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Home | France | Rhône Valley - Home of the Pop . . .

Rhône Valley - Home of the Pope?

The Rhône Valley bisects the southeastern part of France from Lyons in the north where it joins the Saône River, until it empties into the Mediterranean south of Avignon.  Arguably one of the most prestigious wine producing regions in the world, the Rhône Valley is second only to Bordeaux in the production of AOC-level wine.

 History of the Rhône Valley

The Rhône Valley has always been the ideal route between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic through northern Europe. Records indicate that Greeks were moving wine around the region as early as 600 BC. Around 125 AD the Romans moved into the Rhône Valley and started wine production in earnest. When Pope John XXII took over the papacy in the 1300s, he built a new castle in the region, called “Châteauneuf-du-Pape”, French for “new castle of the Pope”.  A local village took the name and Châteauneuf-du-Pape was born.  Indeed Avignon in the southern Rhône Valley was home to seven successive popes between 1309 and 1378.  In 1737 King Louis XV enforced a stamp of CDR on cases of Cotes-du-Rhône wine in an effort to officially distinguish them from others French wines in the region.  In 1956 a severe winter freeze hit the Rhône Valley.  The severity and length of the freeze killed most of the olive and fruit trees in the region, but the grapevines survived.  This prompted many of the farmers in the region to replace other crops with grapevines.  In the 1990s an American group called the Rhône Rangers was created – their goal was to produce and promote Rhône variety wines.  Around the same time, the Australians started marketing their Shiraz (Syrah) wines in earnest.  These combined marketing efforts shined new light on Rhône varietals, and helped to create new awareness of the wines, and Rhône region in general.


The Rhône Valley is the second largest French AOC wine region in terms of area and production. It is comprised of about 181,543 square acres and has over 6,000 estates within its boundaries.

The Rhône Valley is divided into two distinct regions, the Northern Rhône Valley and the Southern Rhône Valley, separated by 30 miles as the narrow, winding Rhône passes through the hard rock of the Massif Central finally opening up after passing the Donzere Gorge. 

The Northern Rhône is made up of steep slopes, with granite and clay-based soils. The region has hot summers and cold winters, absent the moderating influences of the Mediterranean.  Generally cooler than the Southern Rhône, the area produces Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne grapes.

The Southern Rhône by contrast, enjoys abundant sunshine, warm but not hot temperatures, and minimal precipitation during the growing season.  The steep slopes give way to the broad valley floor rich with alluvial and rocky soils perfect for growing grapes.  The Southern Rhône's portfolio of grape varieties numbers in the dozens, the most important reds being Grenache, Syrah, Carignan, Mourvedre and Cinsaut, and the most important whites Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Viognier, Ugni Blanc Roussanne and Marsanne.

Wines of the Rhône

Unlike Burgundy or Bordeaux, the Rhône Valley does not have an official classification using “Grand Cru” (or similar terms) for its wines.  What the Rhône Valley does have is four main Appellation d'Origine Controlee (AOCs):

  • Côtes du Rhône only displays the region, and may be used in the entire wine region, in 171 communes. For some communes, this is the only allowed AOC. It is therefore the lowest classification for Rhône AOC wine.
  • Côtes du Rhône-Villages is an AOC allowed for roughly 90 communes, with higher production standards than Côtes du Rhône, wines are considered of better quality. In general, the appellation does not allow the village name to be displayed.
  • Côtes du Rhône-Villages together with village name is allowed for 18 communes.
  • Cru is used for the 15 named appellations, which display only the name of the cru and not Côtes du Rhône. These include the most famous Rhône wines, such as Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Lirac and Vacqueyras. 

The leading Northern Rhône appellations include Château-Grillet (a very small single Château AOC making white wine from Viognier), Condrieu (white, Viognier), Crozes-Hermitage (red and white), St. Joseph (red and white), Cornas (red, Syrah) and Côte-Rôtie or “roasted slope” (red, Syrah, often with small amounts of Viognier).

The leading Southern Rhône appellations include Tavel famous for producing some of the best Rosé wines in the world, Châteauneuf-du-Pape (red and white), Côtes-du- Rhône (red and white), Côtes-du- Rhône-Villages (red and white), Gigondas (red and rosé), Beaumes-de-Venise (sweet, fortified white) and Vacqueyras (red).

In 1996 a new appellation decree aimed at strengthening the typical characteristics of Côtes-du-Rhône wines came into use – for red and rosé wines, Grenache must make up at least 40% of the red grape variety blend (excluding Syrah in Northern Rhône wines) and for white wines, 80% of the white grape variety blend must be made up of Clairette, Marsanne, Roussanne, Bourboulenc and Viognier.

Rhône wines have something to offer anyone from rich black Syrahs to lighter style Grenache blends to full bodied whites.  With such a favorable climate for growing grapes and rich variety of permitted varieties, is it any wonder that the Pope decided to move the center of the Papacy for at least a few decades?

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·  Loire Valley - The Garden of France
·  Cote de Nuits
·  Languedoc-Roussillon - The French Riviera
·  Provence
·  France - Birthplace of Wine


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