A brief history of the Rhône valley vineyards

To the north, a small and prestigious vineyard with a continental climate flows over spectacular hillsides surrounding the river which has carved its way into the Massif Central; to the south, a widespread valley with vineyards that stretch in every direction on low sun-drenched terrasses: in other words, the two main areas of the Rhône Valley have little in common. And this concerns not only landscapes and climates, but also wines and their histories. Apart from a few major negociant brands that have united them recently, their only real link is the river.

In the beginning….

“If it is true to say that civilization has moved from East to West…it is equally true that the almost straight line traced by the river Rhône and its major tributary, the Saone, forced history to make a detour towards the north” (Elisée Reclus). This was also precisely the path followed by the domesticated vine: born on the cusp of the Caucasus and the northern edge of the Middle East, it travelled westwards to Lebanon, Israel, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Spain and Provence before moving north along the Rhône Valley. With no offence to the Celtic tribes, what Elisée Reclus meant by “civilization” was at that time Rome which had laid its hands on southern Gaul which thus became the Roman province of Narbonne, stretching from the western outpost of Languedoc to the Alps. During the first century BC, the Rhône – that “straight line” linking the Mediterranean to northern Europe – had become a major commercial axis with its flourishing trading posts such as Arles (which is today a rich reserve for archaeologists on account of its numerous remains of amphoras), Lyon and Vienne. These towns were centres for intense and lucrative trading, particularly in wine. Diodorus of Sicily wrote: “the natural cupidity of many Roman merchants exploited the passion of the Gaulois for wine…from which they drew vast profits”. But, as from the end of the rule of the Emperor Augustus, it had become local production from the Narbonnais province that was quenching regional thirsts.


Along the Rhône Valley, archaeologists have discovered traces of ancient vineyards in the Gard, the Vaucluse and the Drôme, but it would seem that by far the oldest known signs of winemaking in the region are to be found in the Ardêche: grape pips and around 15 vine plants, but especially organic traces of red wine attached to local pottery dating from the 4th century BC have been found near the ancient town of Alba-la-Romaine. We do not know whether it was Phocean Greeks coming from Massalia (now Marseille), who travelled the area back then and who could have taught wine-making to the locals, but it would appear that the contemporary IGP Ardêche could lay a claim to being the oldest Rhône vineyard!

Picatum, Gaul’s « grand cru »

Amongst the wines produced at that time (and today one can even taste a wine made using the techniques of the Roman period at Mas des Tourelles, where an amazing reconstitution has been conducted), only one has sustained the test of time, at least in words: Picatum, the “waxed” wine of the Allobroges tribe. The territory of this Gaulois tribe covered the Dauphiné and the Alps and their capital was Vienne which was the centre for the production of this wine loved by Romans. Martial even called Vienne “wine-flavoured”. As an example of the vine’s capacity to adapt to conditions outside Mediterranean influence, the grape used, known as allobrogica, was, according to Pliny the Elder, black, generous in its yields, resistant to cold weather and having “a naturally waxy flavour”. Some have considered this grape to be an ancestor of syrah, and, according to the geographer Roger Dion: “it is not conceivable that the wine-makers of the time should have left unexploited the natural capacities of site such as Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie”. That may be so, but archaeology can spoil the party and those two sites, as well as the area around Vienne, have so far produced no evidence apart from amphoras that contained olive oil. This has led some to speculate that Picatum actually came from Savoie, and not the Dauphiné, and that the allobrogica grape was an ancestor of the mondeuse variety, which has a family link to syrah, thus keeping it in the family. Archaeobotanical studies may resolve this tricky question one of these days!

Paysage Lirac

The party is over

The ancient vineyards of the Rhône Valley would suffer from the disorder that followed the end of the Roman Empire during the 5th century. Say goodbye to Roman refinement, here come the barbarians and the return of the dark ages! In any event it was the end of good living for the vineyards: for several centuries small plots would survive around dioceses, abbeys and monasteries. With additional constraints “civilization” moved gradually and for a long time from the Mediterranean area northwards and the Rhône lost its position as a strategic axis. Whilst considerable commercial vineyards emerged as from the 12th century around Paris, in Burgundy, around La Rochelle or Bordeaux, the Rhône Valley was left out of new markets in France or abroad and had to make do with local consumption. The emerging markets of the Middle Ages were England, Flanders and northern French towns such as Paris, all of which were inaccessible for wines from southern France which would have had to cross the Mediterranean and then pass the straights of Gibraltar before travelling north by ship. Burgundy protected its own interests, as did the city of Lyon which has its own production from the surrounding hills. Before the construction of the canal that would link Bordeaux to the Mediterranean as from the 17th century, moving wines this way was impossible and, in any event, Bordeaux protected its own production from any competition with trade barriers. In the famous poem of 1214 known as La Bataille des Vins (the Battle of wines), 120 wines were listed and commented, but not a single one came from the Rhône. Until the arrival of railways in the 19th century made economic transport to the north possible, there were only two options: making use of any attractive local markets, or creating a new trade route. This would create separate destinies for the two parts of the valley.

Popes in the south…

One of the best ways of stimulating local production during the Middle Ages was to have a Pope in your vicinity. Popes set up a second home in Avignon between 1309 and 1378, turning the Comtat Vanaissin into a pontifical state: a status it retained until the French Revolution. Carpentras was its administrative capital. According to historians, popes were not that keen on the local wines, preferring those from Saint Pourçain, Beaune or Arbois. But followers, pilgrims, tradesmen and the curious public that flooded to Avignon, Carpentras, Arles or Roquemaure were not so demanding. These new customers encouraged production by increasing consumption. In the town of Carpentras for example, more than 80% of the houses stored considerable quantities of wine, often amounting to several hundred litres. Another small town was to benefit from this growth: Châteauneuf Calcernier (rebaptised Châteauneuf du Pape en 1893) lies on the main road to Avignon and would have its fortune boosted above all by the papal presence when these religious dignitaries spent the summer months there, building a castle in 1317. By 1344, 85% of the town’s landowners owned a vineyard and 38 different producers were known, a few of them selling their own wines. Yet, for the time being, the town earned its living essentially from the mining of lime and stone, as well as the production of bricks, more so than from wine. For that to come about, it would take a few more centuries and the emergence of a family called Tulle de Villefranche.

… and the fairs of Beaucaire

After the departure of popes from Avignon, the devastation caused by the Great Plague of 1348 and then religions civil wars, times were again difficult until new events improved things: the fairs of Beaucaire, which recreated propitious conditions for trade. Beaucaire lies on the Rhône where river traffic meets that from the sea. For several centuries it became a commercial turntable (of which one can still see traces) that attracted merchants from many countries: Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Germany and Holland. Local wines, especially those from the right bank on the Gard region stood to benefit from this visibility and some, such as those from Chusclan and Laudun, acquired sufficient reputation as to be offered to King Louis XIII when he visited the region in 1639. But it was in the 18th century, when these fairs reached their apogee, that we find the first mention of a denomination “côte du Rhône”, which was then in the singular as it applied solely to the wines of the Gard region. In 1737, eight villages around Uzès, including Tavel, Lirac and Laudon, obtained a very detailed royal warrant that defined those wines allowed to be called “Côte du Rhône”. It described the limits of the vineyards, marking the barrels with the brand “C de R”, a register of production and sales, the veracity of vintages, the sizes of containers, etc. These wines, exported from Roquemaure, were described in 1752 as “the most sought-after and expensive” of the region and were shipped to Paris, England and Holland during this period. The precocious version of a controlled appellation consecrated the ascendancy of the wines from the Gard over those of the Vaucluse, which was to remain under the control of the Comtat Venaissin until 1791. Châteauneuf was an exception to this however, and its wines became known at the same time.

Paysage Gigondas


And, to the north, the attraction of Paris…

Northern Rhône vineyards, which had been reduced to very local sales by tariff barriers in Lyon and Burgundy, were to see the light during the 17th century. In 1668 an English traveller named Martin Lister noted that he tasted in Paris white wines from Condrieu, as well as a “Coste Brulée” (ie Côte Rôtie) “of very fine taste”, and a red Hermitage. At the same period, the French author Boileau in his satire Le Repas Ridicule mentions the wines of Hermitage, whilst Doctor Guy Patin talks of Condrieu. Louis XIV offered to the English king some “very good wines” that included some from Hermitage. Later, we can also find some Côte Rôtie in the well-supplied cellar of the Duc d’Orléans. This opening was made possible by two factors. Firstly, the opening of a trading route northwards that bypassed Lyon and Dijon: from Condrieu it crossed the Massif Central and joined the river Loire which became navigable as from Saint-Rambert in 1725. Secondly, we should consider the “fortunate natural dispositions” of these hillside vineyards capable of producing concentrated wines, mainly red, that would keep well and whose selling prices would justify a long and costly journey. We should also remember that another route to the British Isles, via Bordeaux, opened as from 1681 with the inauguration of the Canal du Midi: In the 1700s, a certain Sir Mure used this route to ship his wines from Hermitage.  During the 19th century, this route would have an unexpected consequence in the shape of Bordeaux négociants boosting the quality of poor vintages by adding Hermitage to certain wines.

…the first golden era

The edict of 1776 authorizing free movement for wine, followed by the development of railways in the 19th century, further reduced the isolation of northern Rhône vineyards and ensured their continuing ascension. There is quite a lot of information about these vineyards and accounts from that period can seem almost to be from modern times. Syrah, or serine, is mentioned for the first time in 1781[1] and appears to have been the almost exclusive variety at a period when mixing different varieties in vineyard plots was current practice elsewhere. In the case of white wines, we find, as today, the trio of viognier, roussanne and marsanne. As to the ranking of the various crus, it was then as it is today. Hermitage takes the top slot, having become over the past century “the most famous of Rhône wines[2]. Its wines are also described as being “held in as high esteem as those of the first growths of Bordeaux and the best of Burgundy[3]. Even the details of individual plots were then known, and the best “quartiers”, as these are called locally, such as Bessas, Méal or Greffieux, were described and placed in order of preference. Wines were most carefully crafted, with grapes harvested «at perfect ripeness», destemmed, undergoing long maceration before being matured “in new oak barrels” and then “bottled when four years old”. They could be kept “for over twenty years without spoiling[4], and even longer according to M. Puvis who says he tasted a 100-year-old Hermitage in great shape when visiting cellars in 1848. Apart from its reds, this most famous of northern Rhône hillsides also produced dry whites “universally renowned[5], as well as an Ermitage-paille, “a true syrup” according to André Julien, and which was reserved for the richest tables and much appreciated in Poland and Russia. The other vineyards of the region, all using the syrah grape, were not left out: the best wines from Côte Rôtie and its then known plots such as Côte Brune, Côte Blonde or La Turque, were considered to be on a level with the finest Burgundies. They were ranked above those of Saint-Joseph (which merely covered 6 hectares at that time), Cornas, whose wines were already reputed to be powerful, or Crozes, whose wines “only differ from those of Hermitage in that they have less body and finesse”, according to Puvis. As to Saint-Peray, which was to be renamed Peray-Vin-blanc during the French Revolution, it specialized in still and sparkling white wines, whilst Condrieu, then making sweet white wines, was worth its weight in gold.

The rise of Châteauneuf

It was also during the 19th century that southern Rhône also obtained its fine wine. Yet before the consecration of a territory and a group of producers, the success of Châteauneuf was due to an influential local family named Tulle de Villefranche which had produced merchants, bankers and university professors. In 1560 they acquired an estate with vineyards that would later be called La Nerthe. The family was elevated to noble status and also included members who were bishops, generals, members of parliament, king’s advisors and a peer of France: they were top of the pile! A series of marquises, also excellent salesmen, used their wine to enhance their prestige: a common practice at a time when fine wine reflected its image as much on the consumer as on the producer. This history is known from archives which have been meticulously explored by Jean-Claude Portes[6]. Initially reserved for the tables of the aristocracy, served when “very old and of excellent quality”, according to Victor Rendu, the wines of La Nerthe were sold as from the 1730s to the family’s network, to friends, household guests and influential acquaintances who then spread the word as far as the United States of America. Out of 429 customers listed in 1770, 286 were aristocrats, often of high ranking, both in France and abroad. Naturally, such a network was also most profitable: from 30 pounds a barrel in 1730, La Nerthe had risen to 178 pounds in 1770, which then represented four times the price of any other wine from Châteauneuf. So, what had started as an image ploy had also become a thriving business. When the crop was small, the Tulle family completed their range with the best of “peasant wines” which were sold as “pope’s wine”, and then as “châteauneuf-du-pape”, which thus became a known brand. Following this wake, other estates emerged such as Condorcet, Fortia and Vaudieu. 19th century authors waxed lyrical about these « delicate, fine wines with an attractive bouquet…although on the warm side”[7]. Made from a blend of grapes, they also aged well. Alongside traditional local varieties such as picpoul, clairette, picardan and terret noir, we also find grenache which had arrived from Spain “hardly more than sixty years ago[8] (in other words in the late 18th century) and tinto (mourvèdre, also from Spain) were gaining ground, alongside syrah which had been successfully planted at the Condorcet estate in the 1840s. Over a period of about 150 years

Châteauneuf had emerged way above all other wines of the region. With the exception of a few vineyards in the Gard sector on the right bank, particularly Tavel, the other wines lacked a regular commercial network. The Vaucluse, which remained for long mired in conservatism and the prohibitive tax regime of the Comtat de Venaissin, became a happy hunting-ground for Burgundian merchants looking for deep red wines that would reinforce their local production.

The Rhône today

For the north, we could almost maintain the previous description as this region has not altered that much. But this would mean passing over what would be a spectacular renaissance. The golden age of the 19th century came to a sudden stop with the arrival of phylloxera, which was the beginning of a long series of crises. For this region then suffered from two World Wars separated by a major economic depression, compounded by sprawling urbanization that nibbled at the vineyards, not to mention severe competition from fruit farming. By the 1960s the reputation of these wines had faded and the vineyard dwindled: there remained just a handful of hectares both at Côte Rôtie and Condrieu. Where was the motivation to slave on these steep slopes when a bottle of wine was not worth more than a kilo of apricots? But a few, like Marcel Guigal or Georges Vernay, either foolhardy or visionary and moved by the memories of the great wines of the past, would take on the challenge. They replanted, plot by plot, rebuilt retaining walls and then went out to make their wines known and to sell them, especially to top level restaurants and discriminating importers. This kick-started a new era and encouraged emulation from a new generation who took on the yolk. The wines became increasingly fashionable in the 1990s, and syrah and viognier became catch words around the world. The production being small from a few thousand hectares, prices have risen steeply, especially over the past 15 years. Tables have turned and it has become difficult to find good wines at under 20 euros, but they do exist and we are there to find them! This is particularly the case with the less prestigious appellations such as Crozes Hermitage, Saint Joseph, Côtes du Rhône or the local IGPs.


On the other hand, the southern part of the Rhône has become a happy hunting-ground for the wine-lover seeking good value-for-money. For one thing the scale of production is very different, with over 60,000 hectares, and production constraints are far less limiting. Naturally, the region was also hit by phylloxera, but replanting was much faster, at times with its downside: the temptation to plant high-yielding varieties to supply volumes to thirsty markets, not to mention fraudulent practices. But the Vaucluse can also be proud of having shown the way in France by the creation of the Controlled Appellation system, thanks to Baron Le Roy, legalist and owner of Château Fortia at Châteauneuf-du-Pape. As from the 1950s, vineyard plantings replaced less profitable crops such as cereals or olive trees and production was multiplied by five in the thirty years between 1955 and 1985. On the market side, this was fuelled by a growing demand for better wines with a geographical identity and which remained affordable, and the basic Côtes du Rhône fitted that bill, having obtained its appellation in 1936. Popular and accessible as this wine is, the region also boasted its up-market flag-bearer in the shape of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, whose wines were further boosted by their pleasing the palate of Robert Parker. Between these two extremes, other appellations emerged, such as Gigondas which became popular in the 1990s, followed by other villages successively promoted to the status of “crus” such as Rasteau, Vacqueyras, Beaume de Venise or Cairanne. Unlike in the north, where the hierarchy appears to be unchangeable, there is a form of social mobility amongst southern appellations: new Côte du Rhône Villages emerge, some become fashionable crus, whilst other such as Lirac fade somewhat before regaining popularity. Then there are the neighbouring regions such as Ventoux, Luberon or Costières de Nîmes that have come from nowhere, not to mention the numerous IGPs in the area.  The Rhône vineyards, despite their 2500 years of existence, are still full of surprises.


Sébastien Durand-Viel


[1] Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond, Histoire naturelle de la province de Dauphiné, 1781

[2] M. A Puvis, De la Culture de la Vigne, et de la Fabrication du Vin, 1848

[3] A. Jullien, Topographie de tous les vignobles connus, 1866

[4] V. Rendu, Ampélographie Française, 1857

[5] M. Cavoleau, Œnologie Française, 1827

[6] Jean-Claude Portes, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, première AOC de France, 2016

[7] A. Jullien, Topographie de tous les vignobles connus, 1866

[8] Comte Odart, Ampélographie ou Traité des Cépages les plus estimés, 1845