River of southern Europe; length 810 km/500 mi. It rises at the Rhône Glacier (altitude 1,825 m/5,987 ft) in the canton of Valais in Switzerland and flows through Lake Geneva to Lyon into France, where, at its confluence with the Saône, the upper limit of navigation is reached. The river then turns due south and passes Vienne and Avignon. Near Arles it divides into the Grand and Petit Rhône, flowing respectively southeast and southwest into the Mediterranean west of Marseille. Here it forms a two-armed delta; the area between the tributaries is the marshy region known as the Camargue.
The Rhône is harnessed for hydroelectric power, the chief dam being at Génissiat in Ain département, constructed 1938–48. Between Vienne and Avignon the Rhône flows through two major wine-producing areas. The river gives its name to a département, Rhône.
Course In its first stages the river is a turbulent mountain torrent until it reaches Brig. At Martigny-Ville it changes course from southwest to northwest, and finally enters the western end of Lake Geneva at Villeneuve. Over this distance of 170 km/106 mi it falls 1,426 m/4,678 ft.
The section from Geneva to Lyon is marked by numerous narrow gorges, as the waters wind about the southern spurs of the Jura Mountains. Above Lyon the chief tributary is the Ain, just below which is its confluence with the Saône, through which the Rhône is connected to the Rhine, Moselle, Seine, and Loire. Over this distance of 200 km/124 mi the river falls only 210 m/690 ft.
Between Lyon and the Mediterranean the tributaries are the Isère, Drôme, and Durance on the left and the Ardèche on the right, draining valleys where famous centres of Greek and Roman culture flourished.
Economy The hydroelectricity, navigation, and irrigation scheme of the Compagnie Nationale du Rhône has greatly increased the economic importance of the Rhône valley since 1945. Since 1833, there has been a narrow canal linking the Rhône and Rhine via the Saône, but the size of barges that can pass its numerous locks is limited to a width of around 5 m, which makes the canal uneconomical for today's transport market. Therefore it is now mainly used by pleasure boats.
There have been various plans to widen the canal for larger ships or to build a wider canal on an alternative route, which would provide a through waterway between the North Sea and the Mediterranean, but these were abandoned following grave concerns about both the environmental impact and the economic viability of such projects.
Wines Both the northern and the southern Rhône areas are best known for fruity red wines, with protected origin names (appellations controlées) such as Crozes Hermitage and St Joseph in the northern area, and in the southern area: Côtes du Rhône, Côtes du Rhône Villages, and the names of a few prestigious villages such as Rasteau, Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Chateauneuf du Pape.
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