Like the Northern Rhone, the Southern Rhone is dominated by red wine production. Compared to the Northern Rhone, however, the wines of the south are typically a lusher, riper, lower acid, more alcoholic style. This is thanks largely to the hotter climate and the dominance of Grenache.
The Rhone can be divided into four quality levels: Cotes du Rhone, Cotes du Rhone Villages, Cotes du Rhone with a named village, and the crus. There are 10 crus in the Southern Rhone. Here we’ll only focus on the main three — Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, and Vacqueyras.
The crus tend to be full bodied, concentrated, age worthy wines whereas the broader Cotes du Rhone appellation is generally a much lighter bodied early drinking style. The village designated wines can be somewhere in between. Either way, they all seem to share a degree of lush, sweet red fruit (strawberry and raspberry).
Another character many wines of the Southern Rhone share is that of garrigue. Garrigue refers to the scrub land found along the Mediterranean coast of France. It is made up of mainly low lying shrubs like juniper, broom, thyme and rosemary. Together these shrubs give the land a unique crushed herb, leafy “garrigue” aroma. In Australia, it’s been shown vineyards close to Eucalyptus trees produce wines with more eucalypt notes than vineyards that are not. It is possible (although it hasn’t been proven as far as I know) that a similar thing could happen in vineyards surrounded by garrigue.
Grenache is by far the most dominant variety in the Southern Rhone. And, is largely responsible for the generous sweet red fruit (raspberries and strawberries), confectionery notes, and elevated alcohol levels that are the hallmarks of many Southern Rhone wines. However, there is also a broad range of other varieties are allowed.
In Chateaunuef-du-Pape 13 different varieties are permitted. There’s no regulation how much of each variety producers need to use. Some use only one, such as Chateau Reyas who use 100% Grenache. Whereas others, like Chateau Beaucastel, will use all 13. This allows for a wide range of styles from Chateauneuf — which doesn’t help when blind tasting.
The other appellations within the Southern Rhone tend to regulate the percentage of each variety allowed in the final composition of the wine. For all of these appellations Grenache is the principle variety needing to comprise at least 40-50% of the composition, depending on the appellation.
Syrah and Mouvedre are known as complementary varieties. Depending on the appellation, they need to be no less than 15-20% of the final blend. Syrah can bring structure, spice, and aromatics. While Mouvedre can bring strong tannins, structure. elegance, and meaty notes.Usually, at least 70-90% of the blend needs to be made up of these three varieties.
Then there’s the accessory varieties. These include things like Cinsault and Carignan and a range of other more obscure varieties. Typically, these accessory varieties can only make up only 10-30% of the blend. In addition, less accessory varieties can be used as you move up the quality levels — these are typically high yield varieties of little distinction (at least at high yields).
The Southern Rhone also produces some distinctive white wines. While not as prevalent as reds they are still a common style that come up reasonably frequently in blind tastings and will be looked at in another post.
Red wines of the Southern Rhone
What it tastes like: they can be highly variable. From structured, refined and savoury to smooth, lush and jammy. Generally, though, all should be full bodied and powerful with elevated alcohol — at least 14% with many nudging 15%. There should be a good level of concentration and complexity with a range of flavours along the lines of ripe red and black fruits, game, tar, leather, crushed herbs, smoke and spice.
Why it tastes like this: Hot climate, poor soils, well exposed sites, and low yields and old vines generally increase flavour concentration and density of a wine. Relatively low yields of 35 hl/ha are the maximum allowed but top producers, such as Chateau Rayas, will yield much lower averaging 15-20 hl/ha. Not all vineyards in Chateauneuf have the galets stones, but for those that do, they store daytime heat and radiate back (but also stop evaporation of water from soil) increasing the ripeness of fruit flavour and reducing acid. High level of Grenache (typically 75%). Really ripe Grenache can be reminiscent of lush, stewed, confected, jammy, or dried red fruits typically raspberry and strawberry. Super ripe fruit combined with traditional winemaking and aging in large old oak gives the combination of both savoury and sweet characteristics.
What it tastes like: rich, bold and powerful with relatively high alcohol. Sumptuous and plummy. Crushed strawberry and good sprinkle of pepper. Can be tight-knit and structured. Less luster and sophistication than Chateauneuf. Typically more rustic and animally.
Why it tastes like this: higher elevation and more limestone than Chateauneuf could contribute to the tighter, firmer structure. Newer, less prestigious appellation means commands less money in the market and therefore yields will necessarily be higher –although max yields only 36 hl/ha still higher than average Chateauneuf.
What it tastes like: less refined than Chateauneuf and Gigondas and more rustic. More like supercharged Cotes du Rhone-Villages. Still dark and rich with dried herbs and spice typical southern Rhone.
Why it tastes like this: typically less Grenache than Gigondas with more Syrah or Mouvedre required (20% minimum). Slightly higher yields. Maximum 10% of accessory varieties. Cheaper than Gigondas.
Cotes du Rhone – Villages
What it tastes like: moderately rich in style, with dark fruit flavours, and the spice of Syrah, slightly tannic.
Why it tastes like this: Villages have better exposures than standard Cotes du Rhone but not as good as the crus. Generally, made to be approachable young but able to keep 2-3 years showing great concentration. Minimum potential alcohol of 12% a degree higher than standard Cotes du Rhone. Yields much higher than the crus (44 hl/ha) and 20% of accessory varieties can be used.
Cotes du Rhone
What it tastes like: Simple, forward, light fruity wine for early consumption. Can sometimes have a slight stemmy character
Why it tastes like this: increasing tendency to use carbonic maceration to emphasis youthful fruity early drinking style. Relatively low minimum potential alcohol 11% requirements. High yields of 51 hl/ha and up to 30% of accessory varieties allowed.
What else: wines under the Cotes du Rhone moniker can be sourced anywhere in the Rhone, including the north. However, the fast majority is sourced from the Southern Rhone.Those from south (90%) favour Grenache have higher alcohol, more abundant fruit of stewed blueberry, raspberry and plum. Those from the north, such as Guigal, typically have more Syrah and are slightly more structured with notes of black cherry and fresh pepper