Southern France’s Rhône Valley has long been synonymous with wine culture — think thousands of years, not just hundreds. While the first wine grapes were planted in France sometime during the 4th century B.C. and brought in by the Greeks, it’s the Romans we have to thank for the incredible quality and diversity of the Rhône Valley’s viticulture.
As the Romans pressed further into France, expanding their territory and power, they also planted vineyards along the Rhône River. That’s when the Rhône Valley wine culture really began. Today, the Rhône wine region is prestigious, influential, and varied, producing high-quality red, white, and rosé wines under dozens of AOC designations (Appellation d’origine contrôlée). We’ve already delved into these Rhône AOCs in detail in our feature, the “Complete Guide to the Rhône Valley Wine Region,” but here, we’re going to give our top picks for Rhône Valley wine (i.e. which you should taste first while in the region).
This is a valley full of historic sites like Lyon’s old city center, papal history in Avignon, and Michelin-starred restaurants. So don’t forget to check out some of our other features on the region, like “Exploring the Medieval Villages of the Rhône Valley,” and “A Food and Wine Lover’s Guide to Lyon Gastronomy.” Now, onto the wine!
Northern Rhône versus Southern Rhône
Before we share our favorite picks, let’s review a little about the region. The Rhône Valley is a large region with a varied climate, geography, and soil. As you can imagine, this size means there’s quite a difference between Northern and Southern Rhône and the grape varieties grown in each. The Rhône Valley is defined by the Rhône River, which was formed by the Rhône Glacier during the last Ice Age. In total, the Rhône River travels for over 500 miles from the Swiss Alps to the Mediterranean Sea.
When talking about the wines produced in this region today, generally they are discussed in two subregions — the Northern Rhône and the Southern Rhône. The Northern Rhône subregion is known in French as “Rhône septentrional,” and this area is flush with Syrah-based red wines and white wine blends featuring Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne grapes. The northern subregion is much smaller than the south, with only 7,000 acres of land. For this reason, it’s know for producing high-quality wines in low quantity (only 5% of Rhône Valley wines are produced here). The Southern Rhône subregion is known in French as “Rhône méridional,” and this area is much larger and highly productive. With the Mistral Wind, long summers, and mild winters, the Southern Rhône subregion is perfect for Grenache-grape growing. While you’ll find white and rosé wines coming out of the Southern Rhône Valley, this subregion is mostly known for red blends comprised of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre grapes.
The Best of the Northern Rhône Subregion
With a name translating from French to mean “roasted slope” or “baked slope,” Côte Rôtie is a steep-sloped appellation and one of the most well-regarded. This AOC is located in Saint-Cyr-sur-le-Rhône, Ampuis, and Tupin-et-Semons, all of which are small communes south of Vienne. With south-facing slopes where the sun beats down onto rocky vineyards grown in granite and clay-based soils, wines produced here are made from mostly Syrah grapes and a small amount of Viognier (only up to 20%). Expect red wines that are bold and smoky with notes like raspberry, black currant, violet, and chocolate.
As the southernmost appellation of the Northern Rhône subregion, Saint-Péray is known for producing only white wines, in both still and sparkling varieties. The white wines produced here are made entirely from Marsanne and Roussanne grapes. The mild microclimate, featuring limestone-based soils that moderate the temperature, leads to light-bodied wines. About a third of the wines here are sparkling, which are our absolute favorite and perfect to pair with an outdoor lunch in the summer. While this AOC isn’t a secret, it’s also lesser known, and therefore a great destination for true wine-loving travellers. Expect light-bodied sparkling wines and medium-bodied still wines, both with wildflower notes, citrus, and mineral flavors.
We love the white, 100% Viognier grape wines produced in the Château Grillet AOC because this appellation is so unique. This teeny appellation is under 10 acres (9.4 to be exact) and is a single-producer AOC, owned entirely by the Château Grillet Winery. Since the AOC was created in 1936, they’re been producing Viognier-only wines with delicious white peach, apricot, starfruit, and floral notes and a honeyed mouthfeel. These wines are truly something to savor.
The Best of the Southern Rhône Subregion
Châteauneuf-du-Pape has two distinctions: it’s the most famous of the Rhône Valley wines and the first to be officially recognized when the AOC system was put into place in 1936. It really can’t be absent from our top picks list! While this AOC produces both red and white wines, 94% are red and these are our favorites. The red wines made from blends of Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault, Mourvedre and others produce full-bodied and very aromatic wines that lead with dark fruit flavors and spicy notes. Although these are strong red wines, their balanced minerality and acidity makes them very approachable and easy to pair with a variety of French dishes.
Côtes du Rhône
If you’ve tasted Rhône Valley wine before, chances are it was produced in the Côtes du Rhône AOC because two-thirds of Rhône Valley wine come from this appellation. While the majority of it is located in the Southern Rhône subregion, it blurs into the Northern Rhône as well, and is therefore the true meeting point between the two. Red blends made from Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre grapes reign in this AOC. But if you look a little harder, you can also find rosés and white wines made mostly from Grenache blanc, Viognier, Clairette, Marsanne, and Roussanne grapes.
Located just north-east of Orange, the Vinsobres AOC only yields red wines and these are fruit-forward, dark, and tannic. Made from Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre grapes that are grown at high altitudes, the red wines from Vinsobres are inky in color and have notes of black cherry.