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After your first experience with the best Southern Rhône producers, it’s hard not to fill your cellar up with these incredible bottles. One of my colleagues started buying Barroche Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Pure in 2004, and she has continued to buy this label ever since. The wine’s fine tannin, elegance, and perfectly ripe fruit flavors draw her back to this producer year after year, and she has also started collecting some of the estate’s other delicious wines, like the Signature label.
However, finding a Southern Rhône producer you enjoy this much can take time, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the region or you’ve only ever had mass-produced red blends from Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In this guide to the Southern Rhône and its finest producers, we’ll share our recommendations for the best appellations, estates, and vintages that are worth your time and consideration. There’s an incredibly diverse range of wines waiting for you in this region when you take the time to explore it.
The Grape Varieties of the Southern Rhône
When I was in my early 20s, I went to a local wine bar to try a flight of wines from the Southern Rhône, including a few of the sommelier’s favorite vintages from Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Right away, I was struck by the high alcohol content in all of the wines. Red wines from the Southern Rhône have the highest alcohol content, on average, of any table wine produced in France (around 14 to 15 percent or more). However, while these wines are high in alcohol, they don’t taste stewed or flabby; instead, they are fresh and lively, with a great deal of complexity and spiciness. Some of these wines also have Brettanomyces, a yeast that gives the wine an earthy, barnyard quality. This characteristic is very polarizing; some wine enthusiasts love it, while others find it a bit overpowering.
However, not all wine from the Southern Rhône is high in alcohol or has strong Brett flavors. The region makes many styles of wine using a number of different grape varieties, including:
- Grenache: This is the dominant grape of the region. If you enjoy concentrated wines with flavors of strawberry, raspberry, and black cherry accented by subtle pepper and spice, then this variety will tick all the boxes for you. Grapes grown on the oldest vines in Châteauneuf-du-Pape tend to produce the most complex, age-worthy wines.
- Syrah: The addition of Syrah in the Southern Rhône’s red blends lends these wines even more peppery, concentrated flavors, as well as darker, inky fruit and savory earthiness. If you’re looking wine that’s more on the acidic side, choose Syrah blends from cooler, higher areas of the Southern Rhône. The Gigondas appellation has a number of higher-altitude vineyards.
- Mourvèdre: This variety usually makes up a small proportion of red wine blends from the Southern Rhône. Mourvèdre is typically high in alcohol and very tannic, with spice and dark fruit flavors. It often gives Châteauneuf-du-Pape blends fruit-forward flavors and a meaty, full-bodied quality.
- Carignan: Fewer producers are using this grape in their blends and rosé than in the past, as Carignan is a polarizing variety that can be rough and tannic. However, some top producers have continued this Southern Rhône tradition, and with a little extra ripeness, Carignan can be approachable.
- Cinsault: Cinsault grows especially well in most parts of the Southern Rhône because it ripens best under warm, windy conditions. It’s primarily a blending grape that makes rosé more aromatic, and while it has been losing some of its popularity in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, you can still find Cinsault in many appellations in the region, including Tavel.
- Roussanne and Marsanne: Only about five percent of the wine made in the Southern Rhône is white. Still, you can find fantastic blends made from Roussanne, Marsanne, Ugni Blanc, Bourboulenc, and Picpoul in the top appellations. Roussanne and Marsanne are often found together in a blend: Roussanne makes the Southern Rhône’s white blends exceptionally dry, while Marsanne, which can become exceptionally rich and complex with age, adds weight and structure to the wine.
- Grenache Blanc: Châteauneuf-du-Pape producers frequently blend Grenache Blanc with Roussanne to create rich, oaky white wines. This grape variety is full-bodied but relatively low in acidity, which is why many producers add more acidic grapes, like Picpoul, to balance the final blend.
- Viognier: This grape variety is becoming more popular in the Southern Rhône. While it’s still not as common as Roussanne, you can find single-varietal releases from some of the top producers.
In the right hands, each of these diverse grape varieties can be used to make complex, delicious wines. If you want to taste the best versions of these varieties, pay attention to where and how they were grown when you can find this information. Generally, grapes grown on the oldest vines and in the coolest climates will have the greatest complexity and acidity, but that doesn’t mean that wines from younger vineyards and warmer areas can’t be delicious–or collectible. Try a wide variety of wine styles from both warm and cool regions–sticking with top producers–to decide what you prefer.
Some Noteworthy Appellations of the Southern Rhône
When travel writer Laura Longwell drove through the Southern Rhône over the summer, she was greeted by beautiful rolling hillsides and hectare upon hectare of ancient vines. At first, she says, she was slightly intimidated by the sheer number of wineries in the region, as well as the very formal structure of the wine tastings held by some of the best Southern Rhône producers. However, after making a stop at Mourchon, her confidence quickly grew when the owner helped her find some incredible red, white, and rosé blends to try. All of the wines she sampled had the perfect balance of fruit and spice.
If you visit the Southern Rhône, you’ll find that much of the wine made in this region has these same basic characteristics. However, just like wine from the Northern Rhône, the flavors in the wine vary (often dramatically) depending on the terroir in which the grapes were grown. Here are a few important appellations of Southern Rhône you’ll want to investigate:
Some of the best Southern Rhône producers are found in this appellation, including Pégaü and Clos des Papes. The wines made here are age-worthy and complex, and can be quite valuable on the secondary market. One of the things that makes these wines so captivating to wine enthusiasts is the diversity of styles available here; you’ll find 13 different grape varieties–not including color mutations like Grenache Gris and Grenache Rose–in Châteauneuf-du-Pape alone, and some producers actually use all of these in their wines. Terroir is also very important in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Depending on the vineyard, the soil can range from rocky to sandy and from limestone-rich to clay-rich. Another reason Châteauneuf-du-Pape produces some of the best wines in the Southern Rhône is that many vineyards are exposed to the Mistral–A strong, chilly wind that keeps grapes cool enough to develop excellent acidity while also naturally keeping pests and mildew off of the fruit.
When you buy wine from this region, it’s also worth considering whether the producer uses traditional techniques or a more modern approach to winemaking. Traditionally, Châteauneuf-du-Pape producers never use new oak, as they want the wine to taste as true to style as possible. However, if you like the complexity that new oak can add to the wine, then look for producers that embrace this technique (for at least some of their labels), like Château de Beaucastel and Domaine Grand Veneur.
Côtes du Rhône
Top Côtes du Rhône producers include Château de Beaucastel, Clos des Papes, Rayas, Janasse, and Chapoutier.
While wines from the Côtes du Rhône are often less age-worthy and valuable than wines made in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, you can still find some incredible young, approachable wines in this appellation. Wines classified as Côtes du Rhône Villages are of higher quality than those classified as just Côtes du Rhône, so if you’re looking for complex, character-driven bottles, wines labeled Côtes du Rhône Villages are a good place to start. It’s also worth finding out whether your favorite producers from Châteauneuf-du-Pape also make wines in this appellation–many of the best producers have vineyards in both appellations. Top Côtes du Rhône producers include Château de Beaucastel, Clos des Papes, Rayas, Janasse, and Chapoutier. If, like me, you find that you can’t get enough Southern Rhône wine, Côtes du Rhône wines from these producers make good casual drinking wines to keep you occupied while you wait for their more age-worthy Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines to mature.
Many wine enthusiasts are turning to the Gigondas appellation, especially for quality Grenache. Located just to the north of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, these wines have many of the same characteristics as the Southern Rhône’s most famous appellation; however, Gigondas wines are more rustic and straightforward. There’s also less diversity in this area; the soil is largely made up of gravel and clay, and only the vineyards located at higher elevations have a mix of limestone in the soil. If you’re looking for delicious, rustic red blends or rosé, then choose vintages from producers like Perrin et Fils or Saint Cosme. Unfortunately, if you’re looking for white blends to try, Gigondas isn’t an option, as the appellation no longer grows any white varieties.
Once part of the Côtes du Rhône, Rasteau is now its own appellation. The area is famous for two distinct wine styles: a supremely dry red wine blend made from high percentages of Mourvèdre, and a fascinating fortified red wine called Vin Doux Naturel Rasteau. This comes in red, rosé, and white styles and is made from Grenache Noir, Grenache Gris, or Grenache Blanc. It is very sweet and pairs perfectly with desserts. Some of the best producers in this region are Les Grand Bois and Beau Mistral.
All of the wines made in this appellation are blends–in fact, producers can’t have more than 60 percent of any single variety in the rosé wine they produce.
If you’re looking for flavorful rosé, look no further than Tavel. This region is home to some of France’s most historic and well-known rosé. Journalist A.J. Liebling called Tavel wine one of his “debilitating pleasures,” and he would go through dozens of cases when he lived in Paris. All of the wines made in this appellation are blends–in fact, producers can’t have more than 60 percent of any single variety in the rosé wine they produce. While this might seem restrictive, this combination of different grapes gives these rosé wines incredible depth of flavor. Some of the finest producers from this region are Guigal and Domaine de la Mordorée.
Located to the south of Gigondas, wines from Vacqueyras–particularly the appellation’s Grenache–tend to taste slightly riper and more concentrated. That’s because the grapes are often exposed to ample sunlight and warmth throughout the summer. If you enjoy red blends that are deep in color and supremely rich in flavor, then these wines will appeal to you. You should also consider some of the appellation’s rare white or rosé blends. While they’re difficult to find and released in limited quantity, the white wines are brightly acidic and complex, while the rosés are full-bodied and pleasantly aromatic. The best producers from this region include Santa Duc and Domaine la Garrigue.
When I want a young, easy-drinking Grenache blend, I stick with my favorite producers from the Côtes du Rhône.
I personally love–and buy–wine from all of these regions, as each has a distinctive personality. If I’m looking for a rosé with more depth than usual, then I seek out wines from Tavel. When I want a young, easy-drinking Grenache blend, I stick with my favorite producers from the Côtes du Rhône. With so many different styles to choose from, experimenting with wines from the best Southern Rhône producers is a fun, informative experience.
The Best Southern Rhône Producers
Decades ago, one of my friends started collecting wine from the Southern Rhône after hearing excellent reviews from his fellow wine enthusiasts. He enjoyed drinking the wines at first, but as time went on, his tastes changed, and he found that many of the bottles in his collection were too high in alcohol for his liking and had too much barnyard flavor. He decided to sell off his remaining bottles and avoided the region completely for a number of years. Recently, though, he’s changed his mind about the Southern Rhône. After trying a bottle of 2003 Pégaü earlier this year, he was reminded that the best Southern Rhône producers are capable of making delicious, well-balanced wines that don’t taste baked, heavily oaked, or overly alcoholic. He’s now starting a new collection from scratch by carefully selecting wines from the top traditional producers in the region.
Here are a few of the best Southern Rhône producers to help you start or build on your collection from this region:
- Domaine du Pégaü
- Clos Saint Jean
- Clos des Papes
- Domaine Saint Préfert
- Château de Beaucastel
- Domaine de la Janasse
- Clos du Mont-Olivet
- Domaine de Ferrand
- Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe
- Bosquet des Papes
- Domaine Paul Autard
- Le Vieux-Donjon
- Domaine Henri Bonneau
- Domaine du Clos du Caillou
- Domaine de la Mordorée
- Bois de Boursan
- Château de Saint Cosme
- Domaine de Marcoux
- Domaine la Barroche
- Domaine de Beaurenard
- Domaine les Cailloux
- Domaine Grand Veneur
- Domaine Jean Royer
- Château de la Nerthe
- Domaine Les Pallières
- Château Rayas
- Domaine Santa Duc
- Perrin et Fils
- Château de Vaudieu
- Domaine Tardieu-Laurent
- Domaine André Brunel
There are many more fantastic producers in the Southern Rhône, but this is a great list to start with, especially if you’re unfamiliar with wines outside of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Too often, collectors buy wines only from this appellation, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, expanding your horizons pays off very well when it comes to the Southern Rhône. Most of the producers in the list above make wine in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, yet some also produce second labels in appellations like Tavel and Côtes du Rhône. Trying a variety of wines from many appellations can give you a better understanding of what makes Southern Rhône wine so distinctive.
Age-Worthy Vintages from the Southern Rhône
While it’s great to be familiar with the best Southern Rhône producers, as with all wine regions, the vintage can make or break a wine. An alcoholic, jammy bottle of Côtes du Rhône Villages from a very warm year, for instance, is not a fair representation of the Côtes du Rhône appellation as a whole. In general, when it comes to red blends from the Southern Rhône, most wine enthusiasts prefer cooler vintages, as colder weather conditions give the wines greater acidity and complexity. If, on the other hand, you love a ripe, high-alcohol wine, then invest in vintages that were warmer and drier than usual.
Most Southern Rhône wines from the 1990s and 1980s have already reached peak maturity, so you should drink or sell these soon if you haven’t already.
According to Wine Spectator, the top-rated Southern Rhône vintages of the past 30 years are:
These vintages were successful for red blends, white blends, and rosé. Most of these vintages also experienced diurnal swings and cooler temperatures (with the exception of the 1989 vintage, which was extremely hot and produced age-worthy wines with greater-than-usual concentration). Most Southern Rhône wines from the 1990s and 1980s have already reached peak maturity, so you should drink or sell these soon if you haven’t already. The 2005 and 2010 vintages can be drunk now, however, they may develop further after a few more years of storage. This is especially true for fine Châteauneuf-du-Pape red blends and Tavel rosé. The 2015 and 2016 vintages still need more time to mature, so you should keep these in professional storage for at least five more years.
How to Build a Southern Rhône Wine Collection
A great way to sample wines from the best Southern Rhône producers is to attend tasting events at wine bars, wineries, or restaurants. When I first started collecting wine from this region, I asked for recommendations from sommeliers and other wine experts. By doing this, I learned that the oaked wine I had been buying wasn’t what I actually enjoyed most from the Southern Rhône. The experts I spoke to were able to guide me to more traditional styles of these wines, and I’ve discovered that I love the clean flavors of a wine aged primarily in cement vats.
You might be surprised by the flavors and aromas that attract you most.
Once you have a list of recommendations and preferences, take careful tasting notes for each of the wines you try and make note of any patterns you see in them. You might be surprised by the flavors and aromas that attract you most. Regardless of your personal preferences, when you try a variety of wines from the Southern Rhône region, you’ll find that there are truly no other wines like them in the world.
Whether you are starting your high-end wine collection or adding to an established portfolio, Vinfolio is your partner in buying, selling, and professional storage. Contact us today to get access to the world’s finest wine.