Skill and Expertise

The art of blending

Terroir is not just about the natural location or environmental context of a specific place, but includes elements controlled by man, combining natural potential with viticultural practice and winemaking techniques.  This includes decisions about which grape varieties to plant where, a fundamental factor in giving the finished wine its main flavour characteristics. By combining different varietals, winemakers create a palette of flavours, which they can use to influence a wine’s profile. Should it be fruity, spicy and structured? Does it need more acidity? Or maybe a touch of bitterness?   Blending requires immense skill, based on experience of earlier wines and a knowledge of each region’s unique winemaking traditions. It’s like being a chef who only has one opportunity a year to create a superb new recipe! History plays a pivotal role here, both in mastering the art of blending and in choosing which varietals will thrive in particular areas.

23 authorised varietals for a broad flavour palette

The Côtes du Rhône AOC is authorised to use up to 23 different varietals in its blends – so there’s plenty to choose from! Wines from the Côtes du Rhône regional and Côtes du Rhône Villages appellations are blended wines at their best, even more so than in Bordeaux. Many of the grapes used are famous throughout the world for their quality and elegance of flavour; these include Viognier, Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Marsanne and Roussanne. Syrah and Viognier are natives, while Grenache and Mourvèdre are originally from Spain but flourish in the heat of the southern Rhône Valley. These varietals, alone or in blends, must make up between 70% and 80% of a Côtes du Rhône wine. They ensure consistency of flavour between appellations, and give winemakers the opportunity to express the potential of their terroirs and showcase the diversity of the vineyards.

Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre are the three main components of Côtes du Rhône red blends. The region traditionally produces more reds than whites; red wines account for 86% of total wine production. These three main varietals may be blended with so-called secondary varietals used in smaller quantities, each giving an individual touch to the finished blend.

Syrah is the northern Côtes du Rhône’s iconic grape, used notably in its Crus, and gives powerful aromas of blackcurrant, blueberry, violet and blackberry, and an ageing potential to rival many of the French Greats. Syrah is one of the most commonly grown varietals, and has been a source of inspiration for some of the best New World winemakers; in its home region of the Côtes du Rhône, however, it is most often used in combination with other varietals, notably Grenache and Mourvèdre.

Grenache and Mourvèdre originally came from Spain and arrived in France in the Middle Ages, possibly brought by pilgrims returning from Santiago de Compostela. Mourvèdre is from the Valencia region and grows well throughout France, particularly in the Rhône Valley.

Both cope well with summer heat and drought, but grow best in deep, limestone soils. Together they account for the majority of vineyard plantings in the southern part of the Côtes du Rhône, and can be more popular with winegrowers in these Mediterranean areas than Syrah, ripening well in the searing heat of summer. They give Côtes du Rhône wines rich, complex aromas – fruity when young, acquiring a more rounded, spicy character on ageing. They show a very attractive ruby-to-dark-red colouring.

These three varietals are at the very heart of the Côtes du Rhône, giving well-structured, flavourful wines with good ageing potential.

Then there are the so-called ‘complementary’ varietals. These include Bourboulenc, Carignan, Cinsault, Muscardin, Terret Noir and Ugni Blanc, and are added to blends in smaller quantities. Some (Muscardin, Roussanne and Marsanne) are native to the Rhône Valley, others come from Spain (Carignan) or Italy (Ugni Blanc). They help to soften the main varietals, adding a touch of acidity and brightening flavour. Carignan is a prime example of how winemakers have adapted their grapes to suit changes in climate and vineyard practice. Carignan can be difficult to grow and was sidelined for a while, but is now back in the limelight bringing flavours of raspberries, cherries and blackberries, with underlying notes of leather, violets and even garrigue.

Viognier and Syrah are among the Côtes du Rhône’s most iconic grape varietals. Both are native to the region and produce powerful, elegant, aromatic wines with a cellaring potential of several years; their fame has spread far and wide, and the two varietals are now grown across most of the world.

In the 1950s, Viognier was falling into obscurity: official records showed only 30 hectares of Viognier plantings. But then along came Georges Vernay, winegrower and saviour of the Condrieu appellation, who cleared the old terraces in his village overlooking the Rhône Valley and re-planted them to Viognier. He not only saved the varietal, but ensured a good future for it by using it to make powerful, rich and complex wines, the late-ripening grapes adding scents of candied apricot and white flowers. This classic Condrieu varietal is now widely grown throughout the Côtes du Rhône, giving a delicious range of white wines; its fame has spread well beyond local borders, and Viognier is now found throughout the Mediterranean as well as in Europe, California, South Africa and Australia.

The origins of Syrah, meanwhile, are shrouded in mystery – so much so that French and American scientists have been prompted to examine its DNA, finding that it is a natural cross between a varietal from the Ardèche and another from Savoie. Legend has it that the knight Gaspard de Sterimberg returned home from the Albigensian Crusade and withdrew to Tain l’Hermitage to grow Syrah on the hillsides there. It is the dominant varietal in the Côtes du Rhône, growing in granite-rich soils to give aromas of spice, blackcurrants, blueberries, violets and blackberries. On ageing it acquires a classic touch of leather and animal pelts. This is the main varietal used for the Rhône Valley Crus, so popular that the planting area has grown 20-fold over the last 50 years. Syrah is now grown in all major wine producing countries, including (in descending order) Australia, Spain, South Africa and the United States.

The Rhone Rangers are a not-for-profit organisation, a group of American winemakers based in California (about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles), set up in the 1980s and now numbering over 100 members. The group is dedicated to producing and promoting Côtes du Rhône style wines, made in America from Côtes du Rhône authorised varietals. Syrah has pride of place; others include Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Carignan, Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne.

 

From 1980 to 1990, California saw widespread re-planting of Rhône Valley varietals, as American winemakers began to realise that traditional Bordeaux and Burgundy varietals were not the only French grapes capable of producing great wines in America.

The Californians adopted not just the grapes of the Côtes du Rhône, but also their winemaking methods. In short, the skill and expertise of the Côtes du Rhône winemakers was transported across the ocean, first to California and then on to other American states. Côtes du Rhône wines are also proving an inspiration for winemakers in many other parts of the New World, notably Australia.

This is a source of great pride for the Rhône Valley winemakers and négociants – although of course the original Côtes du Rhône wines can never be beaten!

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