Rhone-style reds are the cool thing to drink. And for good reason: The lesser-known grape varietals that thrive in the green valley just south of the Burgundy region make unpretentious, yet delicious, wines. Grenache, the prominent red varietal in the Rhone Valley -- and dominant grape in many Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines -- is friendly, warm and carefree. Syrah, the main red variety of the Northern Rhone, is a bit more rustic and hearty, while fragrant viognier, once rare and still little-known, spells mystery and passion. And there's something subtle and sexy about cinsault and mourvedre, two reds that seduce even stubborn merlot maniacs. Roussanne and marsanne, moreover, are two grapes capable of producing powerful whites.
Now for the down side. These grapes' sudden fame has pushed prices of Rhone wines into orbit.
The Rhone Valley, for wine purposes, has two separate regions -- Northern Rhone and Southern Rhone -- with distinctly different climates, soil conditions and grape varietals. About 20 appellations are scattered across the 125-mile-long valley. Of all Rhone wines, 95 percent are red.
Wine from the Northern Rhone is easiest to understand: syrah is the only red varietal. It's sometimes called serine and is the same as Australia's shiraz. Grown on steep and terraced slopes, this high-tannin dark fruit translates into deep-purple wines that love aging.
There are seven appellations in Northern Rhone:
Cote Rotie: In this cool microclimate, syrah is blended with up to 20 percent viognier, which makes the wine more accessible at a younger age than straight syrah would be. When aged, wines from this appellation are powerful, fragrant, light and soft.
Condrieu: This small district only produces full-bodied viognier.
Chateau Grillet: Sheltered within Condrieu, and consisting of a mere 7.5 acres, this is arguably one of the smallest property appellations in France. The sun-drenched vineyards perched high above the valley produce unique viognier.
Cornas: This misunderstood, small, west-bank appellation has remained a forgotten area. Here you'll find affordable, great, pure and purple-rich Rhone syrahs.
St. Joseph: The scattered vineyards in this appellation just above Cornas are planted with syrah and some whites producing delicate and delicious wines.
Crozes-Hermitage: This area's vast acreage on the east bank includes plateaus away from the Rhone. Soils vary from granite-holding to pure clay and chalk, and elevations and climates are diverse. Wines are inconsistent, but you can find some real gems here without going broke.
Hermitage: Ideally situated east of the Rhone River, along a porous granite slope facing the sun, the 310 acres of the oldest Rhone appellation produce intensely fragrant wines -- perhaps the best of the area. Hermitage wines, with 80 percent syrah and 20 percent marsanne and roussanne, are smoother and more sophisticated than any of their regional cousins. They can age happily 50 years or more. It's said that the great Bordeaux wines gained their status because they were Hermitage blends! You may also run into white Hermitage, which, like white Chateauneuf-du-Pape, can provide a unique sensory experience.
What separates North from South? Three curious appellations, two of which don't use syrah at all and specialize in sparkling wines -- St.-Peray and the sparsely populated community of Clairette de Die. The third, Coteaux du Tricastin, just specialized in truffles for so long that it never made it to the map of great wine regions. But it makes typical Southern Rhone wines that don't empty your wallet and can be truly delicious.
Southern Rhone appellations are slightly more hierarchic and complex and produce many gems.
Cotes du Rhone: This is the overall appellation name for the 99,000 acres of vineyards in this region. Wines from this region, mostly reds, can vary drastically from place to place. The only requirement for these unpredictable bottles is a minimum of 10.5 percent alcohol. They rely on grenache as the main varietal and are blended with syrah, cinsault, mourvedre and a few other varietals. But there are no rules, so buying Cotes du Rhone is hit or miss. It's best to drink wines from this region young.
Cotes du Rhone-Villages: This is the name that 64 communities within Cotes du Rhone may use on their label. These areas decided to get out of the generic vat by raising standards through more concentrated wines, with more alcohol and more syrah and mourvedre in the blend. A growing number (17 currently) of these 64 can mention the name of the village itself (i.e., Cotes du Rhone-Villages Beaumes-de-Venise). Even more prestigious, a few of the 17 villages, such as Gigondas and, recently, Vacqueyras, have gained "cru" status and are becoming independent appellations in their own right. They don't print the words "Cotes du Rhone-Villages" on their wines.
Lirac: This area produces mostly reds and roses.
Ventoux: To the east, this fairly newly delineated wine area produces affordable, average Rhone wines.
Tavel: This area is famous for its dry roses made of nine different Rhone varietals. (You might want to think of Tavel wines as Rhone reds without all the color.)
Okay, a short paragraph on appellation Chateauneuf-du-Pape, which means "new castle of the pope." (Feel free to imagine why.) After all, its powerful, passionate red -- a strictly regulated blend of 13 different varietals with grenache as the base -- has driven many a wine lover to bankruptcy!. Vineyards here cover 8,150 acres, but small crops are part of the requirements. Big, smooth stones cover the ground, like a large pebble beach, and retain lingering summer heat. The result? A concentrated, complex wine with alcohol levels as high as 14.5 percent. (A minimum of 12.5 percent is required.) Following no catch-all recipe, the wine is smooth, spicy and medium-bodied or, at the other extreme, elusive, indefinable and in need of aging. Prices vary wildly, but if it's too cheap to be true, it probably isn't true. Sometimes you'll see the symbol for the papal coat of arms on the label. This means the wine is produced and bottled on the estate.
So how do you buy a Rhone wine? Vintage is tricky, because a good vintage in the North might've been terrible in the South. Furthermore, with the sudden Rhone fame, many of the prestigious names have blown sky-high in price. So, as always, it may be best to rely on good retail wine merchants, making sure to let them know your preferences -- a light, fruity wine or a bold big one.
Great wines at great prices are out there. So go for it. Consult your favorite wine merchant and have a blast.