The Rhone Valley – a 360° wine panorama

Over 250 km from North to South, the vineyards of the Rhone Valley line one of France’s major rivers which brings life to the region. Here, the vineyard sites birth myriad wines. But what are their defining features and varietals? We take a deep dive into one of the oldest wine regions in the world.


  • From Antiquity to the present day
  • The Northern Rhone Valley and its legendary appellations
  • The 4 varietals that reign supreme in the northern reaches
  • The Southern Rhone Valley and the art of blending

From Antiquity to the present day

Vines have thrived along the banks of the Rhone since Antiquity, with the Romans introducing vine growing to the region. By the 14th century, the local wines – dubbed ‘wines of the Popes’ – had established an international reputation.

The present-day Rhone Valley wine region extends over more than 66,000 hectares or, as industry members like to say, “nearly 70,000 rugby pitches”. For appellation wines, it is France’s second largest region by volume after Bordeaux. In 2023, 5,000 farms produced 2.4 million hectolitres of wine.

The region offers a 360° vision of wine, spanning the stylistic spectrum, from  still white,  rosé and predominantly red wines (74%) to dessert and sparkling wines.

With its 31 AOCs (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) including 17 Crus, this major wine region is divided into two, very different areas: the Northern and the Southern Rhone Valley. From the soils and climate to the grape varieties, the differences between the two areas are significant. The region also covers other areas, from Vivarais to the Luberon and Die, which are farther away but nonetheless still part of the broader Rhone Valley wine region.

The Northern Rhone Valley and its legendary appellations

Vines flourish on the stunning narrow and breathtakingly steep hillsides, often terraced with dry stone walls for support. The soils are mostly granite and schist. The climate is temperate with a continental influence and the wind blows down the deep-cut valley. Lining the Rhone from North to South is a string of legendary appellations, from Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu to Saint-Joseph, Hermitage and Cornas to name a few.

The 4 varietals that reign supreme in the northern reaches

For reds, Syrah rules the roost. It delivers powerful, aromatic wines driven by red and black fruits, violet and delicious spicy notes of pepper and liquorice that are the variety’s trademark.

For whites, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne are the go-to grapes. Viognier offers up a mellow palate and a perfumed nose scented with yellow fruits that range from mango and pear to apricot, alongside white flowers. Condrieu and Château-Grillet appellation wines are single-varietal Viogniers. Occasionally, for Côte-Rôtie, a dash of Syrah is added.

Roussanne displays the ultimate in finesse, exuding floral scents of honeysuckle and iris. It is customary for the variety to be coupled with the powerful Marsanne grape with its dried fruit aromas – this is true of the Saint-Joseph and Hermitage appellations.

The Southern Rhone Valley and the art of blending

Vineyards in the South climb over plateaux and rolling hillsides. The soils are clay-gravel, sand and pebble-strewn. Here, the sun shines 2,800 hours a year and a dry, blustery wind – the Mistral – sweeps away both the clouds and the dampness.

The art of blending

In the southern part of the region, many grape varieties are fermented as blends. Grenache is the king of red varietals, yielding wines with aromas of black fruits like blackcurrant and blackberry. As the wines mature, they develop spice and garrigue aromas. Grenache is blended primarily with Syrah and Mourvèdre, though also Cinsault and Carignan.

In the high-end Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation, 13 different grape varieties  can be blended to produce red and white wines, though Grenache noir remains predominant for the reds. It thrives on the glorious and amazing pebble-strewn soils swept down by the Rhone aeons ago. The stones absorb the heat of the day and radiate it back over night.

In the southern part of the valley, rosés are often blended from the same grape varieties as the reds. One example is Tavel, France’s oldest rosé-only appellation.

The whites offer a fusion of Grenache blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Roussanne, Marsanne and Rolle, to name a few.

From North to South, and from light pours to fine age-worthy offerings, the wines of the Rhone Valley invite visitors to indulge in some wine-centric tourism to explore both the legendary appellations and the rising stars, including Rasteau, Cairanne and so many more.

Anne Schoendoerffer

Sources: , Anne Schoendoerffer

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