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The Great Everyday Red
By Ed McCarthy
Oct 25, 2005
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The Rhône Valley is a vast wine region in southeast France; the Rhône River runs southwards through the Valley, winding its way through vineyards on both banks.  The great gastronomic city, Lyon, is directly north of the Valley, and the historic city of Avignon is at its southern end.  The region has two distinct parts: the Northern Rhône, with its continental climate and serious red wines such as Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie; and the Southern Rhône, with a warmer Mediterranean climate, renowned reds such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas, and the popular rosé, Tavel.  But the vast majority of wines in the Southern Rhône Valley are red Côtes du Rhône wines.  Wines carrying the Côtes du Rhône appellation can come from all over the Rhône Valley, but in reality, over 95 percent of them are produced in the Southern Rhône.

Recent promotions of Côtes du Rhône wines have come at an excellent time, because the weak dollar has generally made European wines more expensive than ever.  Yet most Côtes du Rhônes still retail for as little as $8 to $14 a bottle, a bargain indeed in today's wine world!  The Rhône Valley is blessed with a warm, reliable climate and soils that are particularly suitable for red wine production.  In fact, I can't think of any other major wine region--the Rhône Valley is second only to Bordeaux in France in production of Appellation Contrôlée wines--that offers more dependable, value-for-money red wines than the Rhône, particularly Côtes du Rhônes (which are 94 percent red, with only 3 percent white and 3 percent rosé).

Two major appellations apply to Côtes du Rhône wines: AC Côtes du Rhône, which covers 171 communes or villages, and AC Côtes du Rhône Villages, which spreads over 95 communes in the Southern Rhône, 16 of which enjoy the special status of appending their names to the appellation, such as "Côtes du Rhône Villages--Rasteau" (vineyards in these 16 communes have proven to be superior).  Côtes du Rhône Villages wines make up about 20 percent of all Côtes du Rhônes and are generally slightly finer than AC Côtes du Rhônes, and slightly more expensive.  The individual producer, however, is always more important in determining quality than the appellation.

Most red Côtes du Rhône wines (white Côtes du Rhônes production is tiny and the whites generally are not as good as the reds) are usually blends of several grape varieties.  Grenache is the Southern Rhône's main red grape.  In fact, Côtes du Rhône Villages wines all must have a minimum of 50 percent Grenache, with at least 20 percent Syrah and/or Mourvèdre, while AC Côtes du Rhône wines must contain at least 40 percent Grenache--the exception being those few Côtes du Rhône wines made in the Northern Rhône, which can be up to 100 percent Syrah, the main variety of the Northern Rhône. 

Carignan and Cinsault are two other grape varieties allowed in Côtes du Rhône wines, but no more than 30 percent of any varieties other than Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre--considered the three most noble Rhône varieties--are allowed in AC Côtes du Rhônes and no more than 20 percent of any varieties other than the big three are allowed in Côtes du Rhône Villages wines.  Many producers have been increasing the amount of Syrah in their Côtes du Rhône wines lately in an effort to upgrade the wines' quality. 

A wide range of Côtes du Rhône styles exists, because of producers' stylistic preferences, but also because of the differences in the blends.  For example, wines 70 to 80 percent Grenache tend to be paler in color, lower in tannin, and fruitier, with hints of raspberries.  On the other end of the spectrum, Côtes du Rhône wines with up to 50 percent Syrah--and in the case of a few Northern Rhône wines, up to 100 percent Syrah, are darker, have more noticeable tannin, are richer in flavor, and often have been at least partly aged in small oak barrels.  Syrah-based Côtes du Rhônes also are usually more expensive. 

What do Côtes du Rhônes have in common?  They're all dry, relatively full-bodied (especially those with lots of Syrah in the blend), and are generally smooth and round rather than harsh.  They have either fruity, herbal or earthy aromas and flavors, sometimes all three; plum and/or raspberry are the primary fruity aromas.  And they're all great values!

Côtes du Rhônes are very food-friendly.  They pair especially well with stews, roasts, chicken, bean dishes such as cassoulet, and hearty vegetable dishes.  The lighter-bodied, less expensive Côtes du Rhônes are perfect with burgers, chili, and pizza. 

I recently tasted 24 Côtes du Rhône red wines, 19  of which I recommend: three 2001s, 15 from the currently available 2003 vintage, and one 2004.  All retail in the $8 to $13 range.  Of the 19, 14 are AC Côtes du Rhône, and 5 are AC Côtes du Rhône Villages wines.  The following are my tasting notes, listed by vintage:

2001

Jean-Luc Colombo, Côtes du Rhône (Rhône Valley, France) "Les Abeillés" 2001 ($10, Palm Bay Imports):  Jean-Luc Colombo is one of the Rhône Valley's star producers.  His Hermitage and Cornas wines are both outstanding.  And for $10, you can buy his excellent Côtes du Rhône Les Abeillés (I tasted the '01, which  you still might find, although the '03 is the currently available vintage).  The '01 Les Abeillés (50 percent Grenache, 30 percent Syrah, and 20 percent Mourvèdre) is made from 25-year-old vines from a vineyard in the Gigondas-Cairanne area.  It has aromas and flavors of ripe red raspberries with some spice and licorice notes, and good concentration.  It has been aged in 20 percent new oak for nine months.  Very pure, clean flavors.  90

Domaine Santa Duc, Côtes du Rhône Villages (Rhône Valley, (France) Les Vieilles Vignes 2001 ($13, Robert Kacher Selections):  Domaine Santa Duc is renowned for its Gigondas, but also makes a super Côtes du Rhône Villages.  The '01 Les Vieilles Vignes (70 percent Grenache, 25 percent Syrah and 5 percent Mourvèdre) is dry, very ripe and concentrated, with a velvety texture.  It has been made with no oak aging and no de-stemming, and is unfiltered.  A very impressive wine!  90

J.  Vidal-Fleury Côtes du Rhône (Rhône Valley, France) 2001 ($10, W. J. Deutsch & Sons) :  The '01 Vidal-Fleury (50 percent Grenache, 30 percent Syrah, 10 percent Mourvèdre, and 10 percent Cinsault and Carignan) has ripe, plummy aromas, with baked fruit and herbal flavors, and soft tannins.  87

2003

Domaine d'Andézon, Côtes du Rhône (Rhône Valley, France) 2003 ($11, Polaner Selections):  The '03 Domaine d'Andézon, 100 percent Syrah from 60- to 90-year-old vines, is voluptuous and concentrated, and for me the best value in this very fine group.  It is concentrated and tight, with sweet, ripe, black fruit and herbal aromas and flavors, with a velvety texture.  It is well knit, with lots of substance and personality.  Remarkable buy!  92

Domaine André Brunel, Côtes du Rhône, (Rhône Valley, France) "Cuvée Sommelongue" 2003 ($12, Robert Kacher Selections):  André Brunel has long been one of the top winemakers of Côtes du Rhône.  The Sommelongue vineyard, Brunel's estate wine, is adjacent to Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyards just north of the village of Orange.  The '03 Cuvée Sommelongue, 85 percent Grenache and 15 percent Syrah, is made entirely in stainless steel tanks and is bottled unfiltered.  It has lots of raspberry jam flavors, typical of Grenache-dominant Côtes du Rhônes, with ripe tannins and a balanced structure.  An excellent wine, but unfortunately, only 1,300 cases were produced!  91

Domaine de Verquière, Côtes du Rhône Villages-Rasteau (Rhône Valley, France) 2003 ($12, Atlanta Improvement Company):  Rasteau is particularly renowned as one of the very best villages of the Côtes du Rhône.  The '03 Domaine de Verquière, 70 percent Grenache and 30 percent Syrah, is a very fine, complexly flavored, powerful wine with raspberry fruit flavors and hints of truffles.  90

Perrin & Fils, Côtes du Rhône (Rhône Valley, France) Réserve 2003 ($10, Vineyard Brands):  You can never really go wrong buying a Perrin wine.  The renowned producer of the great Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Château de Beaucastel, produces excellent Côtes du Rhônes as well.  Twenty-five percent of the '03 Perrin Réserve (60 percent Grenache, 20 percent Syrah, and 20 percent Mourvèdre) has been aged in oak casks for 12 months.  It has ripe, concentrated raspberry aromas and flavors, with a long finish.  A really solid, excellent wine, and a great value!  90

Domaine André Brunel, Côtes du Rhône Villages (Rhône Valley, France) "Cuvée Sabrine" 2003 ($11, Robert Kacher Selections):  If you're looking for a reliable "can't miss" wine,  choose an André Brunel Côtes du Rhône.  The '03 Cuvée Sabrine (75 percent Grenache from 40-year-old vines and 25 percent Syrah from 30-year-old vines) is a complex, traditionally-styled wine with raspberry fruit flavors and peppery notes.  89

Delas Fréres, Côtes du Rhône (Rhône Valley, France) "Saint-Esprit" 2003 ($8, Maisons Marques & Domaines):  What a fine wine for $8!  This very dependable producer makes old-style Côtes du Rhônes in stainless steel tanks with no oak aging.  The '03 Saint-Esprit (70 percent Syrah, 20 percent Grenache, 5 percent Mourvèdre and 5 percent Carignan) is ripe, peppery, and slightly pruney, with herbal notes.  It has soft tannins, with a concentrated finish.  89

Domaine de la Renjarde, Côtes du Rhône Villages (Rhône Valley, France) 2003 ($13, Serge Doré Selections):  The '03 Domaine de la Renjarde, mainly Grenache, is a big, full-bodied wine that exhibits black raspberry fruit flavors with some coffee and leather notes.  This Côtes du Rhône will age nicely for several years.  89

Gilles Ferran, Côtes du Rhône (Rhône Valley, France) "Les Antimagnes," 2003 ($11, Martin-Scott Wines):  How often can you find an $11 wine with 60-year-old vines?  The '03 Ferran Les Antimagnes, with 70 percent Grenache (60 year-old vines) and 30 percent Syrah, is a complex, concentrated wine with ripe black cherry fruit flavors, firm tannins, and some herbal notes.  89

Bouquet, Côtes du Rhône, Patrick Lesec Selections, Rhône Valley (France) 2003 ($12, Stacole Fine Wines):  Patrick Lesec chooses wines from some of the best Southern Rhône growers who do not bottle their own wines.  The '03 Bouquet, 80 percent Grenache (25-year-old vines) and 20 percent Syrah (12-year-old vines) has no oak aging, and has not been fined or filtered.  It has aromas and flavors of raspberries, coffee, and leather, with soft, gentle tannins.  88
 
M.  Chapoutier, Côtes du Rhône, (Rhône Valley, France) "Belleruche" 2003 ($10, Paterno Wines International):  Chapoutier's wines are always consistent in quality; his Hermitages are among the best Rhône reds made each year.  The '03 Belleruche, 50 percent Grenache and 50 percent Syrah, has been partly aged in barriques.  It has concentrated red and black fruit flavors, with a velvety texture.  88

Domaine de l'Ameillaud, Côtes du Rhône, (Rhône Valley, France) "Petit Chapeau" 2003 ($11, Daniel Johnnes-Jeroboam Wines):  The '03 Domaine de l'Ameillaud (65 percent Grenache, 15 percent Syrah, 15 percent Carignan, and 5 percent Mourvèdre) exhibits black fruit and spicy aromas and flavors, with firm tannins.  It is drinking well now.  88

Domaine la Montagnette, Côtes du Rhône Villages (Rhône Valley, France) 2003 ($11, Daniel Johnnes-Jeroboam Wines):  The '03 Domaine la Montagnette, a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault, and Mourvèdre, is a concentrated, intensely flavored wine that exhibits lots of ripe raspberry fruit.  88

Domaine de la Solitude, Côtes du Rhône (Rhône Valley, France) 2003 ($10, Langdon Shiverick Imports):  Domaine de la Solitude's 2003 (60 percent Grenache, 20 percent Syrah, 15 percent Cinsault and 5 percent Mourvèdre) is a solid Côtes du Rhône and a fine buy.  It is concentrated and firm, with ripe, red berry fruit.  88

E.  Guigal, Côtes du Rhône (Rhône Valley, France) 2003 ($10, Ex Cellars Wine Agencies):  Guigal, clearly the best Côte Rôtie producer, makes a standard but competent Côtes du Rhône.  The '03 (50 percent Syrah, 30-40 percent Grenache, and 10-20 percent Mourvèdre) has been aged for 18 months in large oak barrels.  It is rich and supple, with raspberry aromas.  88

Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Côtes du Rhône (Rhône Valley, France) "Parallèle 45" 2003 ($9, Frederick Wildman & Sons):  The '03 "Parallèle 45," 85 percent Grenache and 15 percent Syrah, is a well-made Côtes du Rhône, with earthy, herbal, and leather aromas and flavors.  87

2004

Moillard, Côtes du Rhône (Rhône Valley, France) "Les Violettes" 2004 ($9, USA Imports) :  Moillard, one of the largest Burgundy négociants, also produces large amounts of Rhône wines.  The '04 Les Violettes, 48 percent Syrah and  48 percent Grenache, with 2 percent each of Mourvèdre and Cinsault, is a lively wine with fresh, black fruit flavors, some spice, and a just the right amount of tannin.  A good value.  88