French wine regions, Part I: The Rhône Valley
Everyone knows the French are famous for producing wine. It is, however, a large country and those pampered little vines don't grow just anywhere. What's more, bacchanalian grapes deliciously dangling from delicate little branches produce a lot more than just wine: wine tourism is a multi-billion Euro business that attracts foreign and domestic visitors alike.
A general map of French winemaking regions
Before getting into the details of some of the regions noted on the map above, we need to get a handle on the French word terroir. French wine books often make quite a production out of how difficult this word is to translate and how it is a French 'invention' that doesn't make sense anywhere else. Unfortunately, they are mostly correct. Etymologically speaking, it is quite clear that this is the French word from which we get 'territory', but in English this is either a geopolitical term, a sports metaphor or any number of general references to a piece of land. Terroir, on the other hand, carries with it a sense of local history, as well as very specific references to whatever a given piece of land has done across centuries for the people who live on it. In my post about ''appellations d'origine controlée'' (AOC)—one of the primary means of classifying French wine—I mentioned specific geographical limitations as one of the determining factors in whether or not a wine meets the criteria for a given AOC: this is a perfect example of the functional aspect of terroir. In other words, a particular wine is only a good example of itself if its grapes are not only the right variety, harvested correctly, etc., but are also grown on the correct terroir. No matter that you might be able take those same vines to another place, treat them the same and make from them the same wine; for the French, it's not the same.
While this dogged commitment to geographical authenticity can certainly be taken too far (not to mention be abused by all sorts of unscrupulous advertisements that are apparently quite effective), it is not without merit. Just to take one example: everyone has heard of champagne, right? Some of you have probably heard that Champagne is actually a place, and that sparkling white wines are not all champagne, etc. In truth, Champagne is a terroir a bit east of Paris (see above map). Although its borders are geopolitically meaningless, Champagne is an extremely important terroir, mainly because vintners owning vineyards within this zone are the only folks in the world authorized to produce official, AOC Champagne...which sells for many times more than any other sparkling white wine on earth. Sound a little fishy? That's what I thought, until I went there and learned what the fuss was all about. Due to a unique combination of geological and meteorological conditions, several different varietals grow in the chalky soil and under the overcast skies of Champagne in a way that they don't grow anywhere else. Combine this with three centuries of furtive winemaking whose secrets don't escape the châteaux of the region and you have perhaps the most classic example of terroir in the French wine universe: even a total beginner can pick real Champagne out of a lineup. Now, is the fame of this terroir over-hyped to jack up prices, increase prestige and attract tourists? Absolutely...but that doesn't make it wrong. If you are in doubt, go buy an average bottle of real Champagne and do a blind taste test with any other sparkling wine on the market. Sometimes the best way to understand terroir is to taste it.
(Incidentally, the reason that sparkling whites sold outside the EU are sometimes called champagne even though they're not from Champagne is that non-EU countries are not bound to respect the AOC-type restrictions of an EU country. It is also for this reason that feta cheese is hard to find in EU member-state supermarkets: there are similar Greek requirements on what cheeses can and cannot be called feta; non-Greek, feta-like cheese has to be called something else.)
With that in mind, let's take a tour of a few of the more well-known French winemaking regions.
The Rhône Valley
As you can see from the map below, the valley of the Rhône,
one of France's major rivers, is the center of an enormous winemaking
region in the southern half of the country. Beginning about 40km south
of Lyon and running almost all the way to the
Mediterranean Sea, this region produces an enormous variety of
wines that reflect the many microclimates and accompanying
geographical features of this diverse region.
Due to its enormous size, the Rhône Valley wine region is generally divided up into two areas: the northern (septentrionale) region, which goes from Vienne to a bit past Valence and sticks more or less to the banks of the river, and the southern (méridionale) region, which goes most of the way to the sea and fans out considerably as it moves south.
The northern region, while very small, claims several well-known and respected AOCs:
- Côte Rôtie
- St. Joseph
- Crozes Hermitage
Despite its diminutive size, this is some of the most beautiful wine country in France, with vines terraced on steep hills leading down to the river and affording the occasional spectacular view of vineyards on the opposite bank. Although there are many villages and small cities built along the tiny plain between the river and the hills—all heavily steeped in winemaking culture—Toulon is probably the the best place to start a tour of the region, followed by a northerly trek to the exclusive cellars and tasting rooms of the Côte Rôtie AOC at the region's northern edge.
Further south, the reputations of the AOCs diminish somewhat but the diverse geography and expanded tourist possibilities more than make up for it...and besides, the wine is much more affordable! Some popular AOCs of the region include:
- Châteauneuf-du-Pape (the most respected AOC of this region)
- Côtes du Rhône Villages
There are also several wines administratively controlled as wines of the Rhône Valley but that are actually made quite far from the river itself, as you can see on the map above. Some examples:
- Côtes du Ventoux
- Côteaux du Tricastin
- Côtes du Luberon
- Costières de Nîmes
- Côtes du Vivarais
The appellation "Côtes du Rhône" itself deserves special mention, even more so because it is—along with Bordeaux and Bourgogne (Burgundy)—one of the three French appellations most likely to appear in wine shops around the world. As one might suspect, a wine produced in such massive quantities and made from grapes grown over such a large region is not going to be the most consistent product in the world. Sometimes, Côtes du Rhône is made from grapes destined to be made into Côtes du Rhône; other times it is made from grapes grown for other, more expensive Rhône Valley appellations that weren't good enough to make the cut and sold cheaply to large, industrial winemakers of the region whose goal is to produce the cheapest wine possible while still respecting the minimum standards of the appellation. Unfortunately for those of you abroad, these are often the bottles you have to choose from; although there are very good bottles of Côtes du Rhône out there, the risk of an overpriced dud is considerably greater when buying an unknown bottle of one of these catch-all appellations than it is when buying a more strictly-controlled wine. Think again of terroir; the Rhône Valley is too big and too diverse to be a terroir in the human-to-land relationship sense of the word described above, and much of the good that comes out of this particularly French way of looking at agriculture is lost when the same wine is is allowed to be made from grapes that might have been grown anywhere in such a huge geographic space.
Lastly, what to do in between wine tastings in the southern Rhône Valley? One could spend a lifetime exploring the cities, villages and countryside within the confines of this region, but here are a few ideas:
Avignon: This walled medieval city in the heart of Rhône
Valley wine country is relatively small but has something for everyone. Don't
miss the Papal Palace where the wonderfully corrupt French Popes lived, or the
famous Pont d'Avignon, the original bridge to nowhere:
Mount Ventoux: Drive to the top if you must, but this 1912-meter peak and regular participant in the Tour de France is best climbed by bicycle. Don't forget sunscreen: there are no trees on the upper third of the mountain.
La Provence: A cultural region of uncertain borders that includes much of non-coastal southeastern France (including the southwestern corner of the Alps), this is where the stories of Alphonse Daudet and Marcel Pagnol come to life. Although Aix-en-Provence is the unofficial capital of the region, it is the small villages, rustic farmhouses and beautiful vistas (not to mention some of the nicest people around) that make La Provence the stuff of legends.
Orange: Less famous than Avignon, Orange is a lovely, clean and friendly town that will please fans of Roman ruins (there is a well-preserved coliseum right in the middle of town). More accessible than Avignon, Orange makes an ideal basecamp for wine country tours.
Next: The wine regions of Bordeaux and Bourgogne: wines you want in your cellar