The whole region is rather neatly divided in two – the northern and southern Rhône. To the north there is less space as the vineyard area is restricted by the mountainous valley walls. A good deal of the usable land is taken up by the high quality appellations of Côte Rôtie, Hermitage, St-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage that grow some of the finest Syrah (aka Shiraz) in the world. Rarely is it blended, except occasionally with tiny amounts of white Viognier to add perfume. The wines are rich and luscious and very long lived. Particularly in Côte Rôtie, the vines here cling to the sides of steep valley walls to dramatic effect.
You must also look out for the Northern Rhône white wines of Condrieu and Château Grillet. Made from Viognier, they are very pungent and full bodied white wines that can be gorgeously perfumed and complex.
The bulk of Rhône Valley wines come from the southern Rhône, where much is made into either Côtes du Rhône or the slightly superior Côtes du Rhône Villages. The flatter land and Mediterranean climate of the southern Rhône is the French home for the growing of Grenache, the most famous wine being Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Some Syrah is also grown, alongside Carignan, Cinsault and Mourvèdre.
It's sometimes hard to know exactly which grapes are used in a red Rhône wine. But you can generally count on a warming, rustic, brambly fruit flavoured bottle that makes for welcome drinking. The Rhône also offers a delicious sweet wine from Beaumes-De-Venise. Based on the Muscat grape, it is characterful, grapey, and good value, so there's no excuse not to try a sneaky half-bottle … with apple crumble perhaps.