Heritage and History

Settling in Massalia and the first vineyards

It all started in 600 BC, when the Greeks in pre-Roman Gaul founded the city of Massalia, not far from the Rhône Delta.

Geographically, vineyard locations have always been closely linked to the expansion of nearby towns, where consumption creates a demand for quality local products. It should come as no surprise then, that the site chosen for the first grapevines in France lay close to the Phocaean city of Massalia.

The Rhône Valley has been a major trade route for thousands of years, being the shortest route from the Mediterranean to the Northern regions. It was a considerable asset for wines produced in the Mediterranean area, as it could be used to ship them across relatively long distances. So the first vineyards in France were established by the Greeks.

A major trade route

There have been numerous findings of amphora fragments in and around the ancient ports of Montfaucon and Bagnols-sur-Cèze, both now part of the Côtes du Rhône vineyards. These point to a long history of wine trading in the Rhône Valley, probably started by the Etruscans well before Massalia was founded.

From these findings we can deduce that wine was introduced by Etruscan merchants before the Greek winegrowers established their vineyards; so the merchants came first, followed by winegrowers who produced enough to fulfil their own needs and then sold any surplus. For several centuries before vineyards came to the Rhône Valley, the Gauls enjoyed wines from Italy, Greece and Massalia.

When they settled in Gaul, not only did the Greeks take over the existing wine trade; they also brought their own vines all the way from the eastern Mediterranean, which they proceeded to plant freely on the hillsides surrounding the city. They introduced new ways of pruning the vines to produce healthy grapes and quality wines.

By around 500 BC, Massalia was producing its own wine – and amphorae – to meet the needs of the burgeoning domestic wine trade moving further up the Rhône.

The demand for good wine became greater still with the arrival of the Celts, who were great wine enthusiasts. Even philosopher Diodorus of Sicily was moved to remark on the ‘Gaulish passion for wine.’

Wine consumption across Gaul continued to grow, and eventually Italian wine merchants from the south of Italy stepped in to plug any gaps in supply.

Roman influence

The Romans had a considerable influence on the Rhône Valley, building towns whose remains have become an integral part of the region’s heritage, just as their vineyards have. The towns of Avignon, Orange, Bagnols, Valence, Vienne, Vaison-la-Romaine, Alba la Romaine, Montélimar etc. are living proof that the Roman occupation had a marked impact on both the Valley and the surrounding area. They were built on the Roman model, and included amphitheatres, theatres, Roman baths, huge temples, arenas, aqueducts and fora.


Early wine producers sought to site their winemaking facilities as close as possible to where the wines were to be consumed. The Romans wanted to produce the wine needed to supply their soldiers, and for commercial trading, as close as they could to the troops stationed at Vienne and to the local population. The Rhône Valley became the site of choice.

Trading wine along the Rhône and the first Côtes du Rhône vines

In the Rhône Valley, goods were transported both by river and along the Via Agrippa linking Marseille to Lyon; certain sections of today’s RN7 follow the original Roman route. Smaller, secondary roads were used to bring wines made in the villas at Donzère and Pierrelatte (Drôme) to the ports.

After the Roman conquest, some areas became the property of the State; these lands were passed on to former Roman legionaries, who used them for planting olives, cereal crops and vines. From the 1st century AD, wines made in Gaul slowly began to replace Italian wines, while barrels transported along the Rhône gradually took the place of the original amphorae.

From Tain l’Hermitage to the south of Lyon, the northern section of the vineyards includes narrow terraces supported by low walls; the bases of some of these walls were built by the legionaries to enable them to plant their vines. Vienne, the erstwhile capital of the Celtic Allobroges tribe and a major Roman city, was also surrounded by vines. This was to be the starting point for the Côtes du Rhône vineyards.

In ancient times, the largest vineyard in the area was that of Villa du Molard, near Donzère in the southern Drôme. There were several such villas in the area after the Roman conquest. They grew olives and vines, further proof that these were the area’s speciality crops. Villa du Molard was built across some 10,000m² and was in active use for over 2 centuries.

Agricultural products were handled in one section of the villa, while another section was used for vinification and storage, with enough capacity for 200 earthenware jars each holding 1,200 – 1,500 litres of wine. It is estimated that the vineyards themselves measured over 70 hectares. Significant historical findings in the plains of the lower Rhône – including traces of vine plantings, Gaulish amphorae and facilities such as the Villa Molard – serve to remind us that under the influence of the Romans, the Rhône area was a major winegrowing region from the earliest days. Their remains can still be seen today, evidence that the Côtes du Rhône vineyards date back to ancient times.

From the Middle Ages to modern times – the Avignon Papacy and its influence on the vineyards

From 1309 to 1423, nine successive popes resided in Avignon. In the 14th century, Bertrand de Got, archbishop of Bordeaux, was elected Pope, taking the name Clement V (1305-1314). He owned a vineyard in Pessac near Bordeaux. Clement V moved his court to Comtat Venaissin to escape the prevailing instability in Rome, eventually settling in Malaucène near Ventoux, where he planted the first papal vineyards.

Growth of the vineyards under the Avignon Papacy

One after the other, Pope Clement V’s successors continued to extend their local plantings, helping to increase the reach of the Rhône Valley vineyards. Pope Benedict XII (1334-1342) ordered a papal palace to be built in Avignon, plus a summer residence in Châteauneuf Calcernier (later to become Châteauneuf-du-Pape), whose vineyards also grew and flourished.

Pope Innocent VI (1352-1362) helped the Côtes du Rhône vineyards achieve wider recognition by diversifying his own supplies of wine to include a broader range of products made in and around Avignon.

The influence of the Avignon Popes on the local vineyards — later to become the Côtes du Rhône – was quite considerable. As dictated by seigneurial custom at the time, the Popes planted vineyards of the highest quality; they also extended the range of wines served at the papal court by including local products, a good way to introduce them to leading European figures. In time, over three quarters of the wines served by the papal court in Avignon came from the Côtes du Rhône.

When the Papacy moved back to Rome, Côtes du Rhône wines were not forgotten. Wines from both sides of the river continued to be shipped to the Pontiff and his entourage from Avignon, along the Rhône and across the sea.

The French royal court was also enthusiastic about Côtes du Rhône wines, having served and enjoyed them since the time of Francis I. At around this time, the wines were gradually being introduced into Britain, shipped along the Canal du Midi (opened in 1680) then by sea from Bordeaux to England. From 1780, the vineyards of the lower Rhône took great pride in their new-found popularity among British consumers, who called them ‘wines of the Ardoise’ after the river port from which they were shipped

The phylloxera crisis, restoring the vineyards and growing recognition at home and abroad

The first half of the 19th century was a golden time for French winegrowing in general, and the Rhône Valley in particular, and the vineyards increased in size quite considerably. However, in the latter half of the century, the vines were hit by a succession of major problems, many brought in from north America. These included oidium, mildew and of course the devastating outbreak of phylloxera, an aphid which attacks the roots of the vine and which spread through Europe like wildfire, carried on vine stocks imported from America.

The phylloxera crisis and the changing shape of viticulture in the Rhône Valley.

This dreadful pest gradually spread throughout France, carried by the wind and transported along major roads – until 1890, when French botanist Jules Emile Planchon suddenly understood why the vines were dying, and came up with a solution to save them and restore the French vineyards. Vineyard management practices, along with vineyard landscapes, were to undergo a sea change.

  • Vines were re-planted after being grafted onto American rootstocks with a natural resistance to phylloxera;
  • New vines were tied in to wire trellises leaving space for ploughing, first by horse, and then from the 1950s onwards, by tractor. Meanwhile, in the north of the Rhône Valley where slopes were too steep to access by machine, each vine was trained to a wooden stake – sometimes even 2 stakes, the second at an angle to support the first – giving an almost ethereal, mountain-top feel to the vineyard landscape.

Building on the success of Côtes du Rhône wines and their Crus, traditional Rhône Valley varietals grew in popularity both at home and abroad. This was particularly noticeable in the New World, where well-known European varietals were often used to make quality wine. Their fame began to spread as the world’s vineyards were reconstructed at the end of the 20th century, reaching a peak in 1980-1990, when New World wines began to come into their own. Syrah and Viognier, both native to the northern Rhône Valley, were a case in point; they were planted throughout south-eastern France and in many other wine-producing countries.

Today Syrah is so popular that it is grown in more than 25 countries, while Viognier grows in over 18. Syrah is seen as an international varietal on a par with some of the iconic Bordeaux and Burgundy grapes. These are wines with real impact!

From 1937 to the present day: Côtes du Rhône wines protecting our heritage

The AOCS are very much part of a human endeavour, often driven by just one person rallying the local winegrowers’ union, persuading them to move towards achieving broader recognition through higher quality wines.The AOC system – and hence the Côtes du Rhône AOC – was the brainchild of Baron Pierre Leroy de Boiseaumarié, a winegrower from Châteauneuf du Pape; his aim was to find a way to endorse the excellent quality of the local wines. Thanks largely to his work, Côtes du Rhône AOC accreditation has come to mean quality, and promises consumers a traditionally-made, terroir-expressive product. By opting for quality – and persuading the industry to follow suit – Baron Leroy has played a major part in making Côtes du Rhône wines a go-to product, setting a gold standard throughout the world.

A portrait of Baron Leroy

Pierre Leroy de Boiseaumarié (1890-1967) was the son of a cavalry officer. He inherited his father’s courage and perseverance, becoming a WWI flying ace; he then went on to read law at Montpellier University. In 1919 he married Edmée Bernard le Saint who owned a château and vineyard in Châteauneuf du Pape in Vaucluse, where he became a winegrower.

With his first-class knowledge of the law, good public speaking skills and excellent powers of persuasion, Baron Leroy stepped up to take charge of the local winegrowing community at a time when the wine economy was in crisis, and France was creating increasing numbers of new laws to address the problems. He established a Winegrowers’ Syndicate in his own village in 1923; his goals were to achieve official recognition for a future Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation and eliminate fraudulent use of the appellation name. He began by bringing together a large number of Rhône Valley wine producers into a single organisation, and in 1929 established the Syndicat Général des Vignerons des Côtes du Rhône (the Côtes du Rhône Winegrowers’ Union) with the aim of creating a new Côtes du Rhône appellation whose stringent rules would ensure the best possible quality. Every local wine producer was eligible to join. There was just one condition, that “products would not be sold under the Côtes du Rhône name, regional or local, unless they consistently complied with traditional local practice, and were made from the classic local varietals grown on the hillsides”. Grapes grown in alluvial soils or on the plains, and wines made from ‘outside’ varietals were excluded. The application for appellation status detailing these restrictions was approved and adopted in 1937 by CNAOC, the Comité National des Appellations d’Origine Contrôlée, forerunner of INAO. The Côtes du Rhône AOC was officially born.

Creating the AOCs was a long-term project, whose primary aim was to eliminate fraud, i.e. the use of fine-looking wine labels bearing a name to which the wine was not entitled. An AOC would guarantee the quality of the wine, reflecting both the vineyard and the vinification practices involved in its production. All appellations are approved by INAO and signed off by the Ministry of Agriculture, but there has never been any suggestion that they should be totally unbending, or their rules set in stone. The regulations are expressly made to adapt to changes in vineyard management practice and vinification techniques, or in response to official requests made by winegrowers’ syndicates via INAO. The sole condition is that they produce quality wines expressing the terroirs in which they are made. Both AOCs and terroirs rely on the work of human hands; both demand quality and integrity and are an integral part of our heritage, to be protected by the winegrowers. Winegrowers are the guardians, not the owners.  In 2009, all AOCs (Appellations d’Origine Contrôlée) also became AOPs (Appellations d’Origine Protegees or Protected Designations of Origin) under the new EU quality scheme, to combat international fraud.


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