The New World wines inspired by the great wines from France’s Rhone region have earned a loyal following. Syrah and Viognier used to get all of the attention but adventurous wine lovers are discovering that there is so much more from the Rhone that is worth knowing.
With that said, Viognier and Syrah clearly rule the roost. Acres of Viognier outpace the sum of all other Rhone white varietals by more than a factor of four. Syrah is not quite so dominate in the red variety category but the number of Syrah acres is greater than the sum of Carignan, Cinsaut, Grenache, Mourvedre, and Petite Sirah in the USA.
The great wine varietals of the Rhone are among the most congenial in the wine world. While many of the traditional Rhone grapes are capable of making wonderful wines as solo performers they really shine when working together creating sublime blends. The sum is truly greater than the individual parts.
Get to know the great Varietals from the Rhone
Bourboulenc – This white varietal plays an important role in the wines from Corbiéres and Minervois. Bourboulenc is also one of the 13 permitted varietals in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Carignan – This prolific grape is the key component of many bulk wines produced in the South of France. However, if this varietal’s yields are kept low, Carignan can produce wines with depth, style, and charm. Carignan is also lovely in Rosé wines in the Rhone, Spain, and the New World.
Cinsault – A popular red variety widely grown in Southern France including the Southern Rhone where it can be found in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Cinsault is vigorous in the field giving great yields. The wines are juicy with low tannin and a pleasing spice note. This variety has great potential in California as both a blender and as a single varietal wine.
Clairette Blanc – This is a workhorse white varietal in the Southern Rhone and much of the Southwest of France. Clairette Blanc is a blending varietal that adds heft and strength to wines while contributing little acid. When allowed to express itself Clairette Blanc offers notes of apple, fennel, lime, and peach with a pleasing bitterness.
Counoise – This variety is known only by the most die-hard Rhone fanatics. Despite its lack of name recognition Counoise is an important player in Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine. This is a beautiful blending grape marrying perfectly with both Syrah and Grenache as it offers fruity flavors with a subtle spice edge.
Duriff – This variety is named for the Doctor that developed this hybrid, a cross between Syrah and Peloursin. It is rarely seen in its native France and is now better known as Petite Sirah. The name is greatly misleading as the wines from this grape are anything but petite but rather dense and hardy with power and flare.
Grenache (Red) – A prolific red variety that is essential to the great wines of the southern Rhone including the famous Chateauneuf-du-Pape. It is also responsible for some of the best Rosé wines from the south of France. Grenache is also widely planted in Spain where it is known as Garnacha. In the USA this variety is still used primarily in blends but luckily more varietal wines are now arriving.
Grenache Blanc – This white variety is the sibling of Grenache Noir (most often referred to simply as Grenache) and is a native of Spain. It ranks fourth in France among white varieties and is an important varietal in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. While this grape is most frequently used as a blending grape it is capable of performing solo creating wines with crisp, orchard fruit flavors with a refreshing dose of acidity.
Marsanne – A popular white variety from France’s northern Rhone region where it is an important blending component. Marsanne has gained popularity in the New World in recent decades where it produces dry, fruity wines with great aromatic qualities and a subtle nutty note.
Mourvedre – Red wine variety grown in warm climates in the south of France where it is often blended with Cinsault and Grenache. While this is an important variety in the Rhone it is likely that Mourvedre is a native of Spain where it is known as Monastrell. Mourvedre produces wines with density, power, and a generous dose of acidity. In California this variety was first known as Mataro where it was used almost exclusively in blends. Mourvedre has earned a cult following here thanks largely to the “Rhone Rangers.”
Picpoul – This unique white variety is native to the Languedoc-Roussillon region. Picpoul is one of the 13 permitted varietals in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Roussanne – A white varietal important to France’s Southern Rhone white blends. Roussanne contributes unique and racy fruit aromas and flavors as well great acidity. The grape is also prized for its ability to age far better than the average white varietal.
Syrah – Syrah is an important red wine grape, grown in France’s Rhone region where it primarily responsible for the wines of the Northern Rhone and important in blends in the Southern Rhone. In recent decades Syrah, synonymous with Shiraz, has become a major player in the New World most notably in Australia and the USA. At its best, Syrah can produce some of the most profound red wines in the world. The wines are stuffed with dense berry flavors and aromas with tannin and structure to add complexity and longevity. Many of the best Syrah wines have complimentary flavors of earth, smoked meats, and leather.
Viognier – Viognier is known as the Rhone’s exotic white varietal. It is most at home in the appellation of Condrieu where it produces wines with incomparable aromas and flavors reminiscent of a unique hybrid of apricot, peach, and lush tropical fruits. Viognier is best grown in relatively cooler where it can retain its vibrant, bright acidity that all but disappears when it becomes overripe.