On the Rhone Trail
The lesser-known Rhone Valley has quickly become an oenophile’s delight, claiming both high-end collectors and down-to-earth wine aficionados.
The beauty of the Rhone valley— both the place itself and its wines— can stop people in their tracks. Rolling, rocky, picturesque, and verdant, with ancient stone churches anchoring hilltop towns, the landscape is as riveting as the wine that has made the area famous.
Located in warm and welcoming Southern France, between Burgundy and the Cote d’Azur, the Rhone is one of the country’s storied wine regions, sought-after by high-end collectors and casual Cotes-du-Rhone sippers but perhaps less famous internationally than Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne.
However, that’s all quickly changing. “In the last 10 years, the Rhone wines have become more and more interesting,” says Michel Chapoutier, who runs Maison Chapoutier, one of the top producers. Critical raves by the likes of Robert Parker, in addition to auction records for the best wines, have boosted the profile of the area. As Chapoutier says, “All of that attention made us realize, little by little, that wines of the Rhone Valley were becoming increasingly fashionable.”
That has, of course, added to the number of people who want to travel there. It’s a big region, stretching for more than 100 miles—long and skinny— so winding drives are par for the course.
In the old days, there wasn’t much infrastructure for visitors, yet that too is shifting. “The beauty of the Rhone is that more people have opened a tasting room lately, and you can go and taste for free— they’ve maintained a family-style greeting, and they are happy to see you,” says Christophe Tassan, a Rhone native and wine director of the acclaimed San Francisco restaurant The Battery. The Rhone is predominantly a land of red wines (the tiny appellation of Condrieu is a glorious exception, where all production is devoted to the white grape, Viognier). Syrah and Grenache rule the roost (though in French style, you’ll never see those words on the label), and the hot weather lends big, powerful wines.
The region has a strong geographical division between north and south in terms of focus on grapes. “The dominance of Grenache in the south generally provides wines with fruitiness, a sense of warmth and richness, and subtle tannins, whereas the powerful Syrah grape in the north produces wines with more structure, spice, tannin, and distinct personalities,” says acclaimed winemaker Philippe Guigal of the legendary Northern Rhonebased producer E. Guigal, particularly known for their Cote-Rotie wines.
His friendly rival Chapoutier has his own funny, distinct spin on the differences between north and south, an oft-debated topic among natives. “The choice is easy,” says Chapoutier, discussing the texture of the wines in both areas (and he produces from both halves). “If I want something more ‘round,’ I’ll go to the South. If I want something more structured or ‘square,’ I’ll go to the North. If I want to buy a wine I’ll keep for 50 years, I’ll choose a Northern Rhone. If I want to buy a wine that I’ll drink 10 years from now, I will choose a Southern Rhone wine. The North is monogamy and the South is polygamy.” At this, he laughs, and his sense of humor underscores what makes the Rhone special—an earthy, rich, vibrant sensibility.
Many travelers approach the Rhone by arriving in Paris and then journeying to Lyon (often on the super-fast TGV train), a city known as the seat of French gastronomy and packed with Michelin-starred restaurants. It’s a beautiful course to travel, especially if you’re food-focused, yet so is the bottom-up route, ideal for the lifestyle lover who wants to begin on the beaches of the Riviera or the Cote d’Azur and head north.
Either way, you’ll soon discover that the Rhone is about the heart, not the head. “You don’t need lots of education to appreciate it,” says Tassan. “It shows its ease right away.” And these days, something effortless and beautiful has a mighty appealing ring to it.