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Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.

Côtes du Rhône: Great Wines/Great Bargains

These days I hear a lot about “Rhône varietals” and “Rhône-style” wines, and like so many other wine lovers I’ve been tasting some lovely wines that fit these broad descriptions. The most famous grape of France’s Rhône Valley is Syrah (aka Shiraz), and there certainly are a lot of wines made from this grape, hailing from all over the Southern and Northern Hemisphere, from the New World and the Old World. Made in many different styles and available at many different price points, good Syrah/Shiraz is one of my favorite hearty, heady red wines.

But Syrah is just part of a much larger story, the story of the entire Rhône Valley and its wines. In the northern Rhône Valley, Syrah rules, but in the southern Rhône, it is but one of 23 grapes allowed by French wine law to produce Côtes du Rhône; a wine that is usually red but can also be white; the reds can be blended with the juice of white grapes and the whites can be blended with the juice of skinless red grapes (did you get that?); a wine that can be made in no less than 170 villages throughout the Rhône Valley; a wine that earthy and delicious; a wine that it is a great value.

Côtes du Rhône is the name of the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée); the place where the grapes are grown. And the Côtes du Rhône is a humongous appellation, covering more than 100,000 acres of vineyards owned by more than 10,000 growers. The 1,500 wineries in the Côtes du Rhône produce 250 million bottles annually (relax, that’s only a bit more than 20 million cases of wine; no biggie), 95% of it red.

40 per cent of the plantings in the Côtes du Rhône are red Grenache grapes, followed by Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan, and Cinsault, and a host of other red grapes. The most important white grapes here are Marsanne and Roussanne, with a bit of Viognier, among others. You may have had a varietal Grenache or a Shiraz/Grenache/ Mourvèdre blend from California or Australia (the cognoscenti and the terminally hip, perhaps afraid they might mispronounce “Mourvèdre,” refer to this style of wine as SGM), and you should never pass up the opportunity to taste a good Carignan. Perhaps you’ve tried a white Viognier, or a Marsanne/Roussanne blend from the New World, too. If not, don’t hesitate to do so.

Just because a wine labeled Côtes du Rhône can use 23 grapes, doesn’t mean that it does. Most of the wines utilize five to ten grapes, and of course Grenache usually dominates the blend. With so many producers, the joy of exploring the wines of the Côtes du Rhône is that each wine is different, and each delicious. Good “CDR” is a light-to-medium bodied wine, with an earthy character, and very food-friendly, whether you’re eating white or red meat, or grilled fish, or pasta, or pizza (especially pizza). It is also one of the great values in red wines, with many available for about $10, some a bit less, some a bit more.
You should also keep your eye peeled for the small selection of Côtes du Rhône wines that are made in the northern Rhône (“Côtes du Rhône, which literally means ”Rhône Slopes,” really means “almost anywhere in the Rhône”). These delicious wines are Syrah-dominant, some of them 100% Syrah, and are truly earthy wonders, with a slightly fuller body and a little more complexity. And most of them don’t cost any more than their “CDR” brethren from the south.

And then there’s a separate AOC, Côtes du Rhône-Villages, which ostensibly creates better wines on a consistent basis. Why? Because about 75 villages have been identified as having superior vineyards. Government regs here are a bit more stringent: nine grapes are legal instead of 23 in the general CDR appellation; the vineyards must produce fewer grapes per hectare (about 2.5 acres), and sugar levels in the grapes must be higher than in the humble CDR, translating to higher minimum alcohol in the finished wine.

The Côtes du Rhône-Villages appellation is positively minuscule when compared to the larger all-encompassing Côtes du Rhône. Here, there are about 11,000 acres under vine producing the raw material for just 19 million bottles of wine per year. Grenache jumps up to 50 per cent of the grapes planted in this district.

The French have a real talent for the “intellectually dense” (read “hard to understand”) wine label, but so far, no problem. Just remember Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône-Villages, and remember to pronounce it VEE-LODGE, not “Villages,” and you’re home, free, right? Wrong. Here’s why: Of the 75 villages that are part of the CDR-V, 16 are allowed to add the name of their village on the wine label; it is an outward sign of quality, but it can be confusing. Don’t be surprised to see red wines labeled as Côtes du Rhône-Villages-Cairanne or Côtes du Rhône-Villages-Sablet, among several others. One further wrinkle: wines labeled as Côtes du Rhône-Villages-Laudun or Côtes du Rhône-Villages-Chusclan can only be white wines. (For those of you still stuck on pronouncing “Viognier” or “Mourvèdre,” just think of the preceding paragraph as a bad dream.)

“CDR-V” wines should show a bit more depth of flavor, a bit more complexity, and at their best, even a bit of aging potential of about 3 to 6 years. These wines are excellent values, too. You can expect to pay up to 25 per cent more for a CDR-V than a CDR, and a bit more for a CDR-V with the name of an esteemed village on the label. We’re still talking about wines that should sell for less than $20, and closer to $15.

So, the next time someone starts talking about “Rhone” wines, whip out the real thing, a bottle of delicious, food friendly, earthy, but not “pow, right in the kisser” wine from the Côte Du Rhône, or Côte du Rhône-Villages. These are wines that are not meant to dominate a friendly meal, but to enhance it, not to be the subject of conversation, but to encourage a chat, not a special occasion wine, but a wine that makes any occasion special. These wines are fruity but subtle and sensual. They are the anti-Cabernet (but wouldn’t you know it, Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the legal grapes in the Côtes du Rhône!). “CDR” and “CDR-V” wines should be very easy to find in wine shops and on wine lists, and are even easier to drink.
Following are some fine producers of Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône-Villages wines. Note that some producers source grapes in both appellations, and so will produce both wines. Happy Hunting!

Côtes du Rhône (from the south, dominated by Grenache): La Chasse du Pape, Coudolet de Beaucastel, Caves des Papes, Chapoutier, Clos du Caillou, Les Garrigues, Domaine Gramenon, Domaine de l’Ameillaud, Domaine du Pesquier, Perrin Réserve, Patrick Lesec, Mont Redon, Les Monticauts, st. Cosme, and Tardieu-Laurent.

Côtes du Rhône (from the north, dominated by Syrah): Jean-Luc Colombo “Les Abeilles,”, Domaine de la Solitude, Guigal, and Jaboulet (“Parallèle 45”).

Côtes du Rhône-Villages (the appellation is in the south only, dominated by Grenache): Alary, Louis Bernard, André Brunel, Cave de Cairanne, Château du Trignon, Coste Chaude, Domaine Santa Duc, Domaine St. Luc, Domaines de la Guicharde, Domaines Perrin, Guigal, Patrick Lessec, Gabrel Meffre Laurus, and Mas de Boislauzon.

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