French Wine- Differences between Northern and Southern Rhône

Wine grapes

Grapes in Châteauneuf du Pape end of July

The wine industry has always intimidated me with there being so much to know about the grapes, land, climate, process etc. I’ve done several wine tours in Washington, Oregon and California but after a glass of wine my concentration tends to ebb along with the retention of my newfound knowledge. Old world wines are even more confusing as wine is identified by region, and the regulations that fall under it, rather than the variety. Thus, I took on the Rhône Valley with trepidation but determined to piece it all together.

Côtes du Rhône-Wine-Region-Map1

An overview of the Rhône wine Valley

The Rhône is made up of the southern part, which essentially extends from Avignon to Montélimar. Then there is a small break where there are no vineyards until the northern Rhône begins just south of Valence. The northern and southern wine valleys share the Rhône River and the wine classifications but, surprisingly; the similarities end there.

Random Facts:

  • Entire wine valley production: Red- 86%, Rosé-9%, White-5%. So if you’re looking for whites you should head to the Loire or Alsace.
  • Alcohol content is higher, between 13-15%, in the Southern Rhône due to the hot sun. Châteauneuf-du-Pape has the highest minimum alcohol content in all of France at 12.5%.
  • Believe it or not, wine tasting at many wineries is still free of charge in most places. It is courteous to buy a bottle but it isn’t obligatory.
  • Many wineries require a reservation, however, most tasting rooms in the cities don’t require one.


Rhône Valley classification pyramid

Rhône Valley classification pyramid


Wine Classifications 

The Crus- top of pyramid

Côte du Rhône (named) Village AOC

Côte du Rhône Village AOC

Côte du Rhône AOC-50% of the wine production of the Rhône falls into this category


Southern Rhône terrain


Southern Rhone Valley

The Southern Rhône is a hot climate receiving about 208 days of sun a year. When it does rain, shortly after, the powerful Mistral winds whip through the valley, drying the grapes quickly; ensuring the grapes do not get humid and steam when the sun reappears. Another unique characteristic to this area is the soil, which is composed of clay, limestone, sand and pebbles. The soil protects the vines by giving them water slowly and retaining heat for the cooler evenings.

Generally the AOCs can use up to 21 grape varieties but most of the Crus, like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, are regulated to 13. You’ll find many blends but Grenache is the primary variety used. Of the 13, there are 4 grapes that are used for whites, with the primary white grape being Grenache Blanc.

The Crus vineyards in the South: Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Rasteau, Beaumes des Venise, Vacqueyras, Lirac, Tavel


Vieux Telegramme

Vieux Télégramme – Châteauneuf-du-Pape- One of my favs!

An overview of the Northern Valley

The slightly cooler Northern Rhône can be identified by its steep “Côte” where the majority of the vineyards grow. This means all work must be done by hand as machines can’t maneuver the slope. The primary grape is Syrah. What is especially interesting is that the North only uses 5 grapes: Syrah, Grenache, Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne. Unlike the South where you find many blends, you’ll get many 100% syrah wines here. Another interesting characteristic to the area is that many of the Côte Roties are a Syrah and Viognier blend (though wine makers are not allowed more than 20% Viognier) giving a finishing sweetness.


Côtes du Rhône

Côtes du Rhône

The Cru Vinyards of the North: Cornas, Condrieu, Château-Grillet, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, Saint-Joseph, Saint Péray and Diois

The Rhône Valley hasn’t had many devastating years but 2014 is making wine makers cringe as they’ve had record rainfall in July. Many feel if the weather clears up now it won’t affect the 2014 vintage.  It’ll  be interesting to see how it turns out.

*This may seem like a dry post but I wrote a summary that I would have liked to read before my trip. I’ll write more on my personal experiences and food encounters in the valley soon.













  1. Brian H says

    Liz, while there are regulations, such as the Viognier limit, I wonder if the wineries can still make wines to their own specification outside the regulations and sell them, just without any classification?

    And why do some of us struggle with old world wines? Is it production differences, vine age or actual terroir?

    • says

      Brian, the regulations vary per classification; the crus are very strict (i.e. Châteauneuf du Pape must: do all harvesting by hand, limited to 13 grape varieties, there are regulations on varietal %, must have a alcohol content of 12.5-15% and the list goes on). The bottom tier of the pyramid VDF (Vins de France) have the least regulations. VDF have tons of flexibility but their wine will end up being cheap table wine. Though they can be quite good…
      I find the old world wines confusing because, often times, the variety is not listed on the bottle. There is a different classification for each wine region and I find it hard to memorize all the villages. Consequently, I don’t remember what I like or don’t and why. For example, if I saw VDF on a bottle, previous to this trip, I had no context what that meant. Now that I am familiar with the Rhône, I understand more about French wines as a whole. We are headed to the Asti wine region in Italy tomorrow. More to learn…

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