For America wine drinkers, the Rhône Valley tends to be a place of mystery and intrigue. Most can tell you that Châteauneuf-du-Pape is in the Rhône and that the area is a source of great value wines. True. But there is so much more. Here, I’ve highlighted five things you might not know about the Rhône. It’s a world of discovery if you just dig a little deeper.
- Some Vineyards Are Like Open-Air Ovens
The large galets roulés (round stones) that spread out for acres under vines in Châteauneuf-du-Pape are also found in neighboring appellations like Lirac. Once you step foot inside a vineyard marked by these large round river stones, it’s easy to see why they are so important for grape-growing. Deposited three million years ago by the Rhône River, certain sites are covered in them for acres and acres. Standing there, eyeing an entire field of them baking in the hot midday, it becomes clear how they radiate heat like a massive open-air oven throughout the cool night, mitigating temperatures.
- New Appellation-Specific Whites
Winemakers are getting really excited about white wines from appellations known for producing big, robust reds. Some growers have even planted white varieties just to prove they can make exceptional whites, which they’ll use to petition the AOC, with the hope of producing an appellation-labeled white. One such group of vignerons is in Gigondas. The soils contain the same limestone and calcareous mixture that make other regions famous for their gorgeous vibrant and pure fruit aromas and flavors marked by zippy mineral throughlines and an almost saline-like quality. It will be a number of years before we see these wines, but it spells an exciting thing white wine lovers the world over.
- Your Favorite Bottles, Half the Price
When it comes to quality vs. price, wines from the Southern Rhône Valley are second to none—and are really, really cheap. That is—when you are IN the Southern Rhône. On a recent trip there, some of my favorite bottles were between €7.50 and €15.50. Talk about wanting to buy by the case-load! Of course, by the time these same wines go through all the import hoops and hit U.S. shelves, the prices are at least $16-$25 or more. So, get yourself to the Rhône, camp out in Avignon, or the tiny, gorgeous villages of Gigondas, and stay for a week, drinking your way through some of the best wines of your life, on the cheap. The dollar is strong right now too, so there’s never been a better time.
- The Rhone Employs 50,000 People
From grape-growing, winemaking and all the work involved in a winery, to tasting rooms, co-ops, marketing companies, and tourism, the Rhône Valley is one of the biggest employers in the wine world with the French government reporting some 50,000 jobs created in 2015—a number that has surely grown in the last few years. Compare that to Napa which employees roughly 44,000 within the valley, and a bevy of people nationwide, it’s still an impressive number for a relatively small area.
- World’s Best Co-Ops Are in the Rhône
Cooperatives play critical roles in the wine industry in the Rhône Valley. While co-ops have a mixed reputation around the world, and among wine industry veterans, the fact is that a great majority of them are getting much better. The co-ops of the Rhône are models of good practices for other wine producing regions. One such co-op, Les Caves de Tavel, in the Tavel appellation, has been around since 1937 and works with 60 families of growers. This co-op represents 50% of all the production coming out of Tavel. This co-op was a stop on my recent tour, and I was really impressed by the quality of the wines sold locally as well as some of their clients, which include the Chapoutier and the Perrin families. Clean and expansive, boasting a generous tasting room and play-areas for children, it’s a destination for many locals. Also, the production area is superbly clean and massively expansive and they even own three (3) of those quarter-million dollar pneumatic presses—a real statement and testament to the lengths they go to gently process their fruit.