One of the most beautiful regions of France, the Rhône Valley, stretches from the city of Lyon in the north all the way into the Mediterranean to its south. Today’s focus is on the Southern Rhône, where the wines have been enjoyed by Popes and Kings for centuries. A wine region where Grenache, Syrah and Mouvedre dominate. There are a lot of stylistic variations in the southern Rhône and three exceptional crus that stand out are Lirac, Rasteau and Beaume de Venice.
The Rhône Valley is one of the greatest wine regions in the world, producing wines for over 2000 years. Some of the world’s most famous wines come from this part of France. Join me in discovering three distinct crus of the Southern Rhône. These crus offer wines that are food-friendly and easy to drink with classic earthy notes and bright fruit.
Over the years I have had the good fortune to visit Southern Rhône and its nine crus. More recently I had a special opportunity to experience an in-depth wine tasting and a paired lunch to explore the wines of three of the most exciting Southern Rhône Valley’s AOCs: Lirac, Rasteau and Beaumes-de-Venise. The tasting was led by Master Sommelier and French Wine Expert Pascaline Lepeltier.
Lirac is the southernmost Cru and is one of Rhône Valley’s hidden gems. Don’t assume it’s shyness is due to inexperience, for wine has been cultivated in the region since ancient Roman times. Lirac has been producing wine for over 2000 years.
This Cru village is just a hop, skip and jump away from its more famous neighbors, Châteauneuf du Pape. Though not as famous, Lirac can stand on its own with wines that are strong and structured yet elegant and fresh. It is the only Rhône Cru to be situated on the right bank of the Rhône River. Because of its right bank location, Lirac remains quiet, secret, and guarded against its bustling neighbors.
What makes Lirac unique is its various terroirs. The diversity of the soils is what makes Lirac stand apart from the other crus. It is composed of three major types of soils, each of which brings a unique quality to the grapes and ultimately to the wines. In Lirac you find soils composed of quartzite, red clay, fluvial sand, pebbles and limestone. Lirac is known for its large pebbles(galletes) which rest on clay soils. The galletes attract heat during the day while imparting warmth to the vines at night.
A rarity in the Rhône, Lirac paints itself with three brushes and produces red, white and rosé wines. The main red grapes are Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault. Producing red wines that have an intense ruby color with notes of dark cherry, black currant, savory spice and garrigue. Powerful, balanced and age-worthy.
The white grape varietals are Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc, Clairette, and Roussanne. The Lirac white wines are known for intense and exotic floral and fruity notes, with undertones of honey, laurel and sage.
Lirac makes high-quality wines at exceptional prices. The wines of Lirac are often at a more value price point than its neighbors. Lirac is a region on the rise, so when looking for Southern Rhone wines be sure to seek out Lirac.
We tasted some exceptional producers from the region: Château de Montfaucon and Chateau Mont-Redon. We had the 2016 and the 2010 Château de Montfaucon. These wines have such great aging potential, Pasqueline says the Montfaucon wines can easily age up to 20 years. The Montfaucon is aromatic, precise, intense and elegant.
A delicious white from Lirac is the 2020 Lirac Château Mont-Redon Blanc. A wine best when consumed young and fresh, it is a blend of Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Viognier. Fragrant, fruity and elegant, are all qualities that make this the perfect summer white.
Rasteau is a charming Provencal village in Southern Rhône. Located just below Mont Ventoux and the peaks of the Dentelles de Montmirail, Rasteau has a sunny Mediterranean climate, rolling hills, cobblestone streets and an abundance of vineyards. With a long history in winemaking, Rasteau has traditionally been known for making luscious Vins doux Naturels. In more recent years, with the emergence of new winemakers, Rasteau is rapidly gaining recognition for its dry red wines.
Planted mostly on southern facing vineyards, fields of Grenache, Mouvedre and Syrah line the landscape of this picturesque village. Rasteau benefits from Mediterranean influences, where the summers are warm and the winters are mild, and the famous Mistral Winds play a major role. One of Rasteau’s advantages is its varied soils, the terroir gives its wines a wonderful richness and elegance. The dry red wines of Rasteau are thought to be more masculine and powerful than its neighboring crus. The wines are fruity, powerful and distinctly Southern Rhône with herbal notes and a presence of Garrigue(wild resinous herbs present throughout the landscape).
Rasteau is one of the newer rising stars of the Southern Rhône, as the AOC was promoted to Cru status in 2010. Grenache is the king of the vineyards, making up at least 50% of the varietal mix. It’s the oldest varietal grown in Rasteau with some vines over 100 years old. The dry red wines of Rasteau are primarily Grenache-based, with Mouvedre and Syrah blended in. The Vins doux Naturels from Rasteau is made from Grenache Noir, Grenache Blanc, and Grenache Gris.
A blend of grenache, Carignan, Syrah and Mourvèdre from vines that average 35 years in age, the 2019 Domaine de Trapadis Les Cras is fresh and chock full of blackberries, black cherries with hints of violet. A delicious wine with supple silky tannins.
Mikael Boutin 2019 Rasteau exhibits balance and purity of fruit. The wine is bright with fresh cherries and licorice. The acidity is lively and energetic. A fantastic wine from an exceptional producer.
Beaumes-de-Venise, in the foothills of the Dentelles de Montmirail, is a warm appellation that‘s home to exceptional soils that create rich, structured, aromatic reds as well as the well-known vin doux naturel from Muscat. The village is reminiscent of Tuscany, where grapevines and olive trees line the landscape.
It is a region that has long been renowned for its sweet wines that offer a seductive blend of acidity and sweetness in the glass. Recently the region’s red wines are garnering accolades as producers are gaining a better understanding of their exceptional terroir.
The terroir of Beaumes-de-Venise is made up of 3 types of soil, notably the rocky outcrop known as Le Trias, exceptional soils which produce a very specific type of wine. Pasqueline points out that it is Beuames-de-Venise’s soils that make this region a treasure and a unique exception. The Terres du Trias (Triassic Earth) from the Triassic period is the name given to the earliest part of the Mesozoic era. Normally, the Triassic rock in this area would be buried some 1,500m underground, but as the Dentelles de Montmirail emerged they brought the Triassic deposits to the surface, mainly around the town of Suzette, in a compressed formation unique to the Rhône Valley known as the Suzette Diapir.
The Terres WHITEhes (Cretaceous White Earth), around the village of Roque Alric, are made up of calcareous clay and marl. The parent rock is greyish in color, showing a touch of red where iron is present. As they grow, the vines’ roots bore down into the limestone, extracting the minerals they need to thrive. The terroir is farmed mainly on terraces with maximum sun exposure.
The Terres Grises (Jurassic Grey Earth) is found chiefly to the north of the village of Lafare, set against the south-eastern slopes of the Dentelles de Montmirail. The soils are mainly Oxfordian black marl, made up of silt, clay and sand. They face east and southeast, giving excellent sun exposure and promoting uniform ripeness.
Muscat Beaumes-de-Venise is world-renowned, made exclusively from Muscat. The vineyards grow on ancient terraces, once the home of olive groves. There are still some olive trees around, carefully watching over the growth and development of the Muscat Beaumes-de-Venise vineyards.
Domaines des Bernardins 2019 has a complex nose of delicate spice with black fruit aromas. The palate has a pleasant roundness with subtle tannins expressing notes of fruit and spice.
Two fantastic Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise are Domaine de Durban and Rhonea Carte d’Or. The Domaine de Durban is one of the very few left to craft their vin doux naturel in the traditional style, keeping the spirits as low as possible, so that the bright freshness of the grapes is at the forefront. A delicious and light style of Beaume-de-Venice. The Rhonea Carte d’Or is smooth and generous on the nose. It is beautifully balanced on the palate between freshness and roundness.
Southern Rhône Valley Crus
So many villages, so many grape varieties and so many wonderful wines. The Rhône Valley is full of diversity, history, and wonderful stories. Once you have had Rhône wines you will come back over and over again. The wines are distinct with a sense of place and terroir. Discover the wines for yourself.