There's no doubt that "Rhône-style" wines are having a bit of a moment, capturing the attention of wine growers and drinkers all over the world. They've had a great global ambassador in the hearty, heady, crowd-pleasing Syrah grape (also known as Shiraz), and they're an important part of the wine countries of California and especially Australia. Back in France, Syrah is the only grape legally grown in the northern Rhône Valley. But in the southern part of that valley, Syrah is just part of the much larger story of the Côtes du Rhône.
According to French wine law, Côtes du Rhône is a wine that can be made of a blend of up to 23 grapes; 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 catch that?). But this is what you really should know: Côtes du Rhône is a wine that is a great value, that is food friendly, that is earthy and delicious without ever upstaging the moment.
Never brash or showy, "CDR" is 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 fruit-driven but also subtle and sensual. They are the anti-Cabernet, never ponderous or overly complicated. Good CDR is a medium-bodied wine, with an earthy character, and very versatile in terms of food pairing, whether you're eating white or red meat, or grilled fish, or pasta, or pizza (especially pizza). This is a red wine that, when paired with informal food from the oven or the grill, becomes a fruity, spicy "sauce" in a glass. It is also one of the great values in red wines, with many available for about $15, in part because there's so much of it available.
Côtes du Rhône is the name of the AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée); the place where the grapes are grown. It's 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 percent of it red.
Forty percent of the plantings in the Côtes du Rhône are red Grenache grapes, followed by Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan and a host of other red grapes. Many of these produce single-varietal or blended wines that are quite charming, and wine growers outside of the Côtes du Rhône will often feature these grapes. You may have enjoyed a Grenache, and you should never pass up the opportunity to taste a good Carignan. And in California or Australia, many producers like to strip down the Côtes du Rhône blends to a more streamlined Shiraz/Grenache/Mourvèdre blend (the cognoscenti and the terminally hip, perhaps afraid they might mispronounce "Mourvèdre," refer to this style of wine as SGM).
But with so many producers in the Côtes du Rhône (over 170 villages may make the wine), with so much variation allowed in the roster of 23 grapes, one of the joys of exploring the wines of the Côtes du Rhône is that each wine is different, and each delicious. And just because they can use 23 grapes doesn't mean that they do -- most producers use five to 10, with Grenache usually dominating.
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; the vineyards must yield fewer grapes to concentrate flavors, 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, just about one-tenth the land under vine producing the raw material for just 19 million bottles of wine per year. 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. 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.)
"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 three to six years. These wines are excellent values, too. You can expect to pay up to 25 percent 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. But we're still talking about wines that should retail for less than $25, and often closer to $20.
So, the next time someone starts talking about "Rhone-style" wines, whip out the real thing. A bottle of delicious CDR or CDR-V wines should be very easy to find in wine shops and on wine lists, and are even easier to drink.
The 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: Guigal (a personal favorite), Jean-Luc Colombo "Les Abeilles," (very good and a true bargain), La Chasse du Pape, Coudolet de Beaucastel, Caves des Papes, Chapoutier, Château de Fonsalette and Pialade bottlings from the esteemed Château Rayas, Clos du Caillou, Les Garrigues, Domaine Gramenon, Domaine de l'Ameillaud, Domaine de la Solitude, Domaine du Pesquier, Jaboulet ("Parallèle 45"), Perrin Réserve, Patrick Lesec, Mont Redon, Les Monticauts, Saint Cosme, and Tardieu-Laurent.
Côtes du Rhône-Villages: 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 Lesec, Gabrel Meffre Laurus, and Mas de Boislauzon.