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The Rhône: Western civilization's first great wine outpost



The Rhône may not be as universally-known a wine region as Champagne, Burgundy, or Bordeaux – but for those who know wine, the wines from this long valley are appreciated as some of the best in the world, especially when it comes time to pair with food.

The history of wine in the Rhône Valley dates back more than 2500 years. The two principal grapes of the region – syrah and viognier – were brought by the Greeks and the Romans, respectively. Those grapes flourished for thousands of years in the cool climate of the valley, and although the winemaking styles have changed somewhat over the years, tradition is still an integral part of wine in the area.

The Rhône is divided into two major regions: the Northern Rhône and the Southern Rhône. Both contain eight smaller sub-regions, and two catch-all designations are used for non-appellation wine (Côte du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages). The north is known primarily for its syrah-based wines, and to some extent its viognier. The south is known for its blends incorporating many different grapes.

Northern Rhône wines are, generally speaking, more prestigious and costly than those produced in the south. Only four grapes are used in the north: syrah, viognier, roussanne, and marsanne. Different appellations allow different grapes to be used in their blends. For example, Côte Rôtie only allows wine to be made from a minimum of 80% syrah, with only viognier making up the remainder, so this region produces primarily syrah-based wine (using small amounts of viognier to add floral characteristics to the nose, and to round out the wine). Saint-Joseph, on the other hand, requires a minimum of 80% syrah, but only allows marsanne and roussanne as blend grapes. The Condrieu and Château-Grillet appellations allow only the use of viognier.

In the south it is an entirely different story. There are 27 different varieties grown in the Southern Rhône, and some appellations allow more than 20 grapes to be used in blending. These range from the four grapes of the north, to well-known varietals such as carignan and grenache, to little known varieties like calitor and terret noir. In most appellations a distinction is made between grapes allowed as a primary grape, and grapes allowed as a supplemental blending grape. The most famous exception to this, and the most famous region in the Southern Rhône, is Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where winemakers can choose from 18 different varietals in any proportions they choose to make their wines.