Guide to Rhone Valley Wine Grapes for Red and White Wine

Rhone Grape varietals

Like every wine region, the wines of the Rhone Valley obtain their special qualities and unique flavor profile from their terroir, climate, choices made by the wine maker and of course, the Rhone Valley wine grapes planted in the vineyards. All great wine is made in the vineyard and that starts with the grapes.

The Rhone Valley is a huge, diverse, viticultural area. The range of wines produced is as large as the appellation. Aside from a myriad of wine styles, the region produces a wide array of wines in all price ranges.

By clicking on any of the following links on the left side of the page, you can read more detail on what each specific Rhone Valley wine grape varietal provides in the process of winemaking in the Rhone Valley as well as tips on wine and food pairings for each Rhone Valley wine grape varietal.

In the Northern Rhone, there are seven major appellations, Cote Rotie, Hermitage, Condrieu, Cornas, Crozes Hermitage, St. Joseph and St. Peray. And of course Chateau Grillet, the only appellation which consists of just one producer! In the south, Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Tavel, Lirac, and the Cotes du Rhone are the important regions in the Rhone Valley.

For the wines produced in the Northern Rhone, only one red grape is allowable by law, Syrah. However, it is allowable to also blend in up to 20% white wine grapes with their red wine. This is most often often done in Cote Roite. The most famous wine of the Northern Rhone blending white wine grapes with Syrah is Guigal La Mouline.

The purpose of blending white wine grapes with Syrah is to add complexities to the aromatics, soften the wine and increase the exotic qualities in the texture. Other Northern Rhone appellations allow the blending of red and white wine grapes as well.

In the south, it is much more complicated. A total of 13 grape varieties are allowed by AOC laws, Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Picpoul, Terret Noir, Counoise, Muscardin, Vaccarese, Picardan, Cinsault, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Red Grenache and Picpoul.

In the Southern Rhone, which of course includes Chateauneuf du Pape, it is permitted to blend white wine grapes with red wine varietals. This is seen to some degree in Chateauneuf du Pape. For example Beaucastel includes a portion of white wine varietals in their wine.

For the white wine grapes, Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier are the key grapes in the Northern Rhone Valley. Viognier is used as a blending grape in the Northern Rhone most often in Cote Rotie, when it is added Syrah planted in the Cote Blonde sector.

While allowable by law in Hermitage, the blending of white wine grapes with Syrah does not take place most of the time in Hermitage.

The respective terroir of the north and south are quite different. In the southern Rhone, you find a combination of rocks, stone, sand, limestone and clay terroir that would be inhospitable for most living things, But it’s perfect for the grapes grown in the appellation.

The soils are not the only thing shaping the character of the wines. Chateauneuf du Pape is a hot, dry region. The mistrals, the strong hot winds that blow from north to south help keep the fruit clean, removes excess water and repulse insects and disease.

In the Northern Rhone Valley, the best terroirs are steep, craggy hillsides filled with a variety of stone infested soils. Limestone, quartz, boulders of all shapes and sizes, minerals, clay, gravel, iron and sand infest the soils and shape the character of the grapes used to make the wines.

Each grape adds a different character to the wine. Those characteristics are shaped by the main components provided by the fruit, tannin, acidity and alcohol.

It is the balance of those three elements that produce a great wine. Grapes are incredibly complex fruits offering a myriad of flavors, aromas and character which offer Rhone wine their personality, beginning with the ability to age, evolve and improve in the bottle. Much of that starts with tannin.

Tannins found in wine come from the seeds, stems and skins from the grapes, as well as from aging in oak barrels. Tannins give a wine structure. They act as a preservative. When ripe, they help shape and define a wine and its textures along with enjoyable sensations.

When unripe, they offer an experience similar to sucking on a lemon. They can dry your mouth and, or offer a rustic feeling to the wine. Tannins are more important to red wines than white. The level of the tannins versus the fruit, as well as the ripeness and style of the tannins help shape a wines personality.

Northern Rhones can often be more tannic than the wines of south, requiring more aging. They can also live and evolve for decades longer in many cases.

Acidity is a key component in a wine. Acidity allows the wine to feel fresh and uplifting instead of flabby. Flabby wines do not feel good. They can be too sweet, with sensations similar to syrup. Too much acidity is not healthy for a wine either. The wine will taste and feel too bright and sharp.

Of course much of this is in the eye of the beholder, as some wines offer higher acidic profiles than others. Wines grown in warmer climates are naturally lower in acidity than fruit planted in cooler climates. Southern Rhone wines often experience higher temperatures during the growing season than the wines of the Northern Rhone Valley.

Alcohol is the final part of the component trio. Alcohol is the product of fermentation. This natural process takes place when the sugars found in the fruit are converted to alcohol.

The level of sugar found in the berries is the main factor in determining the level of alcohol a particular wine will have. Grapes grown in warmer weather will naturally produce wines higher in alcohol. Some grape varieties will also ripen with higher sugar levels. For example, Grenache will always ripen with higher sugar levels than Syrah.