Wine 101: French Wine Regions: Southern Rhône

This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by The Language of Yes, a love letter to southern France sent from California. Pioneering winemaker Randall Grahm’s vision leads this Old World, New World winemaking tribute with traditional winemaking methods like passerillage, post-harvest drying. This imparts notes of crushed lavender, rosemary, and sage to the Syrah, and hints of strawberry rhubarb in the Grenache. These wines scored high with critics. To try Language of Yes Grenache and Syrah, visit

On this episode of “Wine 101,” host Keith Beavers continues his two-part deep dive into the Rhône, focusing this week on the Southern Rhône. Tune in for more.

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Keith Beavers: What’s going on, wine lovers? From the VinePair podcasting network, this is the “Wine 101” podcast. My name is Keith Beavers. I am the tastings director of VinePair. How are you doing?

Now, we’re going down the Rhône River, we’re hitting the Mediterranean area, we’re getting to Southern Rhône. This is a big scattered area of craziness, we have to dial in a little bit and talk about some stuff. Let’s get into it.

Let’s dial into the Southern Rhône. What I find interesting is that when you’re looking at a map of the Rhône Valley, the Northern Rhône, visually, on a map, is a little bit easier to understand. Once we get into the Southern Rhône, the map gets a little bit — I don’t want to say chaotic, but there’s so much land under vine. It’s a little bit intense, so we have to break it down a little bit. It’s just interesting because the Southern Rhône is the most popular on our market. The Northern Rhône just doesn’t produce as much. It’s popular on our market, but the Southern Rhône, forget about it. It’s all over the place. I’ll tell you why in a second. In the Rhône episode in Season 2, I talk about how different the north and the south are. I thought I would give a little bit of geological history as to why that is so.

In the Burgundy episode, we talked about the massive central — the central massive — that large piece of rock that uplifted, creating all that chaotic soil in Burgundy. Well, that mass, at one point, millions of years ago, clashed with the Alps. This created what’s called a rift valley, that is now today the Rhône Valley. In what is now the Northern Rhône, there was a lot of volcanic activity in the central massive, creating all of that granitic rock that I talked about last episode, also creating all those very steep hills.

The south — the reason why it’s so different, is this area was flooded by the Mediterranean at one point, then that reduced and reduced, and at some point, became a river. You have this rift valley that is a result of volcanic activity creating granitic rock in the north, and in the south, it’s what’s called fluvial soil, which is the remnants of the bottom of a sea. With the massive to the west of the valley, and the Alps, sometimes called the Young Alps, to the east of the valley, what you have from all that geological activity, is a big mix of all different kinds of soils.

We talked about granite, which is in the north, but in the south, you’re dealing with limestone, sand, clay, and pebbles. That’s very fluvial, if you will. When it comes to humans, of course, I’ve talked before about the antiquiti-ness — the ancientness — of this place, the Romans’ presence here, and all that, but when you think about the Rhône, Southern Rhône, Côtes du Rhône, we think about the 13th century. This is where something very interesting in history happened, where Pope Gregory X is granted, by French royalty, the Comtat-Venaissin.

Wherever there are popes, there are bishops, there are monks, and there is wealth. This area became a very wealthy, attractive place. The peoples’ state — the anchor — was Avignon. Avignon is the town that is just bordering today’s Provence, to the south. In the 14th century, this place was such a hotbed of activity for wine, wealth, and food, that the papacy moved from Rome to Avignon, with its northern border being the city of Orange.

About seven miles north — seven and a half or so miles north of Avignon — on the river, was a town called Roquemaure. I don’t know if I’m pronouncing that correctly, but that was their port town. This is where wine from this region gained the name Côste du Rhône. It eventually would change to Côtes du Rhône, but this is where it all began. Just south of Orange is a commune called Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It was a very important, a very special commune, that the bishops held in high regard.

Over time, Châteauneuf-du-Pape became known as a prestigious wine-growing region. Over time, they developed their own winemaking styles. They actually had their own vine training system, which is almost like bush vines. They worked with upwards of 18 or so different varieties to make the wine from. OK, now fast forward to the early 20th century. In 1919, a man by the name of Baron [Pierre] Le Roy married the heiress of a very respected château in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, called Château Fortia.

I’ve heard it also as Forcia. Now, I’m not sure what was going on at the time, but coming out of the Middle Ages and getting to this point, there was something he was concerned about, as becoming the wine grower of the château. He was concerned about the quality of the wines from this region. He had a list of ideas that could help this: limiting growing areas so people aren’t growing vines in places they don’t like to grow, and limiting the grape varieties allowed in the wines.

Adhering to general local practices of winemaking and viticulture, methods of cultivation, I should say, trying to control the alcohol content of the wines, and also making sure that everybody’s harvesting at the right time. Sounds like a wine appellation, right? Well, the baron happens to be the co-founder of the INAO, which is the French organization responsible for granting AOC status. He was able to secure Châteauneuf-du-Pape an appellation, an AOC, in 1933, and from 1947 to 1967, he actually presided over the INAO.

He also advocated for the wines of the surrounding region to not be called Côste du Rhône, but Côtes du Rhône, which is an even more ancient term for the wines in the area. This is the model of the appellations system of France that everybody else in Europe basically copied. It all started here. Today, from north in Orange, down south to Avignon, actually, even down to a place called Nîmes, which we’ll talk about, and east and west, is the Southern Rhône. In the Northern Rhône, not a lot changes.

The Southern Rhône, to this day, is still an ongoing development of wine appellations, because in the Southern Rhône, the majority of the general AOC Côtes du Rhône, is in this area. It goes up past Orange, up to that town called Vienne, that old Roman town up in the Northern Rhône, but in a tightly compact and defined area. In the Southern Rhône, there are about 20 villages that can attach their communal village name to Côtes du Rhône. These are what are called the Côtes du Rhône Villages — Côtes du Rhône with their village.

The thing is, they can be upgraded at some point. Today, five of these 20 villages have been granted AOC status, some of them very recently. For example, there’s a commune called Rasteau. R-A-S-T-E-A-U. I’ll talk about that in a second. When I had my wine shop, I actually was around when it changed. I had Côtes du Rhône Rasteau for a little while, and then, as I would buy it, it became just Rasteau. I think that was in 2010.

Of all these villages — five of them — Beaumes-de-Venise, Gigondas, Rasteau, Vacqueyras, and Vinsobres, I don’t know if I’m pronouncing that correctly, are now their own AOCs, and they join other existing AOCs, like Lirac, Tavel, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Ventoux, Luberon, and now a place called Costières de Nîmes. There are a few others, but we don’t really see them in the American market, and this is a lot to take in, so we’ll start with these.

One thing to wrap your mind around with the Southern Rhône is, everything is based primarily off the grape Grenache, then Syrah, then Mourvèdre, and to a lesser extent, a grape called Sousón. If white wines are made, they’re primarily going to be from Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, and a shortlist of other blending varieties. The other thing to know about the Southern Rhône, the wines are big. These are some of the most alcoholic wines in France, reaching sometimes up to 14-15 percent ABV.

Because we, as Americans, traditionally really like big, full-bodied wines — Robert Parker liked big, full-bodied wines, and he gave high scores to those wines, so we ended up liking that. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is right in our wheelhouse. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is so popular on our market. This is the famous region that has the pebbles. The pebbles soak up the sun throughout the day, and at night, they stay warm and still help the grapes ripen at night.

This is not everywhere in Châteauneuf-du-Pape but this is one of the famous things about it. It’s also famous for that list of grapes that the baron, back in the day, allowed into the AOC, up to 13 varieties, but in reality, the majority of the region does, for reds, Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Sousón, like I said, and Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, and some Bourboulenc, and a little grape called Clairette, but whether white or red, these wines are massive.

There are Châteauneuf-du-Pape that are very expensive and very focused, but the majority of them, that we know, are big, full-bodied red wines. In all of these AOCs, you’re going to have Grenache first, Syrah, then Mourvèdre, in different proportions, depending on their terroir and what they want to show to you. To the east of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, there is a grouping of three of these AOCs: Rasteau, Gigondas, and Vacqueyras.

The three of them — they’re big, and they’re full-bodied, but they have subtle similarities, depending on who makes the wine. Gigondas is at a higher elevation and has a more of a rockier terrain, more of a rustic style, and Vacqueyras is going to be on that level, just not as dense. These are very general terms. It’s different from each winemaker, but a little cool thing is, these wines, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, can be expensive, but these wines are pretty affordable.

Rasteau, which is the newest one that has more of an earthier — there’s a little more acidity and depth in these wines that separate from the intensity. Again, it’s a very general statement, because every winemaker is different. Actually, just south of those three AOCs is an AOC called Beaumes-de-Venise. Beaumes-de-Venise is not really well known on our market for red wine, although they’re starting to make more red wine. There’s another AOC in that AOC called Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, which has amazing sweet wine.

It’s made from the Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains grape, and they are floral, beautiful, balanced, syrupy — great acidity. They’re wonderful. You won’t see them a lot on the American market, but if you see one, grab it, because — let’s say you’re not into sweet wine. After tasting this one, I’m pretty sure you’d be into sweet wine. South of that grouping of Vacqueyras, Rasteau, Gigondas, and Beaumes-de-Venise — south of that are two very large wine-growing regions called Ventoux and Luberon.

You’re going to see a lot of that on the American market because they’re so large, and there’s no real set style here, but because they’re made from the same blends as, basically, all of these wines, Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, sometimes Sousón, they vary in depth, but they’re affordable. It’s fun to bounce around and try to find the one that you like. West of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, or I should say, it’s a little bit southwest, is Lirac, L-I-R-A-C.

Lirac is an AOC that has had this history of bishops really liking wine from this area, and just like all of them, it’s the same thing. Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Sousón, and there’s some white wines, and some rosés, which we’ll talk about in a second, but again, you have to go through and try Lirac to get a sense of this. Almost all of these AOCs — they mostly require at least 50 percent Grenache, sometimes 60, sometimes more.

It really depends on what these winemakers want to do with the different other varietals to blend with, to get their own style going. Again, Lirac is not crazy expensive, so you can bop around there. Another very historically significant AOC that borders the southern border of Lirac is Tavel. T-A-V-E-L. This is great. This is an AOC in the Southern Rhône that does only rosé from Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, or Cinsault, and it’s like no other rosé on the planet.

They are a structured rosé. They are powerful. They have depth. You can feel the weight of these rosés on your palate, yet, because they’re rosés, they still have this beautiful blossom of acidity in there that breaks up that depth. This is one of the only rosés, one of the only pink-hued — well, they’re sometimes darker than pink — rosé-style wines that can be aged. The thing is you can drink Tavel young, or you can drink it aged. Now, aging means about five years.

I’ve heard them going to 10 but really, it’s a five-year thing, but they really do develop over time. It’s pretty amazing stuff. That’s pretty much the Southern Rhône. You have these ancient — not ancient — you have these established AOCs that were loved by the popes, and all the wealthy people. Then you have the Côtes-du-Rhône Villages that, if ambitious enough, can eventually be upgraded to their own AOC, and of course, the generic or overarching Côtes-du-Rhône that you see almost everywhere in the American market.

Now I can’t do a Southern Rhône episode and not mention Costières de Nîmes. Well, I’m hoping I’m pronouncing that correctly. It is the most southern appellation in the Southern Rhône and it’s south of Avignon, so it’s southwest of Avignon. What’s interesting is — I’ve been to this place, and when I was there, it was not part of the Rhône. It was actually part of the Languedoc. Recently, it’s been transferred over to the Côtes-du-Rhône.

What’s very unique about this place is, it doesn’t have the crazy geology that the Rhône has. It’s very low-lying hills, rolling, it’s almost flat. It’s almost drought-like conditions there. The thing about this place is the Mistral, which is this crazy wind that comes down from the north, rushes into the Mediterranean, and it goes back up into the landmass. It’s great for keeping vines cool, and also not allowing a lot of pests to come around.

The Mistral is — I don’t know if it’s a general translation, but it’s translated into “miserable,” because it does make people miserable, but for vines, it’s great. When Mistral comes into the landmass, every part of southern France has a name for the Mistral when it enters into their region. It’s cool, it’s almost like they have nicknames. Costières de Nîmes does the same thing as everyone else; there’s Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, there’s Marsanne, there’s Roussanne.

They’re big and full-bodied as well, sometimes they have a little bit more acidity to them because of all that Mistral wind, but I believe the reason why it was brought back over to the Rhône is because it has a history of wines being sent to Avignon for the papacy. With that connection, I think that might have been it. I’m sure there might have been a terroir thing, too. I’m not really sure, but it’s not part of the Rhône. There you have it, that is what you’re going to see on the American market when it comes to Southern Rhône.

Other places might come online, or there might be some scattered around, but we’ll talk about those as they become more prominent on the American market. For now, I hope this was a nice, dialed-in episode to supplement the second season Rhône episode. We’ll talk next week.

@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.

And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big old shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darby Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.

E. & J. Gallo Winery is excited to sponsor this episode of VinePair’s “Wine 101.” Gallo always welcomes new friends to wine with an amazingly wide spectrum of favorites, ranging from everyday to luxury and sparkling wine. (Gallo also makes award-winning spirits, but this is a wine podcast.) Whether you are new to wine or an aficionado, Gallo welcomes you to wine. Visit today to find your next favorite, where shipping is available.