Terroir

From diversity comes abundance

Centuries of work by generations of winegrowers have made the appellation a place to appreciate the range of expression achieved by Côtes du Rhône wines through their variety of terroirs. By cataloguing these terroirs and identifying how they affect the character of the wines, winegrowers have effectively mapped vineyard conditions and been able to adapt working practices to produce wines with personality, defined by where they grow and how each winegrower chooses to interpret the terroir.

The formation of the terroirs

The Côtes du Rhône appellation features a vast array of different terroirs shaped by the region’s turbulent geological history. At its start between the Massif Central and the Alps, the Rhône Valley is relatively narrow, funnelling out as it moves south past Montélimar. The landscape is a mix of sheer slopes, hills and plains, all framed by the rugged peaks of distant mountains.

The Massif Central is mainly made up of granitic rock dating back over 300 million years to the Primary geological period, while the left bank, to the east of the river, is part of the Alpine foothills and features gentler slopes and rolling hillsides.

Erosion has fashioned unique landscapes on both sides of the Rhône, including the appellation’s iconic peaks and hillsides. Over the years the river has also deposited alluvium and chunks of rock – the distinctive ‘galets roulés’ pudding-stones frequently seen in the southern part of the appellation.

Côtes du Rhône wines are made across a swirling mosaic of different terroirs, reflecting the varying landscapes, geological make up and climate of the region as well as its grapes, vineyard management practices and preferred winemaking techniques. The appellation is traditionally divided into two distinct zones – the terroirs of the north and those of the south.

In the northern part of the appellation, the vineyards hug the riverbanks and bask in a continental-type climate. The main viticultural terroirs follow the contours of steep hillsides carved from the rocks of the Massif Central.

In the southern area, meanwhile, the Mediterranean influence is far more noticeable.

  • Vines growing in limestone soils are a relatively unusual sight – in the Dentelles de Montmirail, for example, cheek by jowl with the craggy, soaring mountains. These terroirs produce wines with considerable finesse, and are well-suited to the production of whites.
  • Sandy soils are a feature of the stone-covered hillsides, and are planted with Grenache and Syrah to give light, fruity wines.
  • Free-draining terraces of smooth, rounded pudding-stones where Grenache is blended with Syrah and Mourvèdre give smooth, velvety wines with plenty of ripe fruit and a touch of spice. White wines are rich and elegant.

The Côtes du Rhône wines hierarchy – a pyramid with the Côtes du Rhône regional appellation at its base and Côtes du Rhône Villages (with or without village name) on the level above – makes detailed distinctions between specific types of terroir.

The northern part of the Rhône Valley consists almost entirely of sloping ground, from Lyon all the way down to Valence. Vineyards cling to steep, narrow terraces – some no more than a couple of metres wide – supported by low stone walls; testament to how much ingenuity and sheer hard work it can take to grow just a few acres of vines.

The terraces have been here since Gallo-Roman times, possibly built by Roman legionaries stationed near the town of Vienne.

Constructing this type of terrace demands not only physical energy, but a good deal of technical know-how. Tending the vines in these conditions is a formidable task; the work is mainly done by hand, from pruning and vineyard management right through to harvest, and high yields are tricky to achieve. However, terracing has a hugely beneficial effect on the vines, whichever way the vineyards face: the sun hits the soil at right angles, imparting maximum energy; the stone walls absorb and store heat by day and release it back to the vines at night, boosting ripening and promoting top quality wines.

Sun and Mistral: the recipe for a perfect harvest

The north-south divide is also discernible in the weather. The climate in the northern part of the Rhône Valley is continental, with hot summers and cold winters. The south meanwhile shows Mediterranean influences, enjoying hot, dry summers with plenty of sunshine and mild, wet winters. The combination of sun, heat, sometimes gale-force winds and relatively low rainfall encourage vines to grow and grapes to ripen well, while also providing natural protection against disease – invaluable for wine growers seeking to make high-quality wines.

The north-south divide and its effects on grape ripening

As we travel from the north of the valley down towards the Mediterranean, the average number of sunshine hours per year gradually increases. The area just south of Lyon enjoys between 1,900 and 2,100 hours of sunshine each year; this rises to between 2,200 and 2,300 towards the middle of the valley around Valence, and up to an impressive 2,800 plus hours of sunshine south of Avignon. Average annual levels of sunshine in the Côtes du Rhône are among the highest in France, comparing favourably with Bordeaux (between 2,000 and 2,100 hours per year) and the Loire Valley (1,700 – 1,900 hours). Given the differences in climate, harvests are generally earlier in the south than the north, and the wines lean more towards a warm-climate style.

These differences in climate also affect the choice of varietals planted. Of the three main varietals used in Côtes du Rhône blends (Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre), Syrah is dominant in the north of the valley from where it originates; Grenache and Mourvèdre have Spanish roots and are more at home in the south.

The Mistral is a strong wind that blows through the Rhône Valley, a source of inspiration for many who have experienced it over the years. Back in the first century AD, Pliny the Elder described it as “a most famous wind, the Mistral, unparalleled in its violence.” In Provençal, the word mistrau means master – the Mistral, they say, is indomitable. Meanwhile, according to a 16th century proverb, “The Mistral, Parliament and the Durance are the scourges of Provence.”

But this particular scourge also has its positive side – significant benefits even – for the Rhône Valley vineyards.

By dispersing the clouds, the Mistral is responsible for the distinctive quality of light for which the area is famous, particularly noticeable in the Mediterranean portion of the valley from Valence southwards, and for the sunny weather which attracts so many visitors. In spring it lowers temperatures, delaying budbreak and thus protecting buds from late spring frosts. Cold air is blown towards pockets of low-lying land. Most importantly however, the Mistral dries out the air, keeping fungal diseases such as mildew and oidium at bay. Winegrowers unanimously agree that although the Mistral occasionally causes lower harvest yields, it consistently keeps the grapes in peak health, as reflected in the quality of the wine year after year. Grapes are picked in the early morning, any time from sunrise onwards, both to preserve acidity and to keep the fruit from spoiling in the daytime heat.

The Mediterranean’s three iconic crops – wheat, olives and grapes – have been grown here for centuries. In the 19th century, grapevines took over as the region’s speciality, and wheat fields were slowly ousted in favour of vineyards. The number of olive groves also dwindled in the 20th century, but these are now gaining ground as the production of high-quality local olive oil continues to flourish.

The irrigated plain to the east of Avignon produces a considerable amount of fruit, and is a major centre for market gardening. This type of cash-crop farming developed gradually over the second half of the 19th century as access to water for irrigation became easier and new railways allowed growers to ship fragile produce to the markets of Lyon, Paris and northern Europe. Again, the landscape is very distinctive, with farmland divided into small plots protected from the Mistral by cypress hedges and reed fencing.

The farming industry, and viticulture in particular, is increasingly focused on working organically. In 2017, 18% of vineyards in Vaucluse (some 9,500 hectares) were certified organic; this figure was 8% (800 hectares) in the Ardèche and 15% (3,400 hectares) in the Drôme. On the whole, conditions in the vineyards promote naturally healthy grapes, encouraging environmentally-friendly, sustainable viticulture and considerably reducing the need for inputs.

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