The Rhone Valley is located in Southeast France between Burgundy and Provence, which is on the Mediterranean coast. There are two distinct areas - the North and the South, which have two distinct climates. The North has a continental climate enjoying warm summers and cold winters, wherein the South benefits from a Mediterranean climate. The “Cotes du Rhone” classification of wines encompasses both.
In Northern Rhone, Syrah is the sole red grape with its high pigments, high tannins and cherry and plum flavors. Three white grapes - Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne - are allowed in the wines of some of the Northern crus to add aromatics. Cote Rotie allows up to 20% Viognier with its peach, apricot and white flowers to be added to the blend. Saint Joseph allows up to 10% Marsanne and/or Roussanne, whereas Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage allow up to 15% of these grapes to be added. Cornas must be 100% Syrah.
Wines from the Southern Rhone are typically going to be blends. There are 27 varieties in the region, 21 of which can be used in “Cotes du Rhone” wines. Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre dominate. Grenache is used for its berry fruit flavor to make it easier on the palate, Syrah for its color and tannin to increase character and help with aging, and Mourvedre for added tannin (structure) and acidity. The wines may also be blends of different methods of fermentation (oak versus stainless steel or cement) or of fruits of different aged vines.
There are several crus in the Southern Rhone, but none as well revered as Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The name translates to “new castle of the Pope” because the one of the popes to call Avignon home when the papal palace moved from Rome fell in love with the village and built a summer home there. Only 13 varieties are allowed in the blends. Together they produce full bodied and fragrant wines with concentrated fruit flavors and characteristically higher alcohol content. Winemakers here use mostly large oak containers versus the smaller barrels so that the oak does not overpower the fruit.
A wine dubbed “GSM” is, as you can imagine, a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. This acronym originated in Southern Australia as a more user-friendly, and shorter, alternative title to “Southern Rhone Blend.” California's "Rhone Rangers" are a group of winemakers producing wines with the Rhone varieties and promoting these American versions.
For this tasting exercise, choose a wine from Northern Rhone to compare to a wine from Southern Rhone. Alternately, you may choose a Rhone Blend (Southern Rhone) to compare to a New World GSM. Finally, you may choose to compare two or more Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines.
On The Label
Cotes du Rhone, Cote Rotie, Saint Joseph, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Vinsobres, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Rasteau, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Lirac, GSM
In The Bottle
Red fruit, dark fruit, dried fruit, spice, sweet spice, cocoa, tobacco, barnyard
At The Table
Grilled foods, barbecue, game, stews, hard cheese, aged cheese
Photo Credit: http://clipart-for-free.blogspot.com/2008_09_01_archive.html