The Rhone Report: About Rhone and Rhone-Style Wines and Winemakers is part of an ongoing series.

The French appellation contrôllée (or appellation d’origine contrôllée, AOC) system was born in the Rhone Valley (specifically, in Chateauneuf-du-Pape) in the early 20th century. The appellation system is intended to guarantee that the wine comes from the place (appellation) that is identified. It seeks to establish an expectation of a certain quality, and in doing so it sets forth specific requirements.

A primary requirement is that only permitted grape varietals may be used in a wine that bears the name of an appellation (e.g., Cabernet Sauvignon is not permitted in a Burgundy, and Pinot Noir is not permitted in Bordeaux). The appellation system imposes other requirements intended to foster quality, such as vineyard yields, alcohol levels, irrigation (or lack thereof) practices, harvesting methods, etc.

The appellation system has helped consumers know something about what to expect from a wine from a given appellation, and it has helped growers/producers to command premium prices for wines from highly regarded appellations.

But the appellation system can be confusing to the uninitiated. Trying to understand the appellations can be especially tricky in the Rhone Valley birthplace of the system. We’ll try to shed some light on appellations of the Rhone Valley.

North and South: Both Rhone Valley But Two Different Worlds

The first and most important distinction to learn in the Rhone Valley is based on geography but has nothing to do with appellations. The Rhone Valley has two very different parts.

The northern Rhone Valley, sometimes called the Cotes du Rhone Septentrionales by the French, begins near the village of Vienne, about 20 miles south of Lyons, and continues southward for more than 45 miles to near the city of Valence. The southern Rhone Valley, sometimes called the Cotes du Rhone Meridionales by the French, begins south of Montelimar and continues southward for more than 50 miles to the vicinity of the city of Avignon. Together, the two primary Rhone wine growing areas follow the Rhone River for nearly 125 miles, with a gap between the north and south of about 30 miles.

The northern Rhone Valley vineyards have a continental climate, whereas the southern Rhone Valley vineyards have a Mediterranean climate. The change in weather and vegetation is noticeable in the short distance from Montelimar to Valence, the dividing line between the north and the south. History and culture change at this same point. To the north cheeses are made from cows milk and to the south the cheeses are from goats milk. To the north cooking is done with butter and to the south cooking is done with olive oil. The northern Rhone Valley is narrow with steep cliffs on both sides. The vineyards are in a narrow strip near the river. The southern Rhone Valley is broader, and especially on the eastern side the slopes are much gentler. The vineyards are spread over hillsides and plains far from the river, especially to the east. This eastern side of the southern Rhone is in the department of the Vaucluse, the northern part of Provence. The villages of the southern Rhone are distinctly Provençal in architecture, food, accent, and every aspect of daily life. These sharp contrasts are reflected in the differences between the wines of the northern and southern Rhone Valley.

Northern Rhone Appellations

Northern Rhone wines are mostly red. And red wine in the northern Rhone is a single varietal: Syrah. Côte Rôtie, Hermitage and Cornas are the most famous of the northern Rhone appellations, and rightfully so, for Syrah from these three appellations are the world’s greatest Syrahs. The vineyards in these appellations are on steep, terraced slopes with thin, granitic soils high above the river. Saint-Joseph and Croze Hermitage also produce some excellent Syrah, but on slopes not nearly as steep.

There are some northern Rhone whites too. The tiny appellations of Condrieu and Chateau Grillet (this vineyard is its own appellation) produce only Viognier, a scarce and expensive wine that is rich, deeply colored, and highly aromatic. Hermitage Blanc is mostly Marsanne with some Roussanne, a rich wine with unusual aromatics. Crozes-Hermitage Blanc is also a blend of Marsanne and Roussanne; at its best it is a highly enjoyable and very food friendly wine. Saint-Joseph also produces a little Marsanne-Roussanne white. The southernmost of the northern Rhone appellations is Saint-Péray, which produces rather ordinary still and sparking white wines from Marsanne and Roussanne.

The wine growing areas of the northern Rhone that aren’t part of the above appellations are part of the general Cotes du Rhone appellation, which is mostly in the southern Rhone.

Southern Rhone Wines

Like the northern Rhone, most southern Rhone wines are red. But unlike the northern Rhone, southern Rhone wines are mostly blends of varietals. For the red wines, the predominant varietal is Grenache. Mourvedre and Syrah are common components of the red blends. Cinsault, Carignan, Counoise and other lesser known red varietals are also used by some producers. The southern Rhone white wines are also mostly blends. Grenache Blanc, Clairette and Bourboulenc are traditionally used in the white blends, and are increasingly being joined by the favored white varietals from the northern Rhone, Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne. The specific red and white blends vary widely from vineyard to vineyard and from producer to producer. Not all the wines are blends; there are a few bottlings of 100% Viognier, Syrah and even Counoise. But the vast majority of southern Rhone wines are blends.

Compared to Syrah from the northern Rhone, the red wines of the southern Rhone taste rounder and sunnier, almost a direct reflection of the differences in their places of origin.

Southern Rhone Appellations

The most famous appellation in the southern Rhone is Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Most Chateauneuf-du-Pape is a red blend in which the proportions of some or all of the permitted varietals vary widely from producer to producer. Small amounts of white (again mostly blends) Chateauneuf-du-Pape are produced. A 100% Roussanne is offered by Chateau Beaucastel (the cuvee Vieilles Vignes). We recently wrote about the diversity of Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines.

Just across the Rhone River from Chateauneuf-du-Pape is the Tavel appellation, which produces only rosé, some of it outstanding. Tavel’s neighboring appellation, Lirac, also produces some excellent rosé, but mostly produces very good reds and tiny amount of white.

Another of the well known appellations of the southern Rhone Valley is Gigondas, which became an AOC (independent appellation) in 1971. Gigondas producers offer outstanding rich red blends (a tiny amount of rosé is also produced). Gigondas is one of the Provençal hillside villages that ring the jagged Dentelles de Montmirail.

Its neighbor a short distance to the south, and also set just below the Dentelles, is Vacqueyras, which has only had AOC status since 1990. Nearly all Vacqueyras wines are red blends, with a small amount of rosé and a miniscule quantity of white also produced.

The nearby village of Beaumes de Venise, set near the south end of the Dentelles, was elevated to AOC status for its table wine in 2005. Like most of its neighbors, most Beaumes table wines are red, with small amounts of rosé and white produced. Beaumes de Venise has long had its own AOC for Muscat Beaumes de Venise, a sweet, fortified white wine. Another village, Rasteau, has its own appellation for its Rasteau-Village Vin Doux Naturel, white and red sweet wines produced from Grenache.

Also granted AOC status in 2005 is Vinsobres, a village in the northeastern portion of the Cotes du Rhone region of the southern Rhone Valley. Most Vinsobres wines are red blends. Some Vinsobres reds have more Syrah than is typical of this region, because of a slightly cooler climate conducive to Syrah.

The remainder of the wines of the southern Rhone Valley that don’t have their own AOC as listed above fall into one of three levels of Cotes du Rhone.

Generic Cotes du Rhone is the appellation (established in 1937) applied to wines meeting the appellation standards from a very wide area, mostly in the department of the Vaucluse on the east side of the Rhone River but also on the west side of the river in the Gard department, as well as other departments extending to the non-AOC areas of the northern Rhone. Most Cotes du Rhone wines are red blends, but some rosé and whites are produced. The quality varies widely. Unfortunately, much of the production is only of average quality. But there are many very good and even outstanding Cotes du Rhone bottlings, some from producers of AOC wines from Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, and other AOCs, and some from outstanding small growers whose properties happen to lie outside the boundaries of an appellation with a pedigree.

The next step up the ladder is the wine of the Cotes du Rhone-Villages. These wines are from about 95 villages (classified communes) that have earned this extra status because of their generally superior vineyards. Often these wines are of higher quality than generic Cotes du Rhone, although there are plenty of exceptions.

The highest level of Cotes du Rhone is the Cotes du Rhone-Villages category that entitles the producer to name the village on the label (e.g., Cotes du Rhone Villages Cairanne or Cotes du Rhone-Villages Rasteau). There are 18 such villages, alphabetically: Cairanne, Chusclan, Laudun, Massif d’Uchaux, Plan de Dieu, Puymeras, Rasteau, Roaix, Rochegude, Rousset-les-Vignes, Sablet, Saint-Gervais, Saint-Maurice, Saint-Pantaléon-les-Vignes, Séguret, Signargues, Valréas and Visan. Of these, we firmly believe that several are fully the equals of the recognized AOCs and richly deserve AOC status: Cairanne, Rasteau, Sablet, and Séguret. In the meantime, the wines from these four specific villages are among the best values in French wines, even with the currently weak dollar. In an earlier column, we cited some of our favorite bottlings from these villages as well as Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Beames de Venise.

Near the river north of Bollene and south of Montelimar, in the department of the Drôme, is the Coteaux de Tricastin. Tricastin wines are mostly red, and resemble Cotes du Rhone. They are generally soft, fruity and best for early drinking. The best have an attractive black pepper quality.

The Rhone Valley wine growing areas, stretching a total of about 125 miles from north to south along the river, produce both some of the world’s greatest wines and a sizeable amount of high-quality, reasonably priced wines. The diversity of styles is remarkable, and makes exploring these wines endlessly enjoyable and fascinating.