Making Sense of the Rhone Valley Appellations

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

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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.

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.