Southern Rhône (excluding Chateauneuf)
Producing over 3.5m hl (hectolitres), this is the second biggest region for production of appellation contrôlée wine in France after Bordeaux. Most is red, though production of both white and pink is growing. Some 20 grape varieties are planted in the south though one in particular, Grenache, gives the region as a whole its identity: generosity, body, weight and a definite tendency to making big wines. More than half of the production is of Côtes-du-Rhône with the best sold as Côtes-du-Rhône Villages. Better still are the so-called crus led by Châteauneuf-du-Pape itself.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape: This large area to the north of Avignon makes the best wines of the south. Reds tend to be grenache based with syrah, mourvèdre and counoise also used. Few wines combine immense strength with perfect elegance quite so convincingly. Word of caution: Châteauneuf produces as much wine as the whole of the northern Rhône put together. A third is very good, a third acceptable and the last third,...
Châteauneuf-du-Pape: This large area to the north of Avignon makes the best wines of the south. Reds tend to be grenache based with syrah, mourvèdre and counoise also used. Few wines combine immense strength with perfect elegance quite so convincingly. Word of caution: Châteauneuf produces as much wine as the whole of the northern Rhône put together. A third is very good, a third acceptable and the last third, undrinkable.
Right bank: Villages include Tavel (rosé only) Lirac, Saint-Gervais and Laudun. There is more rain here but it is also hot and grapes are therefore early ripening. Most of the area lies in the département of the Gard and stretches from the river westwards towards Nîmes where at some ill-defined line in the soil, the Rhône becomes the Languedoc. This is an area that has much improved over the years and has become a valuable source for very fine, concentrated syrah wines in particular.
A little further on are the Costieres de Nimes, a large area of upland plateau, south-east of Nîmes. For the moment the Costières produces good everyday wines of good quality but there is potential to do much more.
Northern hills: There are fresh sub-alpine breezes at work here and as a result the wines often have a distinct freshness too. Just north of Orange is the largely wooded and isolated Massif d'Uchaux. Many of its star producers here are able to farm organically.
The three 'Vs' : Valréas, Visan and Vinsobres: These are three top neighbouring villages (with a 4th, Saint-Maurice broadly similar to Vinsobres). Vinsobres has full cru status and makes superb wine. Best names include Perrin, now the largest land owner and Domaine Jaume whose wines have been charming members since the 1979 vintage.
Valréas and Visan are planted on the same hill but tend to look north. Emmanuel Bouchard is one of the top names in Valréas. Adrien Fabre makes both outstanding examples of both Visan and Saint-Maurice.
Tricastin/Grignan-lès-Adhémar - The Tricastin is a much neglected part of the Rhône and coming down from the northern Rhône, these are the first vines one sees. It's a relatively cool area, far too cold for growing mourvèdre successfully, but the whites do very well and so does the syrah grape. The area has seen a name change as Tricastin is also the name of a power station on the river. The new name for the wines (which doesn't exactly trip off the tongue), is Grignan-lès-Adhémar.
Central hills - This includes the villages of Cairanne and Rasteau along with neighbouring Roaix. Big full-bodied wines, grenache dominated. Rasteau is all power and might while Cairanne is more deicate.
Plan de Dieu - Large flat expanse of pudding stones that seem to stretch as far as the eye can see, in the middle of which there is an airfield, (largely built for the Luftwaffe) surrounded by vines. Full-bodied style. Excellent for mourvèdre. Jaboulet are very good here as is the Meffre family.
Eastern fringes - Set against an iconic landscape with Mont Ventoux and the craggy Dentelles de Montmirail as the backdrop, some of these hillsides were first planted by the Romans and include some of the best-known names in the Rhône Valley.
Gigondas: Mountain wine, late harvested, always dramatic and very full-bodied though never coarse or overweight. These are generous reds, capable of long ageing. A little rosé is also made.
Vacqueyras: Next door to Gigondas yet different. Fruitier, a shade less powerful and more obviously charming:
Beaumes de Venise: The red is as full as Gigondas but rounder and less complex and this village is better known for its sweet muscat, a vin doux naturel and perfect for desserts.
Ventoux: At nearly 2000m this is some mountain which scores of cyclists are forced to conquer every year in the Tour de France. Its lower slopes are vineyard country though. Traditionally these were known as Côtes du Ventoux and were made and sold cheaply. Things are changing though with more estates cutting yields and making full and concentrated wine, not dissimilar to and better value than many Châteauneufs.