The Wine Label Elucidation: Decoding the Wine Bottles of Southern Rhône Valley

14 juillet 1789. Paris brûle! Rejoignez la révolution.  
Diffusez La Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen.  
Nourriture et vin pour tout le monde! 

Bonne fête nationale! We have come upon the one day in my annual calendar on which I painstakingly pretend to possess a modicum of French zealotry. And whether it’s commemorating the storming of the Bastille (vive la révolution!) or gleeful anticipation for tomorrow’s World Cup Final (I salute anyone who had France vs. Croatia in their finals bracket), there is much to celebrate. Frenzied Francophiles unite! 

In true French fashion, celebrations are only complete with a perpetual pour of high quality vin (admittedly, this is one thing the French get right), and I never miss an opportunity to join my besotted brethren for a tasty beverage. Thus, a metaphorical meandering through the vineyards of France is an appropriate endeavor for a dollop of frivolity on France's famed holiday. 

French wine labels and foreign terminology, however, can leave a typical Yank harboring occasional French fanaticism somewhat befuddled in the grocery aisle. Whereas most wine labels in the United States are varietal specific (e.g., Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, etc.), France designations are primarily regional.  

Fear not! French bottles are packed with useful information that allows you to procure a great bottle with ease. Admittedly, this requires some regional knowledge and exploration of the many designated appellation d'origine contrôlées (or AOCs) of France. Every AOC is an indicator of the wine’s quality, style, varietals used, and more. Armed with a smattering of regional knowledge and only a few label-navigation tips, you can be drinking with confidence.  

We will begin in the Southern Rhône Valley ... 

Standard of Review

Before we commence with a review of Southern Rhône Valley, I must first note that much of the wisdom that follows was acquired from my experiences at the 2017 Hawaii Food and Wine Festival's wine seminar events. These seminars were designed to provide a tasting experience that demonstrates the diversity of Rhône Valley’s terroir. The panel, consisting of three master sommeliers and Daniel Brunier, the winemaker from Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, was a perfect balance of intelligence and wit. Interested in a particular wine style or region? Find a focused tasting seminar (with actual winemakers, if possible) and enjoy a wonkishly intellectual (yet casually inebriating) exercise. There is much to explore and learn in the vinous world.

This is Daniel Brunier of Vieux Télégraphe. He knows a LOT about wine. He also makes incredible wine, which is convenient, because I happen to enjoy drinking incredible wine.

History and Terroir of Southern Rhône Valley

Winemaking practices in the Rhône Valley have ancient origins. At the time King Nebuchadnezzar II was building his famed Hanging Gardens of Babylon (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) in 600 B.C.E., nearby Phoenician merchants and Greek sailors with vinous ambitions set up shop and began to cultivate the vine. Greek civilization and commerce spread that early viticultural acumen. By the time the Romans occupied the region in 67 AD, winemaking was a vast industry spread across the southern region, utilizing well-established infrastructure and trade routes to expand its sphere of influence. As the Roman sojourn through France commenced, the Romans surmised that copious wine was an excellent excuse for a hostile takeover. I’m inclined to agree. The Roman occupation utilized the region as a respite for the Roman Legion. Even in ancient times, Southern France was the prime destination for drinking and frivolity. Party on! 

At the time of the Greeks and Romans, the vinous wisdom opined that winemaking required warm climates and plenty of sunshine. Rhône Valley fit the profile, brilliantly. The region benefits from a warm Mediterranean climate that combines an abundance of sunshine, arid conditions, cooling Mistral winds, and the distant sea’s tempering maritime influence. Traversing the region, one is pleasantly greeted with the aromas of Provençal herbs that grow wild in the Valley, filling the air with olfactory delight. Be certain, however, to watch your step! Across the southern Rhône, vineyards are visibly marked with stony gravels and soils, an ancient remnant of its glacial past during the Ice Age period. 

The Rhône Valley is an excellent case study in the way terroir affects wine. In the south, Grenache (also called “Garnacha” in Spain and other regions) is the cornerstone varietal of the valley, and is well-suited to the warm Mediterranean climate and characteristically rocky soils of the region that are porous and well-drained. Hot weather persists across the region, but the soils can vary significantly. As a result, there is a wide diversity of terroir between the right and left banks of Rhône River. With only a casual one hour drive, one can experience Grenache blends expressed in a host of different styles. Want a fruit-forward, lush wine showcasing flavors of red berries (raspberry, strawberry, cranberry)? Southern Rhône has that. Want a rustic and powerful wine with red and black fruit, earthiness, tobacco and spice? Southern Rhône has that, too. 

Although Grenache is king in Southern Rhône Valley, most vinters opt for blends rather than a wine produced from a single varietal. And with 19 permitted varietals, there are plenty of options for the winemaker.  

The Valley is known primarily for its red wines. For these blends, Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre take centerstage (forming the famed “GSM” blends), with Carignan and Cinsault, among others, rounding out the blending options.

For the white wines, the workhorse grape varietals include Grenache Blanc, Clairette, and Bourboulenc, followed by Picardin and Picpoul. The unexciting Marsanne, finicky Roussanne and my personal favorite, the aromatic Viognier, complete the blending blanc medley. 

Know Thy Label

The Rhône Valley is one of my absolute favorite wine regions on the planet, so don’t let confusing French labels keep you from delicious wine! Below are a few guideposts that can navigate your vinous journey through the Rhône Valley. 

Basic Tier: Côtes-du-Rhône

The most basic designation for wine from the region is Côtes-du-Rhône. Côtes-du-Rhône is the largest appellation in the Rhône Valley and easily produces the most wine - roughly half of the total production in the entire Valley. Under this designation, grapes can come from anywhere in the region, and winemaking requirements are less stringent. As a result, the wines broadly range from low-quality, oxidized, alcoholic wines to (albeit few) exceptional, rich and balanced wines. 

But hey, in the Rhône Valley drinking doesn't always need to be fancy. Uncorking a beverage in Southern France can often be more out of habit than taste, and it is quite natural to have a bottle in hand from a young age. When you are routinely reaching for wine instead of water, a budget-friendly, simple, fruity Grenache gets the job done ... bottle, after bottle, after bottle...

For Côtes-du-Rhône, look for reputable cooperatives that are known to produce consistent, drinkable wines.

Mid Tier: Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages

The next quality designation is Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages. These wines originate on vineyard sites located near important winemaking villages in the southern Rhône Valley. In these specific villages, vignerons are permitted to include the “Villages” tag on their labels, as well as the name of the specific village, provided that all grapes were grown there. While the same varietals are invited to the party, these Village wines are characteristically more structured, complex, and higher quality than Côtes-du-Rhône. This can be prime bargain wine territory.

Top Tier: AOC Specific

Specific villages have developed a reputation for producing wines of such a high quality that they were elevated to their own appellation d'origine contrôlée, or "AOC" - the highest tier of French wine classification.

The AOCs of Southern Rhône include: Beaumes des Venise, Cairanne, Gigondas, Lirac, Tavel, Rasteau, Vacqueyras, Vinsorbes, and the regional flagship, Châteauneuf-du-Pape (more on this region below).

Amongst the AOC Crus, pay particular attention to Gigondas, my personal favorite. Gigondas enjoys a cooler climate than its papistic neighbor due to higher altitude (in some cases up to 600 meters) and a steady Mistral wind that blows down the valley.  The soils are more calcerous and consist of limestone and clay. This combination works brilliantly for Grenache.  Although Grenache finds a happy home in Gigondas, there is much more than makes this region unique. Here, the wine glass tells an environmental narrative. Soils, fungus, bacteria, natural yeasts and even livestock contribute to an extraordinarily unique geographic profile that translates to the characteristics of the wine. The vine must thrive alongside other life forms, and the wine is better for it.

Vinous Label Elucidation - Decoding Southern Rhone Wine Labels - AOCs of Southern Rhone Valley

The AOCs of Rhône Valley are consistently growing in quality and prestige, producing rustic, powerful and spicy cuvées that can rival Châteauneuf-du-Pape at a fraction of the price. Read: find value here.

The Flagship: Châteauneuf-du-Pape

The flagship AOC in southern Rhône Valley is Châteauneuf-du-Pape, one of the most prestigious wine regions in the world.

The region's vinous ambitions carry a pious narrative Avignon, just south of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, famously housed the papal court during the fourteenth century, when civil war was stirring in Rome. Compared to civil war, even the French appear hospitable. With the pontiff’s penchant for tasty vinous beverages, Pope John XXII ordered a vineyard to be cultivated in the “Newcastle of the Pope.” Under the spiritual and practical guidance of the Church, the region thrived. Within the century, however, the Pope was called back to Rome, and the region lost its ecclesiastical spotlight. Wine nonetheless remained integral to the region’s culture and identity. Although the papal seat possessed a limited lifespan in Avignon, Châteauneuf-du-Pape would not have found its vinous calling without a little holy intervention.

Recognizing an authentic Châteauneuf extends beyond the label itself. Owners of vineyards in the region are permitted to emboss on the bottle the coat of arms of the Holy See, consisting of the papal tiara and the crossed keys of Saint Peter (representing the power to bind and to loose on earth and in heaven). A holy reminder that, when uncorking a bottle Châteauneuf-du-Pape, one is heartily quaffing God’s wine. Divine motivation to reach for another bottle ...

The region famously crafts some of the best wine in France and, indeed, the world. It does, however, typically come with a price tag to match. While you will not find many bargain wines bearing the Châteauneuf crest, this is a truly magnificent region that should be explored as your budget permits.

Before wrapping up, I am persuaded to provide one final pitch for the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival seminars. The seminars provide extraordinarily useful information made pertinent through a comparative tasting experience. Inebriated sensory analysis, the best method of education. These seminars are consistently a great opportunity to experience the new and exciting wines in a scholarly and enjoyable environment. For a wine wonk like myself, these seminars are always the highlight of a festival filled with highlights. Be sure to peruse the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival website and stay informed about upcoming seminars for this year's autumn event, October 6-28.