The Rhône, which is over 800 kilometres long, is one of the most important wine rivers in the world. Like all watercourses, it has a positive effect on viticulture or creates the conditions for it by forming sometimes very steep valley slopes. The river has its source at the Furka Pass as a glacial stream in the Swiss Alps of Uri, flows through the canton of Valais and Lake Geneva under the name Rotten, crosses the French border, turns south from Lyon and flows into the Mediterranean Sea south of Arles-sur-Rhône. The Greeks founded the city of Marseille (Massilia) on the mouth of the Rhone in the 6th century BC and brought the vine into the valley. Also the Celts (Gauls) already practiced viticulture in the two appellations Côte Rôtie and Hermitage (Crozes-Hermitage). Allegedly they taught the Romans the art of grafting the vines.
The Roman scholar Pliny the Elder (23-79) reports about a grape variety Allobrogica, which was allegedly cultivated here by the Celtic tribe of the Allobroger. At the beginning of the second century the area became part of the Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis. Roman viticulture is testified by many finds of amphorae, statues of the wine god Bacchus and mosaics with wine motifs. Many exhibits are on display in the "Musée de la Civilisation Gallo-Romaine" in Lyon. At the beginning of the 14th century, the papal court was moved to Avignon, where seven recognised popes reigned from 1309 to 1377. This resulted in a strong impulse for viticulture, because most of the wine at the papal table came from the Rhône valley. The name Châteauneuf-du-Pape was derived from the castle of Pope John XXII (1245-1334), which he had built as a summer residence north of Avignon.
The Rhône wine growing region or "La Vallée du Rhône" refers to the approximately 200 kilometre stretch from Lyon in the south to Avignon in south-east France. On both sides of the Rhône and its tributaries there are about 80,000 hectares of vineyards spread over the six départements of Ardèche, Drôme, Gard, Loire, Rhône and Vaucluse. But only a small area in the far north is in the Rhône and, surprisingly, 70% of the production of its northern neighbour Burgundy comes from this area. For more than 150 kilometres, the Rhône runs parallel to the Loire, which gave its name to the eastern region. The two rivers are only about 50 kilometres apart on this stretch, but flow in opposite directions.
The elongated wine-growing region is divided into "Rhône Septentrional" (septentrional = north) and "Rhône Méridional" (méridional = south). The two sections are very different in terms of climate, soil and grape varieties. What they have in common, however, is the mistral, a cold and dry north wind, which many vineyards are lined with cypresses and poplars to ward off. The wines from the left (eastern) bank are generally considered to be heavier and more alcoholic. In total, more than 90% of the region's red wines are produced by almost 6,000 wineries, the rest are rosé and, to a very small extent, white wines.
The northern section begins at the town of Vienne, near which the three appellations Château-Grillet, Condrieu and Côte Rôtie are located. It stretches straight south to the city of Valence with the Cornas and Saint-Péray appellations. The climate is continental, the soils are mostly slate and granite. The vineyards are often located on extremely steep terraced slopes with a gradient of up to 65° (214%). In some areas they are among the steepest vineyards in Europe. The Romans had their slaves do the extremely laborious cultivation. Syrah dominates here, which is the only red wine vine allowed. The most important white wine varieties are Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier. For the most part, dark and tannin-rich red wines are also produced in larger quantities as single varieties. These are often vinified classically, i.e. less in new oak. In the northern section, less than 10% of the wine volume is produced.
Further to the south, there is a gap of about 50 kilometres in the course of the river without viticulture or vineyards. However, further to the east there is an area on the Rhône tributary Drôme, sometimes referred to as the middle section. This is where the four appellations named after their respective municipalities - Châtillon-en-Diois, Clairette de Die, Coteaux de Die and Crémant de Die - are located, each with an already very old sparkling wine production.
The southern section begins at Montélimar and extends south to Avignon in the department of Vaucluse. Compared to the northern section, the climate is Mediterranean, the soils consist mainly of limestone subsoil interspersed with clay. There are many winegrowers' cooperatives here, which produce about two thirds of the quantity. Also here, mainly red wines are produced, the most important variety is Grenache Noir(Garnacha Tinta). However, around 20 different grape varieties are allowed, which results in many cuvées with a wide variety of wine styles. Other red wine varieties are Carignan Noir, Cinsaut, Mourvèdre and increasingly, as in the northern section, Syrah. The typical blend here is called the Rhône recipe.
The southern section is dominated by the regional Côtes du Rhône appellation (which also includes smaller areas in the northern section) and the Côtes du Rhône-Villages class, which is located exclusively here. A special feature is the Tavel area, which is exclusively reserved for rosé wines. The Beaumes-de-Venise and Rasteau areas produce sweet Vin doux naturel. Somewhat remote appellations are Côtes du Vivarais, Grignan-les-Adhémar, Luberon and Ventoux. Far to the south is the appellation Costières de Nîmes, which geographically belongs to the Languedoc, but by wine law to the Rhône. This group is also known as the "Nouvelle École de la Vallée du Rhône" (New School of the Rhône Valley). A total of 16 areas have the regional status "Cru", which means the rank of a Rhône top appellation. In a broader sense, they belong to the Appellation Côtes du Rhône, which is why "Cru des Côtes du Rhône" is also mentioned on the label. The Rhône appellations are: