A Quick Lesson on The Sunny Rhone Valley

The days are shorter, and school is back in session, but don’t be fooled, summer is not over yet.  In fact, I think September is the perfect time enjoy a late season barbecue with the ripe wines of France’s Rhone Valley. Named for the River that flows from the Swiss Alps to the Mediterranean, big, friendly Rhone wines work amazingly well the that backyard classic, the grilled hamburger.  So spark up the coals pick up a bottle for last one hurrah of summer.

France’s Rhone Valley divides into two regions with far fewer similarities than a shared name might suggest.  Both produce far more red than white, and resist the more modern style of winemaking, but their climate and output couldn’t be more different.

The Northern Rhone consists of eight appellations, each more rarefied than the next.  Accounting for less than ten percent of the entire area’s production, these wines, nonetheless, set the world standard for Syrah, the only red grape permitted.  Indeed, the deep, tannic reds from Cotie Rotie, Hermitage, Cornas, Crozes Hermitage and St Joseph have as much allure as any from Bordeaux or Burgundy, with price tag to match.

As far as the white grapes go, the exotic Viognier, and the rich duo of Marsanne and Rousanne are largely relegated to blending, but don’t underestimate their stature. They too, are bright iconic stars in their own right. Should you find a St. Perey sparkler, or an aromatic, elegant Condrieu or an age worthy Chateau Grillet, consider yourself very lucky, unless, of course, you are paying. The output is minuscule, treasured and quite pricey.  In fact, the Chateau Grillet appellation is so exclusively small, that it consists entirely of one family owned vineyard.

As the Rhone River flows southward, the continental climate turns Mediterranean and the wine takes on a decidedly different feel.  Grenache leads the pack, but the Southern Rhone is hardly a one grape town. Mouvedre, Cinsault, Syrah, Carignan, and a host of whites grapes thrive here as almost all the wines are blends, including the world renowned Chateauneuf-de-Pape which uses up to thirteen different varieties.  Other notable examples (and values), come from Gigondas, Lirac, and Vaqueras and the all-rose Tavel, but the vast majority comes from the easy and friendly Cotes du Rhone.  Earthy, lush, with a real joie de vivre, they are just the ticket for that juicy burger.