A confident wind is blowing through the Rhône valley; Syrah, Grenache and Viognier are the grapes of the moment, and the Mediterranean diet has been adopted around the world as the mark of a good life, further energising sales of Rhône wines. From Côte-Rôtie through to the Châteauneuf-du-Pape, there is a sense of optimism and forward motion.
While united by the presence of the river, the two halves of the region couldn’t be more different. The northern Rhône consists of a narrow band of vineyards that follow the course of the river as it heads south. The vineyards are dramatically steep in parts, and the climate is continental, similar to that of the southern extremes of Burgundy. In terms of the wines produced, Syrah reigns supreme as the only red varietal, while white wines invariably consist of a proportion of both Marsanne and Roussanne.
Other than the river, the south shares very little with the north. Flatter and much more Mediterranean in climate, it is Grenache that features most heavily for red wine production, supported mainly by Syrah and Mourvèdre. White wine production is equally as varied; Grenache Blanc, Bourbelenc, Clairette, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne are all found here. With such a wide base of varieties, styles and wines can and do vary dramatically.
A late ripening grape which can achieve high alcohol levels, Grenache is the mainstay of the southern Rhône, contributing more than half of a typical blend, and up to 100% in the wines of Gigondas. Unless picked at low yields, from old vines, it can lack concentration so that it is often mixed with the deep-pigmented Syrah or the more tannic Mourvèdre. The sweet-tasting, raspberry-scented Grenache provides the heart of the blend in Chateauneuf-du-Pape and is also used extensively in the wines of Provence and in the Languedoc. Known as Garnacha in Spain. The variety offers a spicy, aromatic profile that has proved increasingly popular: bush-trained, old-vine Grenache today has a cult following amongst Australian producers.
Under the synonym Garnacha, this variety is found in numerous northern Spanish wines, where its sweet, raspberry fruit notes and gentle tannins contribute warmth to the blend. It is an important component in many a rioja, coming from the warm, Baja district, providing an earthy richness. Known in France as Grenache.
A variety with a growing number of references. The principal component of the elegant, long-living wines of Bandol in Provence, Mourvèdre has a growing following in the south of the Rhône where it provides backbone in several serious châteauneuf-du-pape blends, a tannic counterpoint to the softer Grenache. And, as Monastrell, it is the second most planted red grape in Spain, enjoying a strong reputation in the wines of Peñedes and Jumilla. Also grown in Australia where it is known as Mataro. It offers a wild, gamey taste, with a blackberry overtone in youth.
One of France's noble red grape varieties, responsible for some of the Rhône Valley's best wines and a component in many others. A small-berried, thick-skinned grape which needs the warmth of the Midi sun to ripen fully, Syrah produces deep coloured, perfumed wines with refined tannins that permit long ageing. Notes of violets can be found in the best northern Rhône wines, together with dark berry fruits and frequently coal tar. With age secondary aromas suggest leather and game. Its depth and structure are frequently exploited to beef up the softer Grenache in southern Rhône and Languedoc blends.
Synonymous with Syrah, Shiraz has become hugely influential in Australia. Once regarded merely as a workhorse, the quality of old-vine productions has changed perceptions forever, and now it is Australia's most planted quality red variety. The 'Oz' version is richer and more muscular than its Rhône cousin, frequently attaining alcohol levels in excess of 15%. In the Barossa, the best Shiraz are fruit-laden and brimming with spice and toast with a rich, creamy palate. In South Africa, Chile and New Zealand too the variety has shown significant potential to cause excitement.
Carignan has a downbeat reputation, probably as it is only too well associated with the sea of plonk that was produced in the Midi in the second half of the 20th Century. A late-budding variety it can be difficult to ripen properly, but increasingly producers in both France and Spain are focussing on low-yielding old-vine cuvées delivering meaty, tannic wines with good colour and acidity. The variety offers flesh and spice but can be overwhelmed by oak. An important grape in Catalonia where it is a major contributor to a number of well-known wines including Priorat. Also known as Cariñena and, in Rioja, Mazuelo.
Perhaps most known for being a parent of the South African Pinotage (with Pinot Noir), it is also cultivated widely throughout Southern France, Italy and, due to its drought-tolerance, in Lebanon and South Africa. With its light skin and a soft perfume, Cinsault is particularly well suited to making delicate rosés. On the palate, this variety is typified by notes of blue fruits, nuts and spices and is frequently used to soften or to add a touch of delicate fruit to the blends of the Rhône and of Minervois and Corbières.
Rarely seen on its own, Counoise lives largely as a minor string in the blends of red châteauneuf-du-pape. It occasionally stands alone as, when tended carefully, it produces a characterful wine with medium alcohol, good texture and a rewarding spicy character. Claimed to be an ideal partner to North African couscous.