The Rhône Valley Bets Big on White Wine

The Rhône Valley is preparing for the challenges of climate change by testing hybrid grapes, among other measures. Iris Trenkner-Panwitz reports.

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The limestone ridges of the Dentelles de Montmirail characterise the terroir in the Vaucluse department (Photo: Mike Workman/stock.adobe.com)
The limestone ridges of the Dentelles de Montmirail characterise the terroir in the Vaucluse department (Photo: Mike Workman/stock.adobe.com)

"The Rhône knows no crisis," said Philippe Pellaton, president of the Inter Rhône producers' association. At least, he qualified, not for the communal appellations and the Northern Rhône. However, for the other regional appellations—Côtes du Rhône, Ventoux, Lubéron, and Costières de Nîmes, among others—he sees strong competition with not just the rest of France, but with the world.

During a wide-ranging interview at the Découvertes en Vallée du Rhône trade fair in April this year, he clarified how the Rhône intends to adapt.
 

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Guillaume Chalumeau
Guillaume Chalumeau

Stable sales volumes with declining prices

A lot has happened since April—where does the Rhône Valley stand six months later? Although it is not yet possible to determine the impact, several elements are already becoming apparent, according to Inter Rhône: "The trend towards value growth that the sector has known, especially in supermarkets, is tending to erode."

According to the latest IRI study, the sales volume was stable in the first half of the year, but the average purchase price declined, explained press spokesman Valentin Bordala. Customers are again reaching for value, while the number of products in the markets is decreasing. This will probably have an impact on sales volume in the future, he fears.
 

Rosé in green

The bottlenecks in packaging materials seem to have been overcome by most market participants. Some rosés were bottled in green glass bottles, rather than in flint glass, but at least: they were bottled. Also "The White Plan" for strengthening the white and rosé wine sector in the Rhône Valley, which President Pellaton took up when he took office two years ago, goes on.

Export Rhône Valley 2021

Top 5 export markets by volume:

  • Belgium:      180,125 hl / +16% (share 19%)
  • UK:              149,118 hl /    -1% (share 16%)
  • USA:            140,125 hl / +13% (share 15%)
  • Canada:         76,781 hl / +14% (share 8%)
  • Germany:       59,375 hl /  +6% (share 6%)

 

Top 5 export markets by value: 

  • USA:            € 108.6m / +22%
  • UK:              €   85.6m / +17%
  • Belgium:      €   75.7m / +21%
  • Canada:      €   51.4m / +26%
  • Germany:    €   33.1m / +11%

 

Diversification plans

The association presented its plans for wine production for the coming decade at a press conference on 8 December. The goal is greater diversification: red wine is to be stabilised, rosé wine expanded and white wine doubled. Currently, red wine accounts for 76% of production, rosé for 14% and white for 10%. According to Pellaton, an annual growth of 0.9% to 2.7m hL by 2026 and 2.9m hL by 2035 should be achieved; the current annual production of about 150,000 hL of white wine is to be doubled by 2030. The plan is not to increase the area under cultivation, but to increase the yield. Through cultivation techniques and new grape varieties, the economic yield of the farms is to be increased from about 38 hL/ha today to 48 hL/ha in 2035.

On 8 September, the Institut national de l'origine et de la qualité (INAO) approved the extension of the AOC Gigondas for white wines. Clairette Blanche is to become the main grape variety with a minimum share of 70%, which can be vinified alone or blended with the traditional grape varieties of the Rhône Valley—Bourboulenc, Clairette Rosé, Grenache Blanc and Gris, Marsanne, Picpoul and Roussanne. Viognier and Ugni Blanc may be added up to 5%. Currently, over 16 hectares are planted with white wine.
 

Harvest 2022: sufficient and promising in terms of quality

With its 66,402 hectares of vineyards, the Rhône Valley remains the second largest wine producer in the country after Bordeaux. After last year's harvest was the third worst of the past decade due to late frosts and fungal diseases with about 2.57m hL, great relief is spreading among wine players this year.

Not only would the volume harvested be in line with the five-year average, but it also seems to be a promising vintage in other respects.

“Qualitatively, thanks to the excellent degree of ripeness, this is one of the best vintages of the last five years, especially good for red wines with a beautiful colour and structure,” said Pellaton. “This year, the overlap in ripeness between the grape varieties has also ensured that blending could already take place during fermentation, which has led to interesting possibilities.” He added that “2022 is a rich vintage that already has nice storage and development potential.”

Yet the signs were not initially good due to the extremely hot and dry summer. "However, the vines held up incredibly well on both sides of the Rhône Valley vineyards," he said. The rainfall from mid-August and in September gave the grapes another boost for their phenolic ripening.
 

Fit for the future

To prepare for climate change, the association is working together with the Rhodanien Institute, which supports the winegrowers in these challenges. This year, for example, four new grape varieties were approved on an experimental basis that are better adapted to t increasing dryness and which ripen late: Rolle, Carignan Blanc, Floréal (white hybrid) and Vidoc (a red hybrid). The latter are new varieties. Producers are allowed to grow these varieties and use them in experimental procedures for their cuvées to test a possible future approval. Crosses between the Grenache and Syrah grape varieties are also being studied.

"We are dynamic," said Pellaton. The challenges are many, but with new planting possibilities, the vignerons at least have a chance to adapt.

 

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