Below the Septentrionale Rhône’s southernmost appellation, the sparkling wine enclave of St.Peray, there is a vine-free gape of some 25 miles. South of the nougat capital of Montelimar, where the traveller on the A7 Autoroute passes the aptly named ‘Porte du Soleil’, the wine producing regions of the southern, or ‘Meridionale’ Rhône commence. Here the valley has widened and flattened out, and the steep terraced vineyards of the north have given way to a landscape of plains, low, rolling hills and rocky garrigue, with vineyards interspersed with fruit trees and wheat, rows of tall cypresses crossing the landscape to protect the crops from the bitter northerly mistral wind. The architecture too has changed, and taken on a more Provencale expression, with ancient fortified settlements in soft stone and low-roofed terracotta straddling hills and rocky outcrops. The climate is distinctly warmer too, the air scented with wild herbs. This is the gateway to Provence and the Mediterranean.
The southern Rhône produces significantly the majority of the wine of the Rhône valley – some 95% of the production by quantity. The main player here is the soft, easy, alcoholic Grenache variety, which is increasingly given structure, support and a discernible degree of nobility by the great cepages ameliorateurs, Syrah and Mourvedre. The leading appellation is also France’s oldest, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, where the vines are planted on pebbly alluvial sand or set into the famous, rounded rocks known as galets rouges. Up to 13 varieties, 5 of them white, are permitted in the red wines, though in practice most producers use only Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre, with Counoise the only other red planted in significant quantities. The less commonly encountered Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc may be made from Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc, Clairette and Roussanne. Red Chateauneuf-du-Pape is a big, extracted, richly rounded wine, often with hints of dried fruit and raisins emanating from the arid soils. Whilst reliable, and from the best producers one of the great French wines, there are still too many producers who cruise, comfortable in the knowledge that the wines will sell on the strength of the name alone. There is also a fashion to make separate bottlings of a domaine’s best located or oldest vines, one inspired by the preference in the American market for the extracted, flashy styles favoured by the wine writer Robert Parker, but which to our mind is unwelcome because it can only deprive the standard bottling some of its best raw material.
The wide generic appellation of Côtes du Rhône applies to both the northern and southern Rhône regions, though most is produced in the south. Much of the huge production of ordinary Côtes du Rhône from the southern Rhône issues forth from one or the other of the region’s many co-operatives, and the quality can range from decent to execrable, though there are increasing numbers of young, small, artisan-scale concerns appearing in the more outlying areas, many of them working organically or biodynamically, of which our own Domaine Gramenon is a leading example. In more general terms the game is raised in the 20 or so villages entitled to the appellation Côtes du Rhône Villages. Clustered to the north and west of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the regulations demand a lower yield and a higher alcoholic strength than ordinary Côtes du Rhône, and standards are often very high – the AOC vies with the Languedoc-Roussillon for some of the most intelligent, energetic and thoughtful names in the artisan winemaking world. Whilst the wines made uniquely from any one of the villages may append their name to the AOC Côtes du Rhône Villages on the label, there is the possibility of further elevation to full appellation status in the village name – Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Vinsobres, Beaumes-de-Venise and Rasteau have already joined this list, and Cairanne looks set to follow.
Lirac and Tavel are two AOCs that lie on the right bank of the Rhone, immediately opposite Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the former producing red, white and rose in a similar mould to the better Cotes du Rhone Villages, with some also owning land in Chateauneuf, while Tavel produces exclusively rose wine from the Grenache variety. Outlying southern Rhône regions include the Grignan-les-Adhemar (formerly the Côteaux de Tricastin), just below Montelimar, the Côtes de Ventoux on the lower slopes of Mont Ventoux, and the Costieres de Nimes in the far south. All possess some excellent estates, and are worth watching as new, young winemakers appear on the scene. Some exceptional wines are also being produced outside the constrains of AOC regulations as Vin de Pays de Vaucluse.
In terms of value for money, the southern Rhône scores exceptionally highly for its delicious, generously fruity, wild herb and pepper scented reds, most particularly if you look outside of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and in our minds it is of particular interest as regards up-and-coming or young growers of exceptional talent. This is undoubtedly one of the world’s most exciting and invigorating wine producing regions.