from the Cellarsunday schoolFrance’s Rhône Valley: Syrah, Grenache and Viognier

April 4, 2021by Terrell Abney

Over the next few weeks, we will be taking a look at three international grapes that originated in France’s Rhône valley — namely syrah/shiraz, grenache/garnacha and viognier.  These grapes have found suitable growing regions scattered around the globe, but they are most significant in the Rhône valley, which stretches from Vienne (just south of Lyon) to Avignon.

Syrah, the dominant grape of the northern Rhône valley, is often described in very masculine terms — meaty/gamey, sweaty, bloody — but it can have decidedly feminine characteristics as well, particularly floral notes of rose, lavender, and violet. Similarly, a contradiction of earthiness and fruitiness is often at play. It is precisely these contrasts in the character and complexity of aroma and flavor of syrah that is so very appealing. Many Americans are most familiar with syrah under its alias, shiraz. Just as the naming conventions of pinot gris/pinot grigio indicate either differing places of origin or differeng styles of production for the same grape varietal, the use of the names syrah and shiraz indicate origin and/or style distinctions for a single grape varietal. In general, the use of the name syrah indicates either French origins or a French style, while the use of the name shiraz indicates either Australian origins or an Australian style. We will discuss these styles further in next week’s article (along with some of unsubstantiated myths surrounding the origin of the grape and the etymology of the name shiraz). Outside of the Rhône valley and Australia, syrah/shiraz is also grown quite well in areas of California (particularly Napa and Sonoma counties and the Central Coast), Washington state, and (to a lesser degree) Chile, South Africa, and New Zealand. In general, syrah/shiraz tends to display:

  • Fruit notes of black fruit (blackberry, cherry, and plum) which may be ripe and tart in French wines and jammy or confected in American and Australian wines; additionally, notes of blue fruit and red berries may appear, particularly in American and Australian wines
  • Floral notes of rose, lavender, and violets
  • Herbal notes of herbs de Provence, thyme, rosemary, mint and/or menthol, and (in Australian wines) eucalyptus
  • Vegetal notes of olive
  • Spice notes of peppercorn in general, with additional notes of juniper in French wines and five spice or anise/licorice in American and Australian wines
  • Notes of meat or game, smoke, and bacon, and possibly (in French wines) tar, ash, and the yeast genus brettanomyces (which may lend aromas not only of cloves and leather, but also of bandages) or (in American and Australian wines) dark chocolate
  • Oak influenced notes of smoke, baking spices, and vanilla from French oak barrels, and baking spices, vanilla, and coconut from American oak barrels

Considering the general components of wine (alcohol, sugar, acid, and tannin (the component in oversteeped tea that cause the inside of your mouth to feel rough and dry), syrah/shiraz tends to be:

  • Moderate to high in alcohol
  • Dry to very dry, meaning that is has little residual sugar (sugar remaining after fermentation), although fruit character may certainly be present
  • Moderate to slightly high in acidity
  • Moderate to high in tannin.  

While syrah is the dominant grape of the northern Rhône valley, grenache is the leading grape in the southern half of the valley.  Outside of the Rhône, grenache is also grown in Spain (where it is called garnacha), Sicily (where it is called cannonau), Washington state, and (to a lesser degree) California and Australia.  In general, grenache/garnacha displays:

  • Fruit notes of red fruit (strawberry, cherry, and raspberry) and black fruit (plum and cherry)
  • Floral notes of rose, lavender, and violets
  • Herbal notes of thyme, rosemary, anise, tea and (in Australian wines) eucalyptus
  • Spice notes of baking spices and pepper
  • Notes of smoked meat, the yeast genus brettanomyces (which may lend aromas not only of cloves and leather, but also of bandages), and earth, mushrooms and potting soil
  • Oak influenced notes of smoke, baking spices, hazelnut, and vanilla from French oak barrels, and baking spices, vanilla, and coconut from American oak barrels

Considering the general components of wine (alcohol, sugar, acid, and tannin, grenache/garnacha tends to be:

  • Moderate to high in alcohol
  • Dry, meaning that is has little residual sugar, although fruit character may certainly be present
  • Moderate to slightly high in acidity
  • Moderate to high in tannin.  

The most important white grape in the Rhône valley is easily viognier (pronounced “vee-oh-nyā”).  Viognier is grown in both the northern and southern portions of the Rhône, as well as in Argentina, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, particularly in California’s Central Coast and in Virginia, where it is officially recognized as the state’s “signature grape.”  In general, viognier exhibits:
 

  • Fruit notes of apricot and peach, as well as an array of tropical fruits and citrus (especially tangerine)
  • Floral notes of honeysuckle and rose
  • Herbal notes of lemongrass
  • Spice notes of cinnamon and ginger
  • Notes of musk, honey, almond, earth, stones and mushroom
  • Oak influenced notes of baking spices and vanilla 

Considering the general components of wine (alcohol, sugar, acid, and tannin (usually expressed in white wines, if at all, as bitterness)), viognier tends to be:

  • Moderate to high in alcohol
  • Dry to very dry, meaning that is has little residual sugar (sugar remaining after fermentation), although fruit character may certainly be present
  • Moderate to slightly high in acidity
  • Low in phenolic bitterness 

Join us over the next few weeks as we learn more about the primary growing areas and oenological traditions of these three grapes (and a few of their lesser known friends).

by Terrell Abney

Terrell Abney is a Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW), Society of Wine Educators and Wine Buyer at Corners Fine Wine & Spirits in Peachtree Corners, GA.