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Rhône Valley

The Rhône Valley is a key wine producing region in the southeast of France. It follows the north/south course of the Rhône river for almost 150 miles (240km) from Lyon to the Rhône Delta (the Bouches-du-Rhône), near the Mediterranean coast.

The length of the valley means that Rhône wines are the product of a wide variety of soil types and mesoclimates. The region's wine producing areas cover such a distance that there is a widely accepted division between its northern and southern parts. Rather neatly, they are separated by a gap of 25 miles (40 km) between the towns of Valance and Montelimar, in which almost no vines are grown.

This division is reflected not only in geography and preferred grape varieties, but also in the quality and quantity of wines produced. The smaller, more quality-driven northern section focuses almost entirely on Syrah for red wines and Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne for whites, while the larger and more prolific south employs a much longer list of varieties. The most notable of these are the red varieties Grenache and Mourvèdre, which are combined with Syrah to produce the "GSM" blend so characteristic of the southern Rhône. While the granite-blessed slopes of the north are paired with a continental climate, the rocky, sandy soils of the flatter south enjoy the warmer winters of a Mediterranean climate.

Prestige is also a key differentiator between the northern and southern areas of the Rhône. The north boasts old and highly respected names, such as Hermitage and Côte Rôtie, but it accounts for only 5 percent of the valley's total wine production. The remaining 95 percent is made in the south under less-prestigious, less-specific names. The south is not entirely lacking in prestige, however, as it is here that the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation is located.

One important, unifying constant between the two areas is the regional Côtes du Rhône appellation, which can be claimed by red, rosé and white wines from all over the valley. This title covers 171 communes over the 125 miles (200km) between Vienne in the north and Avignon in the south – the towns that mark the beginning and end of the main valley. These wines are still subject to the rules and regulations of the appellation laws, but do not match up to the quality required from more location-specific titles such as Saint-Joseph or Gigondas.

The appellation Côtes du Rhône Villages is restricted to specific villages whose terroir produces wine of a slightly higher quality. By chance, they are clustered in the southern section of the Rhône valley, around the town of Orange. An elected sub-set of about 20 (this list changes over time) are permitted to add their village names to the title Côtes du Rhône Villages, producing some interesting, long-winded names such as Côtes du Rhône Villages Saint-Maurice-sur-Eygues.

One small but important area not covered by the obvious north/south divide is the Die district to the east of the Rhône. Located 30 miles (50km) east of Valence and Montelimar, the ancient town of Die sits at the foot of the French Alps. It produces sparkling wines under the appellations Clairette de Die and Crémant de Die, as well as some still whites under the Côteaux de Die title.

Die is not alone in being the source of an idiosyncratic white Rhône wine. Condrieu wines from the north are rich, mostly dry whites with honeyed, floral aromas, while the sweet white wines of Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise complete the Rhône's wide repertoire of styles.