Friday, September 16, 2011

RHONE: A River runs thru It

It is defined by a mighty river.

Head due South from Villefranche-sur-Saone, thru metro Lyon, and in about an hour's drive you are in the ancient capital of Burgundy, Vienne. But, surrounded by granite-based soils and the steep slopes on the eastern flank of Massif Central that shore the mighty river Rhone, it is not Burgundian. This is a rocky, uniquely continental environment that is only half of the Rhone wine region. The Rhone viticultural region is so unique that it produces world benchmarks of red Syrah and white Viognier in perhaps the steepest, most challenging vineyard sites in all of France from its thread-like northern region.  Cross a thirty mile stretch south of nearly vine-less landscape and even greater volumes of now mostly blended wines appear from the Rhone's Mediterranean climate southern half where these grapes(Syrah & Viognier) are in a minority and may not even appear in the wines. Tied together by one of the great rivers of Europe, such is the polarity of the diverse growing regions that make up the great Northern and Southern Rhone.

A narrow strip in granite-based soils, where the best sites triumph on stony terraces above the mighty Rhone River make the Northern Rhone world class. Here in Cote-Rotie AOC, Saint-Joseph AOC, and on the historic east bank promontory of Hermitage AOC, noble Syrah is at least 80% of their defining composition. South of the confluence of the river Ise're, tiny and mighty  Cornas AOC requires100% Syrah to assure its noble status. Sandwiched in the middle are the white grape AOC vineyards of Condreiu and Chateau-Grillet which exclusively produce some of the worlds greatest aromatic Viognier. Curiously, the wine offering aromas of apricots and peaches is not found significantly outside these two AOC's, except for some blending in Cote-Rotie.
Cote-Rotie vineyard terraces

South of Monte'limar, the region fans under a dryer Mediterranean climate and a limestone landscape of rugged, rocky rolling hills as the Southern Rhone. Perhaps among the earliest places to see the vine in all France, the regions wine production and prominence grew greatly under the Avignon Papacy from 1309. Re-actively, the import and export of Rhone wines were banned by the Dukes of Burgundy, and in 1446 the city of Lyon forbade all wines from the region south of the city. To further define the region, in 1737 the King of France decreed that all of this regions wines be authenticated by barrels branded 'CDR'. Importantly, in 1923 regulations of production were drawn to guard against the region's growing wine fraud, effectively becoming the first AOC laws in the country.
Predominantly a red wine region, blends of Grenache Noir, Syrah and other Mediterranean varietals proliferate in its rocky vineyards. Low-trained bush vines stand against the fierce 'mistral' winds; although powerful, the dry climate here is not receptive to most fungal diseases. The regions broad, general appellation of Cotes du Rhone AOC (CDR) produces volumes of the areas generic quality wine, with superior qualities found in specified village wines of Cotes du Rhone Villages AOC, from places like Cairanne and Vinsobres. Stars of the region include the red Grenache blends from the appellations of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, and Vacqueyras AOC. Nearby Lirac AOC produces generally lighter blends of all three(3) colors, with neighbor Tavel AOC originating some of the world's best dry rose' wines from widely planted Grenache and Cinsault blends. Regional whites here too are typically blends, including Grenache Blanc, Roussane, Marsanne and Clairette Blanche.

Natural sparkling wines can be found in the isolated, eastern region from the chalky soils of Clairette de Die AOC or Cremant de Die, using the native Clairette or Muscat blanc grapes. Other specialties include the eastern regions Muscat de Beaumes de Venise AOC, a sweet, fortified wine, and Rasteau AOC, with VDN's of all Greanache colors. Diversity in landscape, in climates, in grape varieties and wine styles is what makes the volume wine producing region known as the Rhone so important. Within its regional borders there are vineyards reclaimed from hillsides where nothing else will grow, and vineyard's planted in fields of pudding stones, known as galetts. Dominant single variety sensations and the artful balancing act of blending are found here, too. Holding all of its diversity together, threaded through its terraces and baked, wind-swept hillsides, is the meandering, life-giving Rhone.
Hermitage above the Rhone

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