Côtes du Rhône: surely one of the most recognisable and popular wines on our shelves. But how many who casually pick up a bottle in their local supermarket realise how much more there is to Côtes du Rhône than its usual reputation as just an easy drinking, good value, medium bodied red?
It’s one of the largest – and most diverse – Appellations in France with an annual output of over 250 million bottles. The area stretches for more than 70 miles from just south of Valence to beyond Avignon, encompassing a vast range of microclimates and soils. And, although most producers will use a Grenache dominated blend of grapes for their wine, there is almost infinite leeway to create their own favoured style as almost 20 different varieties are permitted for use in Côtes du Rhône blends. So, finding a producer whose style you like is important.
There’s a quality hierarchy, too: at the entry level are attractive, fruity wines simply labelled ‘Côtes du Rhône’. A step up in quality, complexity and, usually, price is ‘Côtes du Rhône-Villages’ which comes from some of the more favoured sites within the area. Within this category, certain villages have been promoted and can either append their names to the Côtes du Rhône-Villages designation or have their name stand alone on the label. Among the best of these are Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Rasteau and Cairanne. All produce wines from the same range of grapes as basic Côtes du Rhône but, again, there is considerable variety from place to place and even within individual villages. Prices of these are a little higher still.
Then there’s the most famous individual Rhône village of all: Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Their best wines are undoubtedly excellent but they come at prices that reflect both their own quality and the popularity of the village as a whole. And, away from these, some can be a little disappointing. So, for me, for value and interesting drinking, I mainly look to the lesser-known villages mentioned above.
And, finally, to complete the message of diversity (or, perhaps, confusion), you might have noticed from the picture that not all Côtes du Rhône is red – there’s some white and rosé, too!