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Wine 101: The Northern Rhone

Love learning? Love wine? How about questionable analogies about wine that help you learn? If any of that resonates with you, you’re in the right place! This is my Wine 101 series where we’ll explore a different wine region every post. Approachable for beginners. Obnoxious for snobs.

The Northern Rhone vs the Southern Rhone

First, a question: what comes to mind when you think of Rhone Valley wine? If you’re lucky enough to have wealthy friends, it could be the famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape. If you’re a normal human, it’s likely Côte du Rhone GSM blends. (And if you don’t know what the the Rhone even is, sorry if this thought experiment made you feel dumb — you are not dumb.)

Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Côte du Rhone blends are wonderful, but these are both products of the Southern Rhone. And as you might have guessed by the post title and the fact you came to this article in the first place, there’s a whole Northern section of the Rhone Valley with completely different wine that’s just as fab.

We split the Northern and Southern Rhone into two separate entities because of their uberly different climates and wine styles. While the Southern Rhone is known for red Grenache blends, the Northern Rhone specializes in single varietal Syrah. Southern Rhone wines tend to be fruitier, rounder, and more approachable, whereas Northern Rhone wines are more tannic, powerful, and acidic.

Think of the softer Southern Rhone wines as Baby Spice, and the more edgy, intense Northern Rhone wines as Scary Spice. If you take issue with that, I don’t care (unless you’re Mel B, in which case I love you, I’m sorry).

The Northern Rhone Terroir

In wine we use the term “terroir” (pronounced “TEHR-WAHR”) a lot, so it’s important to understand what it means. Terroir is a French concept that refers to the unique environmental factors that influence a wine region. These typically include climate, geography, and soil. I know it sounds kind of dry as a concept, but it’s what shapes the flavor of each wine in your glass and makes it special, so at least pretend to care.


The climate of the Northern Rhone is continental. This means cold winters, warm summers, moderate rainfall, and it experiences all four distinct seasons. It’s heavily influenced by the Mistral, which sadly isn’t a whimsical French folk bank. Instead, it’s a strong, cold wind that blows through Southeast France and cools the vineyards.


The Northern Rhone is almost at the same latitude line as St Cloud, Minnesota, but instead of hot dish and people pretending to care about your 2nd cousin’s law degree, it’s a gorgeous valley along the Rhone river with the Alps to the east and the Massif Central (a highland region consisting of plateaus that covers a whopping 1/6th of France) to the west. It follows the Rhone river for a little under 50 miles, and is situated about 20 miles south of the 3rd largest city in France — Lyon.

It’s (surprise!) north of the Southern Rhone valley, and there’s a 30 mile “no man’s land” gap without any vineyards that separates the two regions. The vineyards of the Northern Rhone are planted on steep terraced hillsides along the Rhone river. When I say steep, I mean they’re SO steep that there’s really no leeway for laziness on the winemaker’s part — most of the work in the vineyards has to be done by hand vs with a machine. This is why I will not be buying a vineyard in the Northern Rhone.


Primarily different types of heat-retaining granite, but you’ll also find clay and limestone. Without getting too in the weeds (teehee), this type of soil tends to result in fresh wines with bright acidity.

Hot take time: soil is usually one of the harder things for beginners to wrap their heads around because it’s often talked about in a hoity-toity way. Since we’re all friends here, I’ll try to make it easier.

Soil obviously matters a ton for viticulture and when it comes to growing high quality grapes in a specific environment along with the flavor of the grapes themselves. As far as the actual role of soil in the taste of wine though, most of the wine’s flavor is going to come from the winemaking process and blending — not the soil. So if soil bores you, that’s okay and you can still be super knowledgable about wine. You don’t have to change.

Northern Rhone Grapes

The Northern Rhone only grows four grapes — one red and three whites — and all four grapes are native to the region. That means if you can remember the names of all four Beatles, you can memorize these grapes easy peasy.


In the Northern Rhone, Syrah (SEH-RAH) reigns as king and is the ONLY red grape permitted in the region. Fun fact: Syrah and Shiraz are the same grape — Australia just spells it a little bit differently because Australia has no rules.

It’s also worth noting that Northern Rhone Syrah has an entirely different taste profile compared to Syrah from the USA or Australia. While these “New World” countries focus more on fruit-forward, lower acid expressions of Syrah, Northern Rhone Syrah is more tannic, acidic, and rustic with less of an “oaky” character. It’s almost savory, which makes it a fun wine to pair with food.


While Syrah is what the region is known for, you’ll also find Viognier (VEE-AHN-YAY), which makes round, full-bodied, aromatic white wines. Think of Chardonnay, but more floral and with peachy, white fruit flavors. It’s used for single varietal wines, and also acts as a blending partner to Syrah.

Marsanne and Roussane

Marsanne (MAR-SAHN) and Roussane (ROO-SAHN) are the other two white grapes of the Northern Rhone. They’re always blended together or with Syrah — you’ll never see them stand alone as a single varietal. This is because alone, they need a lot of finessing to make a well-structured wine. Much like Cheech and Chong, they shine best when they’re together.

Marsanne brings body, stone fruit flavors, and minerality to the wine blend, while the more delicate Roussane adds floral aromatics, acidity, and herbal notes. Both the still and sparkling wines can be age-worthy and complex, and they’re some of my personal favorites when I want to introduce someone to a uniquely delicious wine.

Northern Rhone Appellations

Before getting into the appellations, let’s go over what this term actually means. An appellation is essentially a specified geographical area with rules about how a wine can be produced. These rules range from which grapes can be used, to the minimum alcohol content, to the actual winemaking process.

The idea of appellations originated in France, which isn’t surprising considering how much the French love semi-arbitrary bureaucracy, and most of the world’s wine regions have similar systems in place. In France, the appellation system is referred to as “Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée”, which translates to Controlled Designation of Origin and is abbreviated to AOC. Just to make things extra confusing, The French decided each wine region would have completely different appellations rules and levels, but we’ll save that rabbit hole for another day.

The Northern Rhone has 8 appellations, and below I’ve listed them all with descriptions of the wines they make. It might seem like too much information, but I included them because when you’re looking for a Northern Rhone wine, the only thing on the label will be the name of the appellation. You’ll almost never see mention of the grapes or that it was specifically made in the Northern Rhone, because the appellation is all the French care about. I know, they made it super easy.

Côte-Rôti AOC

Types of wine: Syrah based reds blended with up to 20% Viognier

Côte-Roti is the northernmost and steepest appellation of the Northern Rhone. It produces prestigious and age-worthy Syrah, and is the only appellation that allows Viognier in the blend. This means they can blend up to 20% Viognier with the Syrah, which still makes a red wine.

The wines are known to be balanced, spicy, and tannic with flavors of dark fruit and violet.

Condrieu AOC

Types of wine: whites with 100% Viognier

Condrieu produces exclusively white wines made with 100% Viognier. These golden full-bodied beauties are rich and fruity, with floral aromas and white fruit flavors.

Château-Grillet AOC

Types of wine: whites with 100% Viognier

This is the smallest appellation in the Northern Rhone. It’s situated right next to Condrieu, and also makes whites with 100% Viognier. These wines are very similar to those of Condrieu, but even more renowned and with better aging potential.

Saint Joseph AOC

Types of wine: Syrah based reds blended with up to 10% Marsanne and Roussane, white blends with Marsanne and Roussane

While Saint Joseph isn’t quite as prestigious as other red wine appellations of the region, wines from certain producers can be just as good and usually less expensive. It’s one of the largest appellations in the Northern Rhone and is known for (you guessed it!) Syrah, which can be blended with up to 10% Marsanne and Roussane.

The red wines are typically thought to have less aging potential compared to Côte-Rôti or Hermitage (which we’ll get to next), but are still fantastic wines with plenty of acidity, power, and spice. Saint Joseph also produces full-bodied, floral, and nutty white blends with Marsanne and Roussane.

Hermitage AOC

Types of wine: Syrah based reds blended with up to 15% Marsanne and Roussane, white blends with Marsanne and Roussane

The best known and most prestigious appellation of the Northern Rhone, Hermitage almost needs no introduction. But since that’s the entire purpose of this guide, I’ll do it anyway. It primarily produces full-bodied, incredibly elegant Syrah that can age for years to come. Often, it’s credited with making the best Syrah in the world. So if you’re looking for a wine to lose your mortgage over, Hermitage is a great choice.

Reds can be blended with up to 15% Marsanne and Roussane, though most growers stick to Syrah only. The area also makes age-worthy, silky, full-bodied white blends with Marsanne and Roussane.

Croze-Hermitage AOC

Types of wine: Syrah based reds blended with up to 15% Marsanne and Roussane, whites with Marsanne and Roussane

Croze-Hermitage is the largest appellation of the Northern Rhone. It surrounds the more renowned Hermitage appellation, and is permitted to produce the same types of wine as Hermitage.

The wines are far less prestigious, but if you don’t regularly find $100 bills in your couch cushions, they’re still excellent for the price. Compared to Hermitage, the reds and whites are lighter, less concentrated, and typically have less aging potential.

Cornas AOC

Types of wine: reds with 100% Syrah

Cornas is the only appellation that makes exclusively Syrah with no white grapes allowed in the blend. These wines are dark in color, tannic, and likely the most intense expression of Syrah in the Northern Rhone. It’s considered on par with Côte-Roti in terms of quality.

Saint Péray AOC

Types of wine: still and sparkling blends with Marsanne and Roussane

This unique appellation makes sparkling and still wines with Marsanne and Roussane. The sparkling wines are made the same way as Champagne, and while it’s not a competition and they’re totally different wines, I actually prefer Saint Péray to Champagne. That’s sure to elicit some hate mail.

Saint Péray sparkling wines are elegant with flavors of almond, pear, and white flowers, and you can expect the still wines to be floral, intense, and highly aromatic.

Why you might want to visit the Northern Rhone

Rustic, picturesque scenery

Beyond having fabulous wine, the Northern Rhone is one of the most picturesque wine regions imaginable. It’s what I personally picture when I think of the word “idyllic”, with its rustic, steep, and lush vineyards situated on both sides of the winding Rhone river.

Convenience of location

Another plus of the Northern Rhone if you hate long travel days like yours truly is that it’s fairly easy to get to compared to more remote wine regions. From Lyon, it’s about an hour and a half drive to Cote-Roti. Once you get there, it’s also a relatively small wine region — you can drive through the whole valley in about an hour. Hello, efficiency!

Small, family run wineries

Since it is such a small region, you won’t find many co-ops or corporate run wineries. Most wineries are family-owned and run, and they’ll be more than happy to welcome you into their homes to try their wines. This is NOT the norm in more famous wine regions like Napa, and it only adds to the rustic charm of the region. Tastings feel much more personal, and the passion of the winemakers really shines through.

To try some of the best Syrah in the world!

Naturally, the biggest draw of the Northern Rhone is the world class Syrah. You can try so many different expressions and vintages to really find your sweet spot. While lesser known, the white wines are some of my all-time favorites too, so be sure not to skip them.

And that’s all she wrote! I worked closely with a producer from Saint Joseph in my wine distributing days, so the Northern Rhone holds a special place in my heart and makes some of my favorite wines to share with people who are getting started on their wine journey.

I hope you leave this guide confident in your ability to talk about this wine region and its wines. At the very least, I hope it didn’t make you feel like you now know less about the region. Also as a side note, I just realized I can’t name all four Beatles.

What wine region do you want to hear about next? I might ignore your suggestion, but let me know in the comment section anywho!