Côtes du Rhône
Since there is no Rhône AOC, the Côtes du Rhône AOC functions as the main appellation for the entire Rhône region. Due to the massive size of the Rhône, the appellation is one of the largest in France, covering over 200,000 acres of land. About 40 million cases of wine are produced a year, which corresponds to about 10% of the total amount of wine produced in France.
Such high levels of production in an appellation generally confer a below-average reputation upon its wines. While the reputation is justified in many cases in the Côtes du Rhône, there are some excellent producers. Diversity is a big asset; just about every type of wine in the world is manufactured here. Prices are very reasonable, and this is one of the very best places to find bargain wine. Quality, however, is not assured; it is safer to go with Côtes du Rhône-Villages.
Like several other Rhône regions, Côtes du Rhône was originally cultivated in Greek times, but didn't really hit its stride until the Middle Ages, when the emergence of trade with other countries and within France led to a significant increase in production. By the 1800s Côtes du Rhône was a well-known appellation. It first received AOC status in 1937, but regulation and distinction of the appellation had already been going on for hundreds of years.
Climate and Viticulture
The region is so large that generalizing about the climate is an impossibility. Due to its size, the appellation inevitably includes both rocky, sweltering vineyards with no redeeming qualities, and state-of-the-art, pebble-soil vineyards located next to cool rivers. The resulting wines are indistinguishable except by producer. As a result, Côtes du Rhône is like the large Western regions: it is crucial for the consumer to use publications in order to differentiate between good and bad.
White grapes here are permitted to make up 5% of red wines and 20% of rosés. All grape varieties are designated into two categories: main and supplementary. For the red wines, numerous white grapes are supplementary, as well as Carignan, Cinsaut, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Picpoul Noir, and Terret Noir. Grenache is considered the only main grape variety. Clearly this rule should be changed, as Syrah and Mourvèdre make up much more than just a supplementary percentage of most Rhône wines. Among white wines, Bourboulenc, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier are main varieties, while Picpoul Blanc and Trebbiano are supplementary.
Here are six good producers from the Côtes du Rhône. This is just a selection; in reality, there are hundreds of producers in the region whose wines are good on either a quality level, a price level, or both.
- Château de Beaucastel: This legendary Châteauneuf-du-Pape producer also makes good Côtes du Rhône. The smoky, Grenache-driven red has fresh fruit flavors and is reasonably priced, while the white is more expensive but also more critically acclaimed.
- Domaine Charvin: Another famous Châteauneuf producer that also makes good Côtes du Rhône. Charvin's basic wine is good but their cuvée, Le Poutet, is higher-level.
- Domaine Font de Michelle: Main attraction here is the "La Font du Vent: Les Promesses" cuvée. It is inexpensive and often quite good.
- E. Guigal: Like most of the massive Rhône wine producers, Guigal has vineyards in the Côtes du Rhône, but theirs are better than most. They make all three colors of wine: a fresh, fruity rosé, a melony, complex Marsanne-based white, and a fresh, dark, smoothly floral red. All are around $12.
- Château du Rayas: Rayas is one of the most respected names in the Rhône. Their Château de Fonsalette red cuvée has amazingly complex, spicy flavors of pepper and herbs. The Marsanne-based white is also great. The downside: the wines are outrageously expensive for the appellation, often costing over $80.
- Tardieu-Laurent: Two cuvées, Le Bec Fins and the slightly more complex Guy Louis are made here. Both are great expressions of red Côtes du Rhône.
Many of the same producers also make good wine in the Côtes du Rhône-Villages appellation, which is considered slightly more reliable.
The lowest tier of Côtes du Rhône wine is the basic Côtes du Rhône AOC, which has no terroirs of its own, making it a big mix in terms of quality and style. The Côtes du Rhône-Villages AOC is more consistent. Then, there are the 15 named villages, which are allowed to append their names to the wine labels. Here is a list of these in alphabetical order, with commentary:
- Beaumes de Venise: This southern Rhône appellation was granted its AOC for red wine in 2004.
- Cairanne: This famous, ancient village deserves to get its own AOC at some point; wines from Alary, Brusset and especially l'Oratoire are top quality.
- Sablet: A few good producers here, notably Château du Trignon and Domaine du Grand Bourjassot.
- Séguret: Many good producers here, such as Mourchon.
- Vinsobres: Vinsobres became its own AOC in 2006.
- Visan: Florane makes wines of interest here.
Also, the Côtes du Rhône has a singular subappellation, its only subregion that does not fit into the northern or southern parts of the Rhône. Its name is Die.