Although very small by comparison with, say, California, the Rhône valley, stretching in the South-East quarter of France from the south of Lyon to the south of Avignon, is home to a great variety of wine. For a start, one can distinguish between the northern Rhône valley – Lyon to Valence – and the southern Rhône valley (Montélimar to Avignon). Wines made in the former are more subtle and lower in alcohol than their southern counterparts.
Understanding the hierarchy
Basically there is a three-tier hierarchy of Rhône valley wines.
- the Côtes du Rhône: the most basic level, with the least stringent rules in terms of location and output. This does not necessarily mean low quality: the red Côtes du Rhône from Emmanuel Reynaud (Château des Tours) and Jamet are among the most enjoyable, best value for money wines that I know.
- the Côtes du Rhône village: here the rules go up a notch, and in some cases producers are allowed to mention a particular place name, meaning that the wine must come from a designated area. Both Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages are usually from the southern Rhône valley, although there are noticeable exceptions in the north (the Jamet Côtes du Rhône being a prime example).
- the appellations: supposedly the top level, they have to come from a designated area renowned for its particular climatic and soil conditions (the terroir). Northern Rhône valley: Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu, Château-Grillet, Saint-Joseph, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Saint-Péray, Cornas. Southern Rhône valley: Châteauneuf du Pape, Vacqueyras, Rasteau, Gigondas, Beaumes de Venise, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, Tavel.
Some to try
I recommend you try at least one Condrieu, a wonderfully aromatic wine made from the Viognier grape. Grown on very steep slopes south of Lyon, it has unique aromas of tropical fruits with a savoury finish. Sadly they are not cheap ( Waitrose offers 2011 Condrieu from reliable producer Guigal at £32.99 a bottle).
Looking at my favourite retailer’s wine catalogue, I would also recommend trying the 2011 Saint-Péray from Les Vins de Vienne (£14.99 from Waitrose) or the 2011 Côtes du Rhône Villages La Redonne 2011 from Jean-Luc Colombo (£12.99), which should be a good introduction to northern whites.
Regarding red wines, try getting your hands on some 2010 Crozes-Hermitage for fruit-packed flavours.