What is the difference between France's Northern and Southern Rhône Valleys?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

What is the difference between France's Northern and Southern Rhône Valleys?

—Steve, Federal Way, Wash.

Dear Steve,

If you’re learning about the Rhône Valley—and you really should, it’s one of the world’s greatest wine regions—you should check out James Molesworth’s Rhône coverage. I’ll skim over the basics here, but please realize there is a lot more to explore, and many amazing wines to fall in love with.

For starters, the entire Rhône Valley is in southern France, centered around the Rhône River. The Northern Rhône is generally cooler than the south. Here, Syrah is the lone variety used for red wines (sometimes blended with a touch of Viognier), while Marsanne and Roussanne, along with Viognier, produce white wines.

In the Southern Rhône, there’s a much different take on what can be planted. There are 10 red grapes allowed; the most widely planted is Grenache, then Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignane and Cinsault. Most of the wines are blends of several grapes. Southern Rhône whites are also made from a mix of different grapes, chiefly including Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Clairette, Bourboulenc and Picpoul.

In the Rhône, wines are bottled by region, not varietal. In the north, the two leading appellations for red wines are Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, while Condrieu is home to some terrific Viognier bottlings. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the Southern Rhône’s most famous subregion, but the most widely produced wines in the Rhône carry the Côtes du Rhône appellation. Other major Southern Rhône designations include Gigondas and Vacqueyras.

—Dr. Vinny

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