France’s Rhône Valley is home and birthplace to one of the most diverse and interesting collections of grape varieties for an area its size in the world. While the northern Rhône sticks to a few which thrive on the steep, rocky slopes there, the valley widens in the south and the rolling hills support over 20 grape varieties, some of them with multiple color clones. Châteauneuf du Pape alone allows 13 varieties and varying clones of several. Grenache is the most common variety in the south and comes in Grenache Noir, Gris and Blanc clones. Grenache Noir is the most common. It’s the backbone of many southern Rhône wines and adds color from its dark skin, spice and currant notes and a silky finish. Grenache Blanc can be added to red Châteauneuf but is more common in white wine.
Syrah gives lower yields but its small, nearly black grapes give structure and a wide range of aromas and flavors from raspberry, blueberry and blackberry to truffle, pepper and leather. It’s at its peak in the northern Rhône.
Mourvèdre is another classic variety grown in the south and more prominently in Bandol. It supplies dark color and structure to the blend with notes of black fruits and the local garrigue. It ages well and becomes more complex with time.
Cinsault is a vigorous grower and needs to be controlled but gives bright fruit to blends. Terret Noir lends fruit to blends but is only used sparingly. Vaccarèse in small quantities adds freshness and floral notes. There is little Counoise planted today but it gives some fruity notes to blends. Muscardin, not to be confused with Muscadet or Muscat, is red and gives floral notes and acidity to a blend.
White varieties can be used in white and red blends and some producers use all of these in their red wines. Roussanne is the queen of the white grapes. It brings elegance and floral notes with structure to blends and is bottled as a single variety in some of the best whites of the southern Rhône. Picpoul is a highly yielding variety that adds alcohol and strength to blends. It is more common in the Languedoc where it matches with the local seafood. Very little Picardan is grown today, but it can add a little sweet fruit to the mix. Bourboulenc in tiny quantities in a blend adds some floral notes but little structure or alcohol. Clairette Blanc is a juicy grape yielding alcohol and fruit but low acidity.
Aside from Châteauneuf du Pape, other noteworthy varieties in the Rhône include Marsanne and Viognier, white grapes that are the parents of some of the north’s great whites and Muscat which produces sweet, aromatic wines.
Here are just a few of the Rhône wines from these varieties you can find at your local ABC Fine Wine & Spirits.
- Domaine Durieu Châteauneuf du Pape, $34.99
- Domaine Durieu Côtes du Rhône Villages Plan de Dieu, $14.99
- Clos d’Alzan Côtes du Rhône Villages Signargues, $13.99
- Domaine des Carteresses Tavel Rosé, $13.99
- Domaine de Verquière Rasteau, $15.99
Brad Lewis, Contributing Writer