Rhone –Wine Region of the Month

by A.J. McClellan, Certified Sommelier and Founder of Roots and Water

In 1309, Southern Rhône became the center of Christian Europe as Pope Clement V moved his court from Rome to Avignon. His successor, Pope John XXII, began construction of the now-ruined summer papal palace—Châteauneuf-du-Pape—and planted the surrounding vineyards.  The Roman Catholic Popes presided in Avignon until 1378 while Châteauneuf-du-Pape remained property of the papacy until 1791.

The Rhône Valley in France is overwhelmingly devoted to red wine production. While the Rhône River is dotted with vineyards from its headwaters in Switzerland to its mouth on the French Mediterranean coast, the Rhône Valley properly refers to two clusters of appellations along the banks of the river in Southern France. The Northern Rhône occupies a narrow band of vineyards hugging the river just south of Beaujolais, from Vienne to Valence. The vineyards of the Southern Rhône funnel outward toward Avignon, near the river’s Mediterranean basin. While these two separate stretches are often considered collectively, Northern and Southern Rhône are climatically and viticulturally very distinct.

Northern Rhône’s climate benefits from its southerly position but experiences greater seasonal temperature shifts, more rainfall, and fewer annual hours of sunshine than the southern appellations. The cold, dry Mistral wind, blowing down from the highland region in the middle of southern France (known as the Massif Central) affects the Northern Rhône in winter and spring. Although the wind can be strong enough to strip the vines, many trees in the valley have become bent by the wind and grow leaning southward to protect them.  With the protection of the trees, the wind helps to dry the vineyards, helping to prevent mold and mildew from taking hold.  Heat-retaining rocky soils in the northern region and steeply sloped vineyards of Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu and Hermitage also help protect against the challenge stemming from the fine sand and loess topsoil throughout the Northern Rhône which prone to erosion, a threat partially mitigated by terrace construction. In the Northern Rhône, the Syrah grape achieves its classic status producing wines that are full-bodied, firm, savory, and manifest a host of signature secondary aromas including smoke, grilled meat, olive, lavender, and peppercorn.

In the Southern Rhône, the climate is distinctly Mediterranean. About 95 percent of all wine produced in the Rhône Valley hails from the southern valley, where the landscape shifts to become rugged garrigue scrubland. The Mistral blows fiercely across the flat area, requiring many growers to plant their vines at an angle, so that the wind might blow them upright over time. Hot summers are tempered by significant temperature variation between daytime and nighttime.  Mild winters follow usually heavy autumnal rains. A wealth of alluvial soils (loose clay, silt, sand, or gravel that has been deposited by running water) exists in the Southern Rhône, deposited over limestone subsoil in the river’s course. Larger stones have been dumped in the valley’s mounds by post-ice age glacial melt. In Châteauneuf-du-Pape, these deposited “pudding stones” are called galets. Made of quartzite and smoothed by the river, the galets serve to store heat, releasing it to warm the vines at night.

Grenache—a Spanish import—is the most-planted red grape in the southern valley, offering richness of body, sweet fruit, and warmth. Mourvèdre and Syrah also constitute a significant percentage of plantings, adding structure and depth of color to the blend. Cinsault provides finesse and freshness and is often utilized for rosé wines as well. Carignan is the last major red grape of the Southern Rhône, but acreage is on the decline.

While Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the most prestigious appellation, Côtes du Rhône is the Southern Rhône’s largest appellation and the base designation for wines from the entire Rhône Valley. Over two-thirds of the Rhône Valley’s wines are released as Côtes du Rhône AOP. Most of the wine is red, although whites and rosés are allowed.  Gigondas was the second former Côtes du Rhône village to be promoted to full appellation status. The rustic Vacqueyras wines are usually red, although a small amount of white and rosé wine is produced, and a minimum 50% Grenache is required for these red wines.

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  • free pop-up tastings for the member plus one (additional guests at $20 each)

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A.J. McClellan founded Roots and Water to give his clients a place to come and find the most extraordinary fine and rare wines in the world and to have a place that fellow oenophiles can gather to share their passion for wine. The private, members-only, speak-easy, wine club is located in the Design District, offering a quiet, safe, and fun place to learn and experience wine like never before.

About the Savvy Wine Cellar Wine Tasting Club:  Roots and Water Wine Club, in partnership with Estate Life, offers you the opportunity to join the Savvy Cellar Wine Tasting Club. By joining, you get access to monthly wine tastings, free wine delivery, and private special events at the Wine Club. Every month we will present information on a new wine region and then hold tastings of benchmark wines from the region. Whether you’re learning wine or an existing oenophile, you’ll want to take advantage of this exclusive environment and ultra-luxury experience. For just $50, you’ll get all 12 months of access for the tastings and your first bottle of wine hand-selected by one of R&W’s expert sommeliers.

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Join us to Taste the wines of the Rhone region this month

RSVP for the Savvy Cellar Wine Tasting Event on February 15

Tasting are held 6-8 pm at the Roots and Water Tasting Room

(location details on the RSVP form)