If someone asked, “What are the wines of Popes and Presidents?” what would you say? You might guess Bordeaux or Burgundy or maybe even Champagne. But the right answer is the wines of the Rhône Valley.
The mighty Rhône River bursts forth from Lake Geneva in Switzerland and flows 500 miles south to the Mediterranean Sea, passing Lyon and Avignon along the way. Along its shores are grown the grapes that make some of France’s greatest wines.
The “manliest” wines of France
In the north, the most famous wines are found near Lyon, where they are grown on steep hillsides to capture the sun’s heat. Here, the Syrah grape is king, making dark, austere wines that can last for decades. Hermitage was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson, who called it “the manliest wine of France.” Nearby, the wines of Côte-Rôtie (“roasted slope”) come from hillsides so steep that they must be terraced to keep the vines—and the winemakers! —from tumbling into the river below.
With top quality comes top price, and the best wines of Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie can cost hundreds of dollars. For more reasonable prices, and easier-drinking wines, consider those from St.-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage.
Delicious white wines of the Rhone
In addition to red wines, some of France’s best whites also come from the area. Just next to Côte-Rôtie is Condrieu, with vineyards as steep as its neighbor’s. Here the Viognier grape is in its glory, making lovely floral wines. Viognier almost disappeared during the Second World War, but it was since staged a comeback and is now found around the world.
While the wines of the northern Rhône are often made from a single kind of grape, those of the south are usually blends—sometimes five varieties of grape or more! Grenache dominates here, making soft and generous wines for pure drinking pleasure. Other popular grapes of the southern Rhône include Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault and Roussanne.
The wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape
The most famous wine of the south comes from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which means “new chateau of the Pope.” In the 14th century, when the papacy moved to Avignon, it was here that the Pope built his summer palace and planted his vines. Today the town is surrounded by vineyards, some covered with the area’s famous galets roulés, or “rolled pebbles.” These are large, round rocks that absorb the sun’s heat during the day and then reflect it back to the vines at night, helping the grapes to ripen. As in the north, top bottles can be quite expensive, but excellent values abound in nearby areas like Gigondas, Vacqueras, and Cairanne.
For the very best values, in either the northern or southern Rhône, look for bottles labeled Côtes du Rhône. As in other winemaking regions of France, the best wines get to put the name of their local area on the label—Hermitage, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, etc. Other wines from the region use a more generic name, in this case Côtes du Rhône. But a generic name doesn’t mean a generic wine! Côtes du Rhône wines are some of the best values in all of France—delicious wines that are worth far more than what you pay.
So whether you are looking for a special-occasion bottle or just a simple weeknight quaffer, consider the wines that have graced the tables of Popes and Presidents alike: the wines of the Rhône Valley.
Keith Van Sickle splits his time between Silicon Valley and Provence. He is the author of One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence and Are We French Yet? Keith & Val’s Adventures in Provence. Read more at Life in Provence.