From Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the wine of popes and kings, to the easy-drinking bottlings of Côtes du Rhône found in bistros worldwide, the hedonistic wines of the Southern Rhône are familiar friends. As a whole, they share a lusciousness of fruit, fiery spice and earth characteristics. The most dynamic generally hail from the region’s mighty crus.
A cru, which translates to “growth” in French, designates a legally demarcated region that’s recognized for its quality and distinctive terroir. Cru wines, labeled solely by their appellation, are the elite; they’re positioned above wider regional classifications like Côtes du Rhône or Côtes du Rhône Villages.
This designation proves both a reward and challenge to winegrowers. It imposes strict yield limits and mandates laborious quality measures like hand harvesting.
While Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the original cru of the Southern Rhône, advances in viticulture and winemaking have blurred the lines between the appellation and its lesser-known and less expensive neighbors.
Today, nine cru appellations span the region, each offering distinct wines that express the Southern Rhône’s varied terroirs. And with stunning vintages from 2015 through 2017 on store shelves, now is the perfect time to dive in and drink up.
With wines that showcase opulence juxtaposed to elegance, the deeply concentrated, beefy bottlings of Châteauneuf-du-Pape are the undisputed royalty of the Rhône’s southern cru. Foreign demand for them is so great that about 80% of the region’s wines are exported, primarily to the U.S. and the UK.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape translates to “new home of the Pope.” It’s a moniker that dates to the early 14th century when Pope Clement V established a summer court in nearby Avignon.
By the 20th century, the region’s prominence suffered due to rampant wine fraud. Efforts by Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s winegrowers to designate borders and impose strict production rules led to the French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system, which now governs the nation’s wines. Then, in 1936, Châteauneuf-du-Pape became one of the first wine AOCs.
Wine Styles: Red (93%), White (7%)
Permitted Varieties: Red and White Wines—Bourboulenc, Cinsault, Clairette (Blanche and Rose), Counoise, Grenache (Blanc, Noir and Gris), Mourvèdre, Muscardine, Picardan, Picpoul (Blanc, Noir and Gris), Roussanne, Syrah, Terret Noir, Vaccarèse
Recommended Producers: Château de Beaucastel, Château Rayas, Domaine du Pégau, Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe
The appellation is synonymous with its galets roulés, or rounded pebbles. Shaped by the flow of the Rhône river into flattened formations that range from the size of baseballs to basketballs, the stones lay atop subsoils of sand and clay throughout the region’s plateau. The formations store heat during the day, which warms the vineyard at night.
Lesser-known limestone, gravel and sand terrains contribute to the region’s unique expressions, too.
The art of blending is also central to the appellation’s identity. Grenache reigns supreme here, much as it does throughout the entire Southern Rhône. However, Châteauneuf-du-Pape winemakers are free to formulate distinct cuvées from any of the region’s 13 permitted grape varieties. As a result, its wines can vary significantly in composition.
For example, the red bottling of Château Rayas is 100% Grenache, while at Château de Beaucastel, Winemaker César Perrin describes his family’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape rouge as “a symphony with each of the 13 grape varieties playing a valuable role.”
Some grapes, like Mourvèdre, serve as lead instruments, he says, while others, like Picardin, are more akin to subtle background notes.
“Each year, each member of our family makes their own blend, and then we decide which direction to go,” says Perrin. “Blending is key to the complexity of each vintage.”
Beloved by King Louis XIV, Balzac and Hemingway, Tavel wines are often shockingly pink, with hues that range from deep salmon to ruby. While rosé is often developed as a byproduct of red wine production, grapes here are cultivated exclusively for the style.
Tavel became the first French rosé appellation in 1937. It remains the only appellation in the Rhône exclusive to rosé.
Wine Styles: Rosé (100%)
Permitted Varieties: Primarily Grenache (Blanc, Noir and Gris); accessory varieties include Bourboulenc, Calitor Noir, Carignan, Cinsault, Clairette (Blanche and Rose), Mourvèdre, Picpoul (Blanc, Noir and Gris), Syrah
Recommended Producers: Château d’Acqueria, Domaine des Carteresses, Domaine Maby, Les Vignerons de Tavel
The style here is always bone dry and distinguished from its paler Provençal cousins by deeper fruit concentration and earthy complexities. They’re invigorating yet solid wines suitable for enjoyment beyond summer, and can even benefit from cellar aging.
A wide variation in varietal blends and three distinct soil types within the appellation—galets roulés, sand and limestone—further enhance complexity in these wines.
Across the Rhône River from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Lirac shares many of the same iconic galets roulés, sand and limestone soils.
“The terroir of Lirac is often hidden in the shadows of Châteauneuf-du-Pape,” says Laure Poisson, commercial director for Les Vignerons de Tavel & Lirac a cooperative of 55 family growers. But, in recent years, “Lirac has emerged from the shadows to become something different,” she says.
Wine Styles: Red (85%), White (10%), Rosé (5%)
Permitted Varieties: Red Wine—Primarily Cinsault, Grenache Noir, Mourvèdre, Syrah; accessory varieties include Carignan, Clairette Rose, Counoise, Grenache Gris, Marsanne, Picpoul, Roussanne, Ugni Blanc, Viognier
White Wine—Primarily Bourboulenc, Clairette Blanche, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne; accessory varieties include Marsanne, Picpoul Blanc, Ugni Blanc, Viognier
Rosé Wine—Primarily Cinsault, Grenache Noir, Mourvèdre, Syrah; accessory varieties include Bourboulenc, Carignan, Clairette (Blanche and Rose), Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Picpoul, Roussanne, Ugni Blanc, Viognier
Recommended Producers: Les Vignerons de Tavel & Lirac, Domaine Coudoulis, Domaine de la Mordorée, Domaine Lafond
Designated a cru appellation in 1947, Lirac is rare in that it is authorized for production of red, white and rosé wines. Much of Lirac’s production had been focused on easy-drinking rosé, though today, red wines make up 85% of its output.
While Grenache is central to Lirac’s distinct blackberry character, winemakers have increasingly tapped Syrah and Mourvèdre as central blending components. The cru’s best red wines are notable for their perfume, savoriness and complexity.
Characterized historically as a poor man’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas is an appellation often explained in comparison to its glossier cousin.
Like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas is defined by luscious fruit, generosity and spice. It’s typified, however, by a slimmer profile than the brawny wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, as well as an intoxicating pungency of garrigue, the rustic base notes of underbrush and herb found throughout Provence and the South of France.
In 1971, Gigondas was the first of the Côtes du Rhône Villages appellations to be elevated to cru status. The wines offer remarkable affordability compared to ever-escalating prices for Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
In recent decades, however, it’s become increasingly difficult to differentiate the best of Gigondas from Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Wine Styles: Red (99%), Rosé (1%)
Permitted Varieties: Red and Rosé Wines—Principal varieties include Grenache (Noir), Mourvèdre, Syrah; accessory varieties include Bourboulenc, Cinsault, Clairette (Blanche and Rose), Counoise, Grenache (Blanc and Gris), Marsanne, Muscardin, Picpoul (Blanc and Noir), Roussanne, Terret Noir, Ugni Blanc, Vaccarèse, Viognier
Recommended Producers: Château de Saint Cosme, Domaine Santa Duc, Pierre Amadieu, Tardieu-Laurent
“Quality has improved a lot in the last 10 years,” says Bastien Tardieu, lead oenologist at family-operated négociant Tardieu-Laurent, which works with more than 100 growers throughout the Rhône Valley. He says that the advances can be attributed to cru appellations like Gigondas being held to “the same restrictive regulations [as Châteauneuf-du-Pape] to produce wine.”
Like most of the Southern Rhône crus, Grenache is the appellation’s backbone, augmented by Mourvèdre and Syrah. Small amounts of other traditional Rhône varieties are permitted in any blend, with the exception of Carignan.
A key factor that differentiates the cru is topography. Gigondas, along with neighboring Vacqueyras and Beaumes de Venise, sits along the slopes of the Dentelles de Montmirail, a ragged limestone formation that towers above the Southern Rhône. The outcrops of the Dentelles protect against the morning sun and extend the growing season. Its altitude allows for a wide day-night temperature range that maintains acidity and balance in the grapes.
“There’s an element of freshness here,” says Louis Barruol, owner of Château de Saint Cosme, a Gigondas estate that dates to the 15th century. “It’s not just from altitude or acidity, but a saltiness and minerality reminiscent of the sea.”
Planted on predominantly south-facing slopes, Rasteau is characterized by profound ripeness and intensity. Grenache thrives in this arid, sun-drenched terrain, and a large proportion of 30–90 year-old vines continue to bear fruit year after year.
Long considered one of the best regions of the Côtes du Rhône Villages, the appellation obtained cru status in 2010.
“Rasteau is a powerful wine,” says Helen Durand, owner of Domaine du Trapadis, a small estate winery. “Power and freshness aren’t opposites here. Even if acidity is soft, there is freshness from minerality and finesse, particularly with age.”
Wine Styles: Red (100% in Rasteau AOC), Vin Doux Naturel (100% in Vin Doux Naturel Rasteau AOC)
Permitted Varieties: Red Wine—Primarily Grenache (Noir), complemented by Mourvèdre, Syrah; accessory varieties include Bourboulenc, Carignan, Cinsault, Clairette (Blanche and Rose), Counoise, Grenache (Blanc and Gris), Marsanne, Muscardin, Picpoul (Blanc and Noir), Roussanne, Terret Noir, Ugni Blanc, Vaccarèse, Viognier
Vin Doux Naturel—Primarily Grenache (Blanc, Noir and Gris); accessory varieties include Bourboulenc, Carignan, Clairette (Blanche and Rose), Counoise, Marsanne, Muscardin, Picpoul (Blanc and Noir), Roussanne, Syrah, Terret Noir, Ugni Blanc, Vaccarèse, Viognier
Recommended Producers: Domaine de Verquière, Domaine du Trapadis, Domaine Fond Croze, Domaine La Soumade
The red wines of Rasteau are composed principally of Grenache, though they’re augmented by Syrah, Mourvèdre and a host of other minor blending partners.
The appellation is also revered for its vin doux naturel, which means naturally sweet wines. These expressive fortified wines are produced from Grenache Noir, Blanc and Gris. Most unique are the region’s nutty, deliberately oxidative rancio-style, ambré and tuilé vins doux naturel.
Beaumes de Venise
Located at the foot of the Dentelles de Montmirail, Beaumes de Venise is a particularly warm appellation sheltered from the Mistral, the famously frigid northerly winds of the Rhône.
Muscat thrives in the dry heat and arid soils here, and Beaumes de Venise is perhaps best known for its vin doux naturel. Unlike those of Rasteau, these are youthful, delicately fortified sweet wines made from the intensely floral, fruity grapes.
Wine Styles: Red (100% in Beaumes de Venise AOC), Vin Doux Naturel (100% in Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise AOC)
Permitted Varieties: Red Wine— Primarily Grenache Noir, complemented by Syrah; accessory varieties include Bourboulenc, Vaccarese, Carignan, Cinsault, Clairette (Blanche and Rosé), Grenache (Blanc and Gris), Marsanne, Mourvèdre, Muscardin, Picpoul (Blanc and Noir), Roussanne, Terret Noir, Ugni Blanc
Viognier Vin Doux Naturel—Muscat (Blanc and Rouge)
Recommended Producers: Domaine de Coyeux, Domaine de Durban, Domaine des Bernardins, Domaine la Ligière
Despite limited distribution stateside, the 150 or so winegrowers of Beaumes de Venise actually produce more than three times as much red wine than vin doux naturel. Since 2005, its red wines have been designated to cru status as well. Both styles are priced well in relation to quality.
Grenache and Syrah, which dominate the red wines here, can be potent and haunting in perfume. Intensely fruity and ripe, they’re approachable in their youth, but the wines are also structured with firm tannins that reward cellaring.
If Gigondas is the diminutive cousin of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Vaqueyras might be Gigondas’ little brother. Rusticity is often used to differentiate the appellation’s wines from those of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas. Yet, in recent decades, Vacqueyras has made great strides through improved vineyard and cellar standards. Compared to its powerful contemporaries, it’s sleek, fresh and light on its feet.
Located at the foot of the Dentelles de Montmirail, and adjacent to Gigondas, the vineyards of Vacqueyras are generally lower in elevation and warmer than their neighbors. While much of the cru is planted in what’s known as the garrigues, or flatlands covered with galets roulés, there are higher-elevation vines found on the region’s sandy slopes and stony terraces as well.
Profiles vary with terrain, but, overall, the wines of Vacqueyras combine approachable fruitiness with elegance, bright acidity and fine, persistent tannins.
Wine Styles: Red (95%), White (4%), Rosé (1%)
Permitted Varieties: Red Wine—Principally Grenache (Noir), complemented by Syrah, Mourvédre; accessory varieties include Bourboulenc, Carignan, Cinsault, Clairette (Blanche and Rose), Counoise, Grenache (Blanc and Gris), Marsanne, Muscardin, Picpoul Noir, Roussanne, Terret Noir, Vaccarèse, Viognier
White Wine—Bourboulenc, Clairette, Grenache (Blanc), Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier
Rosé Wine—Cinsault, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah
Recommended Producers: Château des Tours, Domaine Font Sarade, Domaine les Semelles du Vent, Montirius
“Compared to Gigondas, Vacqueyras has always been the more accessible and eager wine,” says Jean François Arnoux, the 13th-generation owner of Arnoux & Fils. “It offers more fruit, warmth and spice, and it doesn’t hurt that the price is typically 20% less.”
Appellation rules that govern yields, methods of harvest and winemaking are almost identical to Gigondas and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Production is almost entirely red wines, which must be made from at least 50% Grenache and contain either Mourvèdre or Syrah, and can be enhanced by a host of other Rhône varieties.
At Domaine Font Sarade, owner Bernard Burle and his daughter, Claire, make wines from both Vacqueyras and Gigondas.
“Particularly in cooler, northerly vineyards with western exposures, Vacqueyras is distinguished by its body, its balance and integration of alcohol,” says Bernard.
Elevated to cru status in 2016, Cairanne is one of the Rhône’s newest and most promising appellations. Compared to the powerhouse wines typical to the Southern Rhône, the Grenache-based blends here often exhibit a distinct finesse.
“Wines from Cairanne have elegance,” says Laurent Brusset, the winemaker and third-generation owner of Domaine Brusset.
Wine Styles: Red (96%), White (4%)
Permitted Varieties: Red Wine—Primarily Grenache (Noir), complemented by Mourvèdre, Syrah; accessory varieties include Bourboulenc, Carignan, Cinsault, Clairette (Blanche and Rose), Counoise Noir, Grenache (Blanc and Gris), Marsanne, Muscardin, Picpoul (Blanc and Noir), Roussanne, Terret Noir, Vaccarèse, Viognier
White Wine—Primarily, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne; accessory varieties include Bourboulenc, Marsanne, Picpoul Blanc, Ugni Blanc, Viognier
Recommended Producers: Domaine Brusset, Domaine Oratoire St Martin, Domaine Rabasse-Charavin, Domaine Alary
The region’s soils vary from clay and limestone to sand and pebbles.
This diversity of terroir is reflected in the wines. The reds can be fleshy and ripe, redolent of figs and wild strawberries, yet they are often well structured and offer spicy, savory undertones.
Cairanne is rarely overextracted or jammy. Instead, it offers typically soft and supple tannins. The permitted white grapes of the appellation “are often planted at higher altitudes, where cool night temperatures lend acidity and delicacy to the wines,” he says.
Located at the northern limits of the Southern Rhône, with hillside terraces at more than 1,600 feet above sea level, Vinsobres is one of the region’s coolest appellations. Comprising just 27 domains, which includes three cooperatives, it’s a small appellation that stretches across five miles of rolling hills.
“Vinsobres marks the beginning of the Alps,” says winemaker Mélina Monteillet, whose family winery, Domaine de Montine, crafts bottlings in Vinsobres and neighboring Grignan. “The vineyards here are always the last to be harvested. Calcareous soils and high altitude lend minerality and freshness.”
Wine Styles: Red (100%)
Permitted Varieties: Primarily Grenache Noir, complemented by Mourvèdre, Syrah; accessory varieties include Bourboulenc, Carignan, Cinsault, Clairette (Blanche and Rose), Grenache (Blanc and Gris), Counoise, Marsanne, Muscardin, Picpoul (Blanc and Noir), Roussanne, Terret Noir, Ugni Blanc, Vaccarèse, Viognier
Recommended Producers: Domaine Chaume-Arnaud, Domaine Constant-Duquesnoy, Domaine de Montine, Domaine Jaume
The red wines of Vinsobres, elevated to cru status in 2006, must be made up of 50% Grenache and include Syrah and/or Mourvèdre. Syrah grows well here, and it lends briskness and structure to the wine.
Wines from small domains can still be difficult to find in the U.S., but regional producers like Famille Perrin or Pierre Amadieu produce fine Vinsobres bottlings that have wider distribution.