Most big rivers have nurtured distinctive civilisations on its banks, and the river Rhone (aka the Rhine) in South Eastern France is no exception. Draining a good part of the region, it was one of the highways from the balmy coast to the interiors for both the Greeks and the Roman legions, as the river rose in the mountains of Switzerland and flowed down via Lake Geneva, Lyon and Avignon to reach the Mediterranean near Marseilles.
Further up from Lyon, along the tributary Saone lies Dijon, which is the heart of the Burgundy wine region, but it is the 150-km stretch from Lyon to Montelimar called the Northern Rhone where Syrah (called 'Shiraz' in Australia and elsewhere) originated and which is known to produce powerful and expressive reds like Cote-Rotie and Hermitage.
Hermitages have powerful aromas (leather, coffee, berries) and are full-bodied, while Cote-Rotie wines are elegant and finely structured. The best-known producers from this region are E. Guigal, Chapoutier, and Paul Jaboulet Aine - their wines would cost anything from $50 to $550 per bottle, depending on the vintage and the specific brand.
The 80-km stretch south of Montelimar upto Avignon that is known as the Southern Rhone where the climate is less continental (read 'not-so-cold') than further up north. The grapes here are mainly Grenache and Mouvedre - these produce red wines like Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Cotes du Rhone.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape ("new castle of the Pope") wines have an unusually long list of grapes that may be used - 13 varieties are allowed, including Grenache, Syrah, and Mouvedre and another 10 that most people would never have heard of.
Cotes du Rhone ('slopes of the Rhone') wines are somewhat less prestigious than the other Rhone wines mentioned above - and a lot less expensive: Wine Searcher indicates an average price of $15 per bottle, although actual prices range from $3 to $145.
The coastal region in the south of France is also known as the Languedoc-Roussillon area, and is the single biggest wine-producing area in the world - there are over 700,000 acres of vineyards here, and till 2001 it produced more wine than the entire United States (then 2.1 billion litres). The first vineyards were planted here 2,500 years ago by the Greeks; more recently the region had its share of problems with both disease (Phylloxera) and quality, and is only now emerging as a place for wines with a high QPR (quality-price ratio).
Wine I've been drinking: Saint Cosme is a winery in Southern Rhone that is situated on the site of a 2,000-year-old Roman villa and is owned by the 14th generation of the Barroul family, with the vineyards encircling a 1,000- year-old chapel (depicted on labels). The Saint Cosme Cote du Rhone 2011 that we had has loads of chocolate, espresso, cassis, and blackberries on the nose and a corpulent full-bodied palate that induced us to keep asking for more. Priced at Rs 1,900 in Bangalore, this 90-point (Wine Spectator) 100 per cent Syrah is a delightful tipple and well worth the price. 'Viva la France" once again!
Alok Chandra is a Bangalore-based wine consultant