The Rhone Valley of southern France is a particularly fascinating wine region, with a history that stretches back to at least six hundred BCE, when the ancient Greeks first began cultivating vines there. The region itself is split into two distinct sub-regions, with the northern sub-region being famed for its production of exceptional Syrah, Marsanne, Roussane and Viognier wines, packed full of interesting character and expressing the terroir found there. The southern sub-region is home to an enormous variety of grapes, and produces red, white and rosé wines, and some of the world's most famous and adored blended wines. The continental climate of the region is ideal for growing grapes, and the winds which blow from the Central Massif help temper the heat in the vineyards, leading to very ripe fruits holding plenty of flavor.
Viognier, an exotic, elusive varietal, originally comes from the Northern Rhone Valley of France, and has captured the fascination of the U.S. wine-drinking public. At its finest, it is full-bodied and nearly golden in color, with a haunting bouquet of peaches, apricots and pears, and a floral quality like no other wine in the world. Many vintners are trying their hand at this varietal, spreading from its American beginnings in Napa Valley and Santa Barbara County to wineries as far away as Virginia. Marsanne and Rousanne, two other important varieties from the Rhone Valley are making waves in the U.S., particularly on the Central Coast of California.
Wines have been made in the Rhone Valley since the time of the Romans, who left behind the ruins of aqueducts and amphitheaters. The Rhone Valley stretches for 140 miles from Lyon to Avignon and is divided into two regions: north and south.
The wines of the north and south are as dramatically different as the climate and the landscape The warm-weather wines of the south tend to be thick, dark, rich blends of as many as nine different red grape varieties. Wines of the southern Rhone also include sweet fortified Muscats from Beaumes-de-Venise, and the burly reds and aromatic whites of the sun-baked vineyards of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
In the cooler north, fragrant Viognier of Condrieu and the exotic Marsanne/Roussanne blend of white Hermitage are among the elegant whites. Red Hermitage, made from Syrah, is one of the world's great wines, at one time commanding prices to rival the First Growths of Bordeaux.