From Ch\u00e2teauneuf-du-Pape, the wine of popes and kings, to the easy-drinking bottlings of C\u00f4tes du Rh\u00f4ne found in bistros worldwide, the hedonistic wines of the Southern Rh\u00f4ne 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\u2019s mighty crus.\r\n\r\nA cru, which translates to \u201cgrowth\u201d in French, designates a legally demarcated region that\u2019s recognized for its quality and distinctive terroir. Cru wines, labeled solely by their appellation, are the elite; they\u2019re positioned above wider regional classifications like C\u00f4tes du Rh\u00f4ne or C\u00f4tes du Rh\u00f4ne Villages.\r\n\r\nThis designation proves both a reward and challenge to winegrowers. It imposes strict yield limits and mandates laborious quality measures like hand harvesting.\r\n\r\nWhile Ch\u00e2teauneuf-du-Pape is the original cru of the Southern Rh\u00f4ne, advances in viticulture and winemaking have blurred the lines between the appellation and its lesser-known and less expensive neighbors.\r\n\r\nToday, nine cru appellations span the region, each offering distinct wines that express the Southern Rh\u00f4ne\u2019s varied terroirs. And with stunning vintages from 2015 through 2017 on store shelves, now is the perfect time to dive in and drink up.\r\n\r\n\r\nCh\u00e2teauneuf-du-Pape\r\nWith wines that showcase opulence juxtaposed to elegance, the deeply concentrated, beefy bottlings of Ch\u00e2teauneuf-du-Pape are the undisputed royalty of the Rh\u00f4ne\u2019s southern cru. Foreign demand for them is so great that about 80% of the region\u2019s wines are exported, primarily to the U.S. and the UK.\r\n\r\nCh\u00e2teauneuf-du-Pape translates to \u201cnew home of the Pope.\u201d It\u2019s a moniker that dates to the early 14th century when Pope Clement V established a summer court in nearby Avignon.\r\n\r\nBy the 20th century, the region\u2019s prominence suffered due to rampant wine fraud. Efforts by Ch\u00e2teauneuf-du-Pape\u2019s winegrowers to designate borders and impose strict production rules led to the French Appellation d\u2019Origine Contr\u00f4l\u00e9e (AOC) system, which now governs the nation\u2019s wines. Then, in 1936, Ch\u00e2teauneuf-du-Pape became one of the first wine AOCs.\r\n\r\nWine Styles: Red (93%), White (7%)\r\nPermitted Varieties: Red and White Wines\u2014Bourboulenc, Cinsault, Clairette (Blanche and Rose), Counoise, Grenache (Blanc, Noir and Gris), Mourv\u00e8dre, Muscardine, Picardan, Picpoul (Blanc, Noir and Gris), Roussanne, Syrah, Terret Noir, Vaccar\u00e8se\r\nRecommended Producers: Ch\u00e2teau de Beaucastel, Ch\u00e2teau Rayas, Domaine du P\u00e9gau, Domaine du Vieux T\u00e9l\u00e9graphe\r\n\r\nThe appellation is synonymous with its galets roul\u00e9s, or rounded pebbles. Shaped by the flow of the Rh\u00f4ne 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\u2019s plateau. The formations store heat during the day, which warms the vineyard at night.\r\n\r\nLesser-known limestone, gravel and sand terrains contribute to the region\u2019s unique expressions, too.\r\n\r\nThe art of blending is also central to the appellation\u2019s identity. Grenache reigns supreme here, much as it does throughout the entire Southern Rh\u00f4ne. However, Ch\u00e2teauneuf-du-Pape winemakers are free to formulate distinct cuv\u00e9es from any of the region\u2019s 13 permitted grape varieties. As a result, its wines can vary significantly in composition.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nFor example, the red bottling of Ch\u00e2teau Rayas is 100% Grenache, while at Ch\u00e2teau de Beaucastel, Winemaker C\u00e9sar Perrin describes his family\u2019s Ch\u00e2teauneuf-du-Pape rouge as \u201ca symphony with each of the 13 grape varieties playing a valuable role.\u201d\r\n\r\nSome grapes, like Mourv\u00e8dre, serve as lead instruments, he says, while others, like Picardin, are more akin to subtle background notes.\r\n\r\n\u201cEach year, each member of our family makes their own blend, and then we decide which direction to go,\u201d says Perrin. \u201cBlending is key to the complexity of each vintage.\u201d\r\n\r\n\r\nTavel\r\nIn Tavel, wine has always meant one thing: ros\u00e9. Long before it became the official beverage of Instagram and pool parties, French royalty and intellectuals swooned for the appellation\u2019s bottlings.\r\n\r\nBeloved by King Louis\u00a0XIV, Balzac and Hemingway, Tavel wines are often shockingly pink, with hues that range from deep salmon to ruby. While ros\u00e9 is often developed as a byproduct of red wine production, grapes here are cultivated exclusively for the style.\r\n\r\nTavel became the first French ros\u00e9 appellation in 1937. It remains the only appellation in the Rh\u00f4ne exclusive to ros\u00e9.\r\n\r\nWine Styles: Ros\u00e9 (100%)\r\nPermitted Varieties: Primarily Grenache (Blanc, Noir and Gris); accessory varieties include Bourboulenc, Calitor Noir, Carignan, Cinsault, Clairette (Blanche and Rose), Mourv\u00e8dre, Picpoul (Blanc, Noir and Gris), Syrah\r\nRecommended Producers: Ch\u00e2teau d\u2019Acqueria, Domaine des Carteresses, Domaine Maby, Les Vignerons de Tavel\r\n\r\nThe style here is always bone dry and distinguished from its paler Proven\u00e7al cousins by deeper fruit concentration and earthy complexities. They\u2019re invigorating yet solid wines suitable for enjoyment beyond summer, and can even benefit from cellar aging.\r\n\r\nA wide variation in varietal blends and three distinct soil types within the appellation\u2014galets roul\u00e9s, sand and limestone\u2014further enhance complexity in these wines.\r\n\r\n\r\nLirac\r\nAcross the Rh\u00f4ne River from Ch\u00e2teauneuf-du-Pape, Lirac shares many of the same iconic galets roul\u00e9s, sand and limestone soils.\r\n\r\n\u201cThe terroir of Lirac is often hidden in the shadows of Ch\u00e2teauneuf-du-Pape,\u201d says Laure Poisson, commercial director for Les Vignerons de Tavel & Lirac a cooperative of 55 family growers. But, in recent years, \u201cLirac has emerged from the shadows to become something different,\u201d she says.\r\n\r\nWine Styles: Red (85%), White (10%), Ros\u00e9 (5%)\r\nPermitted Varieties: Red Wine\u2014Primarily Cinsault, Grenache Noir, Mourv\u00e8dre, Syrah; accessory varieties include Carignan, Clairette Rose, Counoise, Grenache Gris, Marsanne, Picpoul, Roussanne, Ugni Blanc, Viognier\r\nWhite Wine\u2014Primarily Bourboulenc, Clairette Blanche, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne; accessory varieties include Marsanne, Picpoul Blanc, Ugni Blanc, Viognier \r\nRos\u00e9 Wine\u2014Primarily Cinsault, Grenache Noir, Mourv\u00e8dre, Syrah; accessory varieties include Bourboulenc, Carignan, Clairette (Blanche and Rose), Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Picpoul, Roussanne, Ugni Blanc, Viognier\r\nRecommended Producers: Les Vignerons de Tavel & Lirac, Domaine Coudoulis, Domaine de la Mordor\u00e9e, Domaine Lafond\r\n\r\nDesignated a cru appellation in 1947, Lirac is rare in that it is authorized for production of red, white and ros\u00e9 wines. Much of Lirac\u2019s production had been focused on easy-drinking ros\u00e9, though today, red wines make up 85% of its output.\r\n\r\nWhile Grenache is central to Lirac\u2019s distinct blackberry character, winemakers have increasingly tapped Syrah and Mourv\u00e8dre as central blending components. The cru\u2019s best red wines are notable for their perfume, savoriness and complexity.\r\n\r\n\r\nGigondas\r\nCharacterized historically as a poor man\u2019s Ch\u00e2teauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas is an appellation often explained in comparison to its glossier cousin.\r\n\r\nLike Ch\u00e2teauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas is defined by luscious fruit, generosity and spice. It\u2019s typified, however, by a slimmer profile than the brawny wines of Ch\u00e2teauneuf-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.\r\n\r\nIn 1971, Gigondas was the first of the C\u00f4tes du Rh\u00f4ne Villages appellations to be elevated to cru status. The wines offer remarkable affordability compared to ever-escalating prices for Ch\u00e2teauneuf-du-Pape.\r\n\r\nIn recent decades, however, it\u2019s become increasingly difficult to differentiate the best of Gigondas from Ch\u00e2teauneuf-du-Pape.\r\n\r\nWine Styles:\u00a0Red (99%), Ros\u00e9 (1%)\r\nPermitted Varieties:\u00a0Red and Ros\u00e9 Wines\u2014Principal varieties include Grenache (Noir), Mourv\u00e8dre, 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, Vaccar\u00e8se, Viognier\r\nRecommended Producers: Ch\u00e2teau de Saint Cosme, Domaine Santa Duc, Pierre Amadieu, Tardieu-Laurent\r\n\r\n\u201cQuality has improved a lot in the last 10 years,\u201d says Bastien Tardieu, lead oenologist at family-operated n\u00e9gociant Tardieu-Laurent, which works with more than 100 growers throughout the Rh\u00f4ne Valley. He says that the advances can be attributed to cru appellations like Gigondas being held to \u201cthe same restrictive regulations [as Ch\u00e2teauneuf-du-Pape] to produce wine.\u201d\r\n\r\nLike most of the Southern Rh\u00f4ne crus, Grenache is the appellation\u2019s backbone, augmented by Mourv\u00e8dre and Syrah. Small amounts of other traditional Rh\u00f4ne varieties are permitted in any blend, with the exception of Carignan.\r\n\r\nA 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 Rh\u00f4ne. 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.\r\n\r\n\u201cThere\u2019s an element of freshness here,\u201d says Louis Barruol, owner of Ch\u00e2teau de Saint Cosme, a Gigondas estate that dates to the 15th century. \u201cIt\u2019s not just from altitude or acidity, but a saltiness and minerality reminiscent of the sea.\u201d\r\n\r\n\r\nRasteau\r\nPlanted 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\u201390 year-old vines continue to bear fruit year after year.\r\n\r\nLong considered one of the best regions of the C\u00f4tes du Rh\u00f4ne Villages, the appellation obtained cru status in 2010.\r\n\r\n\u201cRasteau is a powerful wine,\u201d says Helen Durand, owner of Domaine du Trapadis, a small estate winery. \u201cPower and freshness aren\u2019t opposites here. Even if acidity is soft, there is freshness from minerality and finesse, particularly with age.\u201d\r\n\r\nWine Styles: Red (100% in Rasteau AOC), Vin Doux Naturel (100% in Vin Doux Naturel Rasteau AOC)\r\nPermitted Varieties: Red Wine\u2014Primarily Grenache (Noir), complemented by Mourv\u00e8dre, 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, Vaccar\u00e8se, Viognier\r\nVin Doux Naturel\u2014Primarily 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, Vaccar\u00e8se, Viognier\r\nRecommended Producers: Domaine de Verqui\u00e8re, Domaine du Trapadis, Domaine Fond Croze, Domaine La Soumade\r\n\r\nThe red wines of Rasteau are composed principally of Grenache, though they\u2019re augmented by Syrah, Mourv\u00e8dre and a host of other minor blending partners.\r\n\r\nThe 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\u2019s nutty, deliberately oxidative rancio-style, ambr\u00e9 and tuil\u00e9 vins doux naturel.\r\n\r\n\r\nBeaumes de Venise\r\nLocated 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 Rh\u00f4ne.\r\n\r\nMuscat 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.\r\n\r\nWine Styles: Red (100% in Beaumes de Venise AOC), Vin Doux Naturel (100% in Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise AOC)\r\nPermitted Varieties: Red Wine\u2014 Primarily Grenache Noir, complemented by Syrah; accessory varieties include Bourboulenc, Vaccarese, Carignan, Cinsault, Clairette (Blanche and Ros\u00e9), Grenache (Blanc and Gris), Marsanne, Mourv\u00e8dre, Muscardin, Picpoul (Blanc and Noir), Roussanne, Terret Noir, Ugni Blanc\r\nViognier Vin Doux Naturel\u2014Muscat (Blanc and Rouge)\r\nRecommended Producers: Domaine de Coyeux, Domaine de Durban, Domaine des Bernardins, Domaine la Ligi\u00e8re\r\n\r\nDespite 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.\r\n\r\nGrenache and Syrah, which dominate the red wines here, can be potent and haunting in perfume. Intensely fruity and ripe, they\u2019re approachable in their youth, but the wines are also structured with firm tannins that reward cellaring.\r\n\r\n\r\nVacqueyras\r\nIf Gigondas is the diminutive cousin of Ch\u00e2teauneuf-du-Pape, Vaqueyras might be Gigondas\u2019 little brother. Rusticity is often used to differentiate the appellation\u2019s wines from those of Ch\u00e2teauneuf-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\u2019s sleek, fresh and light on its feet.\r\n\r\nLocated 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\u2019s known as the garrigues, or flatlands covered with galets roul\u00e9s, there are higher-elevation vines found on the region\u2019s sandy slopes and stony terraces as well.\r\n\r\nProfiles vary with terrain, but, overall, the wines of Vacqueyras combine approachable fruitiness with elegance, bright acidity and fine, persistent tannins.\r\n\r\nWine Styles:\u00a0 Red (95%), White (4%), Ros\u00e9 (1%)\r\nPermitted Varieties: Red Wine\u2014Principally Grenache (Noir), complemented by Syrah, Mourv\u00e9dre; accessory varieties include Bourboulenc, Carignan, Cinsault, Clairette (Blanche and Rose), Counoise, Grenache (Blanc and Gris), Marsanne, Muscardin, Picpoul Noir, Roussanne, Terret Noir, Vaccar\u00e8se, Viognier\r\nWhite Wine\u2014Bourboulenc, Clairette, Grenache (Blanc), Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier\r\nRos\u00e9 Wine\u2014Cinsault, Grenache, Mourv\u00e8dre, Syrah\r\nRecommended Producers: Ch\u00e2teau des Tours, Domaine Font Sarade, Domaine les Semelles du Vent, Montirius\r\n\r\n\u201cCompared to Gigondas, Vacqueyras has always been the more accessible and eager wine,\u201d says Jean Fran\u00e7ois Arnoux, the 13th-generation owner of Arnoux & Fils. \u201cIt offers more fruit, warmth and spice, and it doesn\u2019t hurt that the price is typically 20% less.\u201d\r\n\r\nAppellation rules that govern yields, methods of harvest and winemaking are almost identical to Gigondas and Ch\u00e2teauneuf-du-Pape. Production is almost entirely red wines, which must be made from at least 50% Grenache and contain either Mourv\u00e8dre or Syrah, and can be enhanced by a host of other Rh\u00f4ne varieties.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nAt Domaine Font Sarade, owner Bernard Burle and his daughter, Claire, make wines from both Vacqueyras and Gigondas.\r\n\r\n\u201cParticularly in cooler, northerly vineyards with western exposures, Vacqueyras is distinguished by its body, its balance and integration of alcohol,\u201d says Bernard.\r\n\r\n\r\nCairanne\r\nElevated to cru status in 2016, Cairanne is one of the Rh\u00f4ne\u2019s newest and most promising appellations. Compared to the powerhouse wines typical to the Southern Rh\u00f4ne, the Grenache-based blends here often exhibit a distinct finesse.\r\n\r\n\u201cWines from Cairanne have elegance,\u201d says Laurent Brusset, the winemaker and third-generation owner of Domaine Brusset.\r\n\r\nWine Styles:\u00a0Red (96%), White (4%)\r\nPermitted Varieties: Red Wine\u2014Primarily Grenache (Noir), complemented by Mourv\u00e8dre, 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, Vaccar\u00e8se, Viognier\r\nWhite Wine\u2014Primarily, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne; accessory varieties include Bourboulenc, Marsanne, Picpoul Blanc, Ugni Blanc, Viognier\r\nRecommended Producers: Domaine Brusset, Domaine Oratoire St Martin, Domaine Rabasse-Charavin, Domaine Alary\r\n\r\nThe region\u2019s soils vary from clay and limestone to sand and pebbles.\r\n\r\nThis 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.\r\n\r\nCairanne is rarely overextracted or jammy. Instead, it offers typically soft and supple tannins. The permitted white grapes of the appellation \u201care often planted at higher altitudes, where cool night temperatures lend acidity and delicacy to the wines,\u201d he says.\r\n\r\n\r\nVinsobres\r\nLocated at the northern limits of the Southern Rh\u00f4ne, with hillside terraces at more than 1,600 feet above sea level, Vinsobres is one of the region\u2019s coolest appellations. Comprising just 27 domains, which includes three cooperatives, it\u2019s a small appellation that stretches across five miles of rolling hills.\r\n\r\n\u201cVinsobres marks the beginning of the Alps,\u201d says winemaker M\u00e9lina Monteillet, whose family winery, Domaine de Montine, crafts bottlings in Vinsobres and neighboring Grignan. \u201cThe vineyards here are always the last to be harvested. Calcareous soils and high altitude lend minerality and freshness.\u201d\r\n\r\nWine Styles: Red (100%)\r\nPermitted Varieties: Primarily Grenache Noir, complemented by Mourv\u00e8dre, 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, Vaccar\u00e8se, Viognier\r\nRecommended Producers: Domaine Chaume-Arnaud, Domaine Constant-Duquesnoy, Domaine de Montine, Domaine Jaume\r\n\r\nThe red wines of Vinsobres, elevated to cru status in 2006, must be made up of 50% Grenache and include Syrah and/or Mourv\u00e8dre. Syrah grows well here, and it lends briskness and structure to the wine.\r\n\r\nWines 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.