Wine Wednesday: The Rhône Hierarchy

Here in the United States, we are relatively flexible when it comes to our wine legislation, and what we can put on our labels. Unlike in many parts of the world, we can bottle and produce whatever wine varietal we want, wherever we want, and can label it as such. Want to produce a Zinfandel coming from Russian River Valley? Go for it. A Riesling from Napa? Pass me a glass! A Syrah from Sonoma? You know we love that! An Alicante Bouschet in Nebraska? Well… I might let you try that one first, but at least you can legally attempt! 😉

Syrah in Sonoma, via

In many parts of the world, wine laws are much more strict. Many wine growing regions have designated varietals, meaning, only certain wines can legally be produced in a given area. Furthermore, laws can also regulate aging regimens, oenological practices, vineyard classifications, and more. Products meeting each regions requirements may use the appropriate indication on their label. These laws and designates are put in place for the customer, to guarantee consistency, and that the product they are receiving is to a certain caliber.

In France, wine professionals ascribe to the the appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC), quite literally translating to “designated appellation of origin.” This set of laws outlines geographical indications for many French products, including wines, cheeses, butters, and more.

The Rhône wine region produces wines under different various AOCs, more than two dozen in total. For educational purposes, these appellations are generally grouped into two categories; those of Southern Rhône and those of Northern Rhône. Major Northern Rhône AOCs include Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, Saint-Joseph, Cornas, and Condrieu. Important Southern Rhône AOCs include Cote du Rhône, Cotes du Rhône-Villages, Tavel, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, and Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise.

The most major of the of the Rhône’s AOCs is the Cote du Rhône AOC. This AOC is divided into 4 levels, which generally indicate quality of the wine. The most basic level, and least geographically precise, is the Côtes du Rhône AOC, which accounts for about 50% of Rhône wines. There are 21 varietals included in this designate. The next level is Côtes du Rhône Villages AOC, which represents wines from a smaller general region within the larger Cote du Rhône AOC, from lower yielding vines that offer some ageing potential. Under that, is the Côtes du Rhône (named) Villages AOC. If a label includes a village name, this means the wine comes from one of 19 specified villages within the Cote du Rhône, has at least 12.5% alcohol content, and will typically be of higher quality. Finally, the last and most elite level in this hierarchy is The Crus, in which there are 9 named appellations. These wines only display the name of the appellation, and do not say Cote du Rhône on the label. These include the most famous and coveted of all Rhône wines coming from premier regions, and include Côte-Rôtie, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Cornas, and more.

Image via Boutinot Wines

Whew! Wine laws and hierarchies, especially in Europe, are notorious for being hard to understand, so don’t worry if you don’t memorize every rule and detail. However, it is good to know the basics, so that you can more easily navigate wine lists, shops, and tastings. And, it’s always fun to have an impressive piece of knowledge to whip out at dinner! 😉

Test the levels you just learned about at the girl & the fig (and by test, we mean taste!).

Cote du Rhône AOC:

- Font du Loup, 2017 Côtes du Rhône


- Barroul & Lynch, 2016 "La Pierrelle," Hermitage

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