins with the famous slopes of Côte Rôtie and Condrieu. The revered Côte Rôtie, or ‘Roasted slope’, which was first planted by those thirsty Romans, makes wines mainly from Syrah, although some have a small percentage of the white Viognier grape, which adds aromas of apricot and blossom, as well as softening the finish. The best wines are absolute crackers, with plenty of spicy, meaty Shiraz character in a restrained, often quite feminine package, although one that can age well for many years. South of the Côte Rôtie is Condrieu, the home of the aromatic and delicious Viognier. If Aussie Viognier is not your thing, don’t let that put you off Condrieu, because it is a finer, and very different beast. Further South again, the less famous vineyards of St Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage give medium-weight spicy Shiraz, with the best having some ageing potential.
As we descend the Rhône, the Granite dome known as Hermitage, after which our own Grange Hermitage was named, rises like a colossus. Here lie some wonderful vineyards, and without doubt one of the best in France. Hermitage and also nearby Cornas make muscular Syrah that smell a bit like a well roasted side of beef and can send shivers down a wine lover’s spine. On Hermitage there is also a very small percentage of Marsanne and Roussanne, from which are crafted some of the most powerful and long-lived white wines in France. They were so revered in the early nineteenth century that White Hermitage was the most expensive wine, of any colour, in the whole country, if not the world. They are rare and difficult to find but, oh, so worth the effort. Hunt them down!
As we proceed further down the Rhône into the Southern zone, the land flattens out and the Mediterranean starts to make its presence felt. While there are still small amounts of Syrah, Marsanne and Roussanne, now Grenache, Cinsault, Carignan and Mourvèdre vines take the reins.
The red wines of the Southern Rhône are the closest that France comes to the Australian style with their plump weight and sweet fruit flavours. For beginners to the international scene, these reds are a great place to start. The best, and justifiably famous, are the Grenache-based wines grown near the towns of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas, with their profound, meaty and powerful flavours. Rasteau and Vacqueyras also make some smart wines, although not quite in the same class as their posh neighbours. Below these village wines come the basic Côtes-du-Rhône and Côtes-du-Rhône Villages which are mainly easy drinking whites and reds. Similar wines made in nearby vineyards under the Côtes du Ventoux and Côteaux du Tricastin labels can also offer good value for money.
While reds steal the show, a couple of the white wines can be also very tasty. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is again the king of the castle, with the wines made mainly from Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and Roussanne, and the best lasting a good decade in the bottle. The Southern Rhône also makes some fine Rosés and sweet wines - the full-bodied Rosés from Tavel and sweet Muscat-based dessert wines from Beaumes-de-Venise worth keeping an eye out for.