Being asked to choose your favourite wine region in France is kind of like asking a parent which child is their favourite – they are all so loveable in their own way, with unique characteristics and temperaments! However, if forced to choose, my pick is a region that exhibits a few of my favourite things, when speaking about wine, or just life in general: hot weather, exotic fruit, deep complexity and approachability. If you haven’t guessed yet, I’m referring to the Rhone Valley, with its main stars being Syrah, Viognier and Grenache.
Since my first sip, I’ve been a fan of Syrah. I like the deep purple hue and complexity of flavour, combining dark plum, intense tannins and hints of spice and cured meats. To me, Syrah is like that sexy, rugged guy every woman lusts after: strong and mysterious with many layers.
Viognier surprised me – I did not think I liked white wines that exhibited any florals, or ripe fruit. Early on in my wine experiences I tended to choose very dry, cleansing whites with not much happening on the nose. However, I’ve been converted to Viognier’s tropical aromas of peach, mango and papaya. I think what I like about it is that it is vinified dry, so the fruit is not overwhelming and too sweet on the palate. To me, Viognier is like every guy’s dream: an approachable girl next door who also has an exotic side.
The relationship between Syrah and Viognier stands out as an interesting factor when discussing wines from the Rhone. The idea that Viognier is often added to Syrah to add fragrance, soften the tannins and make the wine more approachable highlights the fact that wine blending is such a fascinating science. It also reminds me of a couple I know who really balance each other out: he’s a deep, intense personality and she mellows him out with her soft femininity and sweetness.
Grenache should not be overlooked when discussing the Rhone Valley. This grape has the best of both worlds, as it has both richness and deep colour, like Syrah; and sweetness on the nose like Viognier. However, the sweetness in Grenache comes from ripe berry fruit. I like its versatility, as Grenache grapes are also used to make rose wines as well as reds. In keeping with the theme, I suppose Grenache might be like that funny friend, who always brings lightness and fun to the relationship, and can be flexible in many situations.
Within the Rhone Valley, there are also some unique characteristics to different areas that make these wines interesting. Grenache is found in the South Rhone which is less vintage variable than the North due to its hotter, drier climate. This climate most likely explains the sweet berry character that results in the reds and roses produced with this grape.
In the North Rhone, the wines are more vintage variable and have to fend off the mistrals that blow in from the coastline and can reach up to 100 miles per hour. Also in the North, we find the Cote Roti or the “roasted slope” where Cote Brune and Cote Blonde exist. These two main vineyards named for the winemaker’s daughters (referring to their hair colour) show that the characteristics of wines can definitely be compared to those of the people around us, with Cote Brune providing heavier, more powerful wine much like a dark, mysterious brunette, and Cote Blonde producing more approachable, younger-drinking wines, like a friendly, cute blonde.
The area in the Rhone that intrigues me the most is Hermitage in the North – all south-facing slope, with notes of laurel, thyme and lavender in the terroir. I would like to explore these wines more in the future to experience for myself this notion of “garrigue”, where the grapes take on the characteristics of this surrounding vegetation.
In closing, I still have much to learn about these grapes and the wines of the Rhone Valley in general. However, making the connection between the characteristics of the wines of the Rhone, and the characteristics of the people in my life definitely combines two of my passions. It also makes me want to call up my friends and board a plane to this fascinating, sunny region in France!
*Photos courtesy of Sarah, Heather and Amy -- thanks girls!
**Grapes pictured are not Syrah, Viognier or Grenache.