The northernmost wine region of France's Rhône Valley, Côte Rôtie — literally "roasted hillside," a reference to its exposure to the sun — produces what are often considered the greatest syrah-based wines in the world, dense, meaty, and complex. Syrah is the only red grape permitted in the appellation, though the white grape viognier is also grown here, and is often (but not always) cofermented with syrah, in quantities no higher than 20 percent, to soften the wine and lend additional aroma. The most famous wines of the region are the pricey single-vineyard cuvées from Guigal (La Landonee, La Mouline, and La Turque), but there are many other fine examples of the wine.
Just south of Côte Rôtie, this white wine region makes wine exclusively from viognier. Condrieu is rich, perfume-y, well-rounded wine, with flavors of dried fruit and peaches or melon. Cuilleron and Perret are two of the most dependable producers.
Toward the southern end of the Northern Rhône Valley, Hermitage produces red wine that is often considered the equal of Côte Rôtie — and like that wine, it is made from syrah, sometimes cofermented with a small percentage of white grapes (marsanne and roussanne in Hermitage). These wines are tannic, earthy, and full of fruit. White wine is also produced in the region — from marsanne and roussanne; it is rich, with a honeyed character.
The small and, some would say underrated Cornas appellation produces syrah-based red wines exclusively. The addition of white wine grapes, as in Côte Rôtie and Hermitage, is prohibited. The wines are typically very dark and extracted, with complex flavor in which the fruit is well-integrated. Augustus Clape and Noël Verset are among the most successful producers.
The best-known appellation in the Southern Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape takes its name from the castle built here by Pope John XXII in the 14th century, when the Papacy moved temporarily from Rome to nearby Avignon. Both red and white wines are produced, and some 18 grape varieties are permitted. The predominant red variety is grenache, with mourvèdre and syrah also important. Other permitted red varieties are cinsault, counoise, muscardin, piquepoul noir, terret noir, and vaccarèse; white varieties are bourboulenc, clairette blanche, clairette rose, grenache blanc, grenache gris, picardan, piquepoul blanc, piquepoul gris, and roussanne. White wine grapes are permitted in red wines and vice versa. Some producers produce reds that are 95 to 100 percent grenache and some use at least token quantities of 13 or 14 varieties, but nobody puts them all into one wine and most examples are blends of three or four varieties. The clay soil in the northern reaches of the appellation is virtually invisible, being covered with large round pebbles called galets roulés; these reflect the sunlight and retain heat, hastening the ripening of the grapes. The character of the wines varies according to the varieties used, but the reds can range from almost Burgundian elegance to ripe power and intensity of flavor; the whites are known for their structure and complexity. Château de Beaucastel and Domaine du Vieux-Télègraphe are two of the most famous producers.
Only rosé wines may be bottled under this Southern Rhône appellation. The wines are made predominantly from grenache and cinsault, sometimes with syrah and/or mourvèdre included. They are dry and end toward orange in color, but are generally full-bodied for rosé.
This Southern Rhône appellation produces full-bodied, ripe red wines blended mostly from grenache with smaller quantities of syrah, mourvèdre, and/or other red Rhône grapes. There is a small quantity of rosé produced. One of the top producers is Domaine les Pallières, co-owned by California wine merchant Kermit Lynch.
Located between Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas, this region produces less interesting wines than either, but can offer good value. The reds, based on grenache and to a lesser extent syrah, with some mourvèdre, cinsault, and other red Rhône varieties, are similar to those of Gigondas but often softer. There is a tiny percentage of white wine made here, from bourboulenc and clairette.
Côtes du Rhône
Both Côtes du Rhône and the more prestigious Côtes du Rhône Villages appellations are used for a wide variety of red, white, and rosé wines from throughout the Rhône Valley. Some 18 villages are allowed to add their name to the Côtes du Rhône designation, the best-known being Cairanne, Laudun, and Chusclan. More than 20 grape varieties are permitted in various parts of the region (the most prevalent are grenache for reds and grenache blanc for whites), and soil types vary greatly, from granite and limestone to sandstone and loess. The wines thus span a broad spectrum of style and quality. Côtes du Rhône can be ordinary everyday plonk or can approach real distinction (for instance in the hands of the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, whose Coudoulet de Beaucastel is one of the appellation's stars).
From north to south, the Rhône Valley encompasses a wide range of appellations beyond such famous ones as Côte Rôtie, Hermitage, Condrieu, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. These include Château Grillet (a very small appellation with a single producer, also called Château Grillet, making viognier-based wines in an enclave enclosed by Condrieu), St. Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage (producing good-quality reds and whites), Lirac (known for rosé but also making good, low-key reds and whites), St. Péray (which yields white and sparkling wines), and Beaumes-de-Venise (famous for its muscat-based dessert wine).