Meandering its way from Vienne in the north past Avignon in the south and onward to the Mediterranean is the Rhone valley, home to a wide range of great wines. In the north, Syrah reaches its zenith in the sublime wines of Hermitage and Cote Rotie, while in the south Grenache takes the lead in the rich, generous wines of Chateauneuf du Pape.
Despite being France’s second-largest wine producing region, wines from the Rhone have historically existed in the shadows of those from nearby behemoths Bordeaux and Burgundy – arguably an injustice given the quality of investment-grade wines coming from the exquisite appellations of both the northern and southern parts of this ancient valley. These are the names you need to know.
Northern Rhone’s top producers
One of the oldest names in the Rhone Valley, Chapoutier was founded in 1808 by the Calvet family, and sold to the Chapoutier family in 1855. Today, Chapoutier operates as a major negociant as well as a winery, and is active throughout every major appellation in the Rhone. The estate has been run biodynamically since 1989, with its wines – ranging from the entry level Becasses to its top-quality Cote Roties – considered benchmarks in and around Hermitage.
Arguably the most famous name in the Rhone, Guigal produces exceptional wines from appellations across the valley, although it is most revered for its Hermitage and Cote Rotie wines. Indeed, the estate vinifies no less than 40% of all the wine produced in Cote Rotie. Its flagship wine, Guigal Ex Voto (Latin for “In consequence of a wish”) is only produced in the very best years and is limited to under 800 cases per vintage.
Jaboulet (or Paul Jaboulet Aine, to give it its full title) has one of the longest histories of any winery-cum-negociant in the world, founded as it was in 1834 by Antoine Jaboulet. With holdings in Chateauneuf du Pape, Hermitage and Cotes du Rhone, Jaboulet makes a range of red and white wines, although it is probably best known for its Jaboulet Chapelle. Somewhat legendary among wine collectors, three vintages of the wine – the 1961, 1978 and 1990 – received a perfect 100 points from critic Robert Parker, with more recent vintages also finding similarly high-scoring favour.
The Chave family’s involvement in wine dates back to an astonishing 1481, although the label as we know it today wasn’t fully established until 1865. A distinctly family-run business, Jean-Louis Chave is the 16th generation of his family to manage the estate, which is revered for its respect for tradition and terroir. Their interpretation of Hermitage exists as a blend of different terroirs, from the granites of Bessards to the rich clay and limestone of Meal. The estate makes outstanding wines in both red and white Hermitage and in some years even a tiny amount of Vin de Paille.
Southern Rhone’s top producers
Chateau de Beaucastel
Chateau Beaucastel is perhaps the most famous producer in the Southern Rhone Valley, and is also one of the oldest, dating as it does back to 1549. The estate has plantings of all 13 grape varieties permitted by AOC law across its 100 hectares under vine – 70% of which are located in Chateauneuf-du-Pape alone. Beaucastel was one of the first growers in the appellation to add a sizable amount of Mourvedre to their vineyards, something that is very apparent in its world-renowned reds, particularly its famed Hommage Jacques Perrin which contains up to 60% of the grape.
Clos de Papes
Clos de Papes has played an integral role in the development of the Southern Rhone. The estate was established by Paul Avril, who was a key player in the official creation of the Chateauneuf du Pape appellation. It was also one of the first estates in the appellation to produce, bottle and sell its own wine. Today, Clos du Papes continues to draw from its wide-ranging terroir – comprising rocky soils, sand, limestone and gravel – to create stunningly complex, age-worthy wines that consistently impress critics and investors alike.
Domaine du Clos Saint Jean
Clos Saint Jean has roots dating all the way back to the start of the 20th century, but it wasn’t until the estate released its 2003 vintage – and received great acclaim from Robert Parker – that it really began to find fame. Its Grand Vin is a Grenache-driven Chateauneuf du Pape, but the estate also produces ‘La Combe des Fous’, ‘Deux ex Machina’ and ‘Sanctus Sanctorum’ in miniscule amounts, making them hugely sought-after.
Domaine du Pegau
Pegau was, until 1987, known as Domaine Feraud – named for the family that quite literally put down roots there in the middle of the 17th century. The new name – meaning an old provincial term for the ancient wine jug discovered during excavations of the 14th century Avignon Popes Palace – represented a new start for the estate, which is still run and managed by the Feraud family. Today, Pegau produces very highly acclaimed cuvees and, of course, a Chateauneuf du Pape Grand Vin which consistently finds favour with critics.