“There are many ways in which science is used to explain terroir, but I would argue that scientific knowledge helps to quantify and thus legitimize long-held traditions of grape growing and planting. Such knowledge in turn affirms the intuitive approaches to winemaking practiced over the centuries in the traditional wine-growing regions of Europe.”
Amy B. Trubeck from The Taste of Place
The Rhône and Loire rivers, if taken together, bring to a geographic focus nearly the whole of France. The two rivers never meet but they pass relatively near each other while flowing in different directions; the Loire flowing north some seven miles west of St. Etienne and the Rhône flowing south about eighteen miles east of St. Etienne, near the town of Chavanay, one of the northern most villages in the Saint Joseph appellation.
I like to imagine that long before cities were built and humans walked the earth, these two immense and powerful aqua-highways had a relationship, something akin to a gravitational pull (that’s another way of saying romance). Even though they could not see each other, I imagine they could feel each other’s presence and in the primordial silence, the movement of each river might have given rise to a song which would have echoed between the Massif Central and the Alps.
The Rhône river begins in the Swiss Alps and flows 810 kilometers until it finally washes into the Mediterranean Sea. The vineyard area referred to generally as the Côtes du Rhône extends from Lyon in the north to Avignon in the south. The northern Rhône, known as the “vignoble septentrional,” is linked to the historic importance of Lyon whose commercial and gastronomic vitality have encouraged the northern Rhône vineyards to flourish. The northern vineyards lie on a narrow band of steep granite hills that represent the eastern extreme of the Massif Central. They run along the western edge of the river for a forty mile stretch between Vienne and Valence. The exceptions are the recently replanted vineyards in Vienne and the Hermitage vineyards, all of which lie on the eastern side. The climates of the northern and southern regions are notably different, with the north being cooler and wetter (a gift from the Swiss Alps that comes with the river). This is a major contributing factor to the extraordinary qualities of the northern Rhône reds which are cool climate Syrahs. The southern Rhône is quite separate from the northern region. It fans out around Avignon some hundred kilometers to the south of Valence. The southern Rhone known as the “vignoble méridional,” benefits from a Mediterranean influence which brings warmer and dryer air. It is here that one encounters lavender, olive trees and Grenache. The geology and topology of the southern Rhône are extremely variable with rivers and glaciers leaving certain zones with an abundance of surface stones. It is the Grenache grape that above all offers a thread of continuity to the red wines of the region.
The A.O.C. scheme of the Rhône Valley resembles that of Beaujolais and by French A.O.C. standards, it is rather simply organized, but of course not without its exceptions and contradictions. The appellations between Lyon and Avignon (with the exception of the Diois vineyards along the Drôme river in the Pre-Alps) are collectively known as Cotes du Rhône and include 171 communes spread throughout six départemants. The most basic appellation in the hierarchy covers wines that are labeled as Côtes du Rhône but technically referred to as Côtes du Rhône Régionales. Virtually all of these vineyards are located in the southern four départemants: Drôme, Ardèche, Vaucluse and Gard. Also located in these same four départemants, is the next level in the hierarchy, which is called Côtes du Rhône Villages. It includes 95 communes with a select 18 that are authorized to add their specific village name on the label. At the top of the order are the 13 Crus of Côtes du Rhône which do use their village of origin names on the label but not the word “Cru”. Eight of the “crus” lie in the northern Rhone: Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu, Château Grillet, Saint Joseph, Cornas Saint Péray, Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage. Five lie in the southern part: Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Tavel and Lirac. There are additionally two villages whose red wines figure in the Côtes du Rhône Villages appellation, that have been given a separate A.O.C. for sweet wines known as vin doux natural. These are the villages of Rasteau and Beaumes de Venise. To finish out the Rhône Valley viticole, there are four independent appellations in the southern Rhône: Côtes du Vivarais, Coteaux du Tricastin, Côtes du Ventoux and Côtes du Luberon. All of this is to show that simple is not necessarily synonymous with simplistic.
When I started in the wine business in 1979, the wines of the Rhone Valley, with the exception of Hermitage and Châteauneuf du Pape, were little known or appreciated in the United States. At the time, a tasting of Saint Joseph wines seemed very exotic. This is in stark contrast to the enormous popularity the Rhône Valley’s wines enjoyed today. I don’t imagine that the ancient Romans would be surprised.