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Mon, Sep 23, 2002
iJamming! Wino/Muso:
"New world wines are just too techno for me."
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The Geography
The Villages
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Finally, a worthy rival to Chardonnay.

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What wine fans and music devotees have in common.
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CLINE's Cotes d'Oakley
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the iJammming! featured wine region:
Côtes du Rhône
A treasure trove of inexpensive excellence

Five delicious 1998 Côtes du Rhônes, none costing more than $13
Château Mont-Redon, Domaine Pélaquié, Domaine Andre Brunel Cuvée Sommelongue, Domaine Roger Perrin Cuvée Prestige, Domaine Saint Gayan
Let's get this straight from the start. I believe the southern Rhône to be the source of the best red wine values currently available in the world. Quite simply, there is no other red wine region in the world to match the southern Rhône for immediate drinking pleasure under $10 (with Côtes du Rhône), for potentially outstanding wines at just a few bucks more (Côtes du Rhône Villages and some Vacqueyras), and for sublime, classic wines capable of long-term cellaring starting as low as $20 (Châteauneuf du Pape and Gigondas). All but the most exclusive of southern Rhône wines can be found (with relative ease) for less than $40; in comparison, most good Californian cabernet only starts around this price, and you can't get a look in on the best Bordeaux or Burgundy for under a hundred dollars. To take my enthusiasm a step further, I would assert that in a classic year like 1998, plenty examples of which are still on the shelves, it was almost impossible to buy a bad bottle from the southern Rhône - and believe me, I've worked my way through enough of them to know!

My own fascination stems from visiting the Rhône on vacation in the summer of 1999. I was blown away by the beauty of Provence itself (where most of the southern Rhône vineyards lie), with its picturesque hilltop fort towns and their medieval/Romanesque architecture, the alluring aromas and colors of fresh fruits, flowers and vegetables from the open air markets, the fine dining, the casual lifestyle and of course the picture-perfect weather. I was particularly struck by the abundance of vineyards (which from many hilltop towns stretch as far as the eye can see), the calm manner in which wine was treated as an essential ingredient in everyday living, and the wonderful quality of the inexpensive Côtes du Rhônes available at the cellar door of so many hospitable family wine-makers.

I don't profess to be an expert on the southern Rhône. But since that trip last summer, I have made it my wine mission to learn as much as possible about the producers, the appellations and villages, the blends, the vintages and the price ranges. The phenomenal quality of the '98s has made this learning process all the more enjoyable, and the vast majority of wines going into my still nascent cellar are therefore from this region and vintage. I'd like to hope I know what I'm doing in stocking up and I'm happy to share my experiences as I go along - starting, as appears to make sense, at the base of the Rhône's wine pyramid, the Côtes du Rhône.

A good red Côtes du Rhône should be a shiny ruby red/purple in color, and ought to explode with the aroma of black and cherry fruits. The nose should also be chock full of Provencal herbs (lavender, juniper, bay laurel, fennel, rosemary, sage and thyme are often blended in various amounts for local cooking) and a not unattractive earthiness, the combination of which is frequently distilled into the single word garrigue. The better examples offer what Robert Parker calls a "supple, velvety texture" in the mouth, along with some noticeable spice, and for my own part I particularly enjoy the (grenache grape's) peppery kick on the finish. Because of the hot summer, many of the '98s had massive tannins (roll one around your cheeks and feel them 'leather' up to see what I mean), which suggested they would survive several years in the cellar. Some of them stood accused of over-extraction, which essentially means just too much fruit and alcohol and not enough balance, and while I myself wasn't aware of this to the extent of being turned off, the fact that the 1999s (currently making their way on the shelves) are a touch or two lighter all round renders that complaint somewhat redundant. Because of their spiciness and relatively high alcohol, the red Côtes du Rhônes that are exported overseas do not make great summer wines, but provide a warm and easy-going complement to an enormous range of autumn and winter meals, especially of either the Mediterranean or rustic kind. This means vegetarians can expect a bottle to match all manner of pasta and vegetable dishes, but meat eaters should find it holding up alongside a peppery steak just as well (so I'm told). And all this for $10 or less.
So if Côtes du Rhône is so damn good, how comes it's so cheap? (And vice-versa.) Primarily because there's so damn much of it. The Côtes du Rhône appellation accounts for over 100,000 acres of vineyards, which renders it the second biggest source of appellation wine in the whole of France (after generic Bordeaux), producing some 50-60 million imperial gallons of wine a year. Demand will likely never exceed supply. And to be honest, most wine drinkers around the globe don't realize just how good some Côtes du Rhônes can be, which means only the most confident producers can fetch above the typical $10 threshold - all the better for the bargain hunters.

The Rhône Valley is divided into two. The northern Rhône starts at Vienne (20 miles beyond Lyons) and ends 125 miles further south around Valence; the southern Rhône picks up some 50 miles further on from Valence and ends around Avignon. The northern Rhône is home to some of the world's top red wines, including Hermitage and Côte Rotie, and the lesser Crozes-Hermitage and St-Joseph. (It's also home to one of the world's top whites, the Viognier at Condrieu.) Vineyards that lie just outside these distinguished northern appellations are designated as Côtes du Rhône, and such examples as make it to high street shelves will be 100% Syrah and relatively expensive - around the $20 mark. The northern Rhône is also home to the major Côtes du Rhône négociants, who bottle from grapes or juice largely sourced from the south.
But for all intents and purposes wine lovers rightly associate Côtes du Rhône with the southern Rhône valley, where the vineyards stretch out for miles either side of the Rhône river between Orange and Avignon. Within this region, prime vineyard territories (many of them hillside) are designated for the region's Crus (fine wines): Châteauneuf du Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Tavel, Lirac and Beaumes de Venise, all of which we'll come to another day. These Crus combined add up to 18,000 acres of planted vineyards, a drop in the ocean compared to Côtes du Rhône's 100,000 acres. (Another 12,500 acres are designated for Côtes du Rhône Villages; these represent a significant step up in quality for little more money and I have covered them separately.) The figures are even more disparate when it comes to actual production: because the Crus have lower yielding vineyards, generic Côtes du Rhône accounts for 80-90% of the entire Rhône Valley's wine production. As much as 95% of this is red wine (there is some good white and rose, again to be discussed another day), 75% of it produced by the local co-operatives from the fruits of the thousands of grape-growers who don't have the means or enthusiasm to make wine themselves.
(See footnote.)

Given these numbers, it's no surprise that Côtes du Rhône wines vary enormously in quality and style. Much of the wine is released as a Primeur, to compete with Beaujolais Nouveau (this is the kind you could drink during the summer), and a large amount undergoes carbonic maceration, to speed up the fermentation process and get a young, juicy wine into bottle as soon as possible. Most of these examples are consumed domestically, meaning that the Côtes du Rhônes you see on your shelves in America and across Europe are going to be of the deeper, richer, more complex and alcoholic variety. Even so, some of the least expensive examples, especially those laying in cases on shop floors appealing to the thrifty and unfussy drinker, may not be very good. The vast majority of Côtes du Rhône in America sells for between $5 and $13; it's worth starting somewhere near the middle of that range to help guarantee a good drink.

So what's in a Côtes du Rhône? Well, syrah is the only red grape in the northern Rhône, whereas the grenache grape is dominant in the south. Grenache, the second most widely planted grape in the world (due to its dominance in southern France and across Spain) is perfectly suited to the hot, dry and windy climate of the southern Rhône valley, where the infamous and ferocious Mistral serves to cool the grapes at night, and to the region's long growing season. It tends to produce high levels of natural sugar which is why, in a hot summer like 98, many Côtes du Rhônes reached alcohol levels of 13.5 or even 14%. This also explains why Grenache is typically blended with Syrah, which adds a lean backbone and aids in the wine's longevity. With some 24 grapes permitted to be grown in the southern Rhône, wine makers of serious intent may blend in a number of other varietals, among them cinsault and counoise, but only mourvèdre (full of earthy aroma and complexity) and carignan (currently enjoying a mini-revival after years of over-planting in the south) are ever seen on their own. Some of the most celebrated Côtes du Rhônes are 100% Syrah; none that I know of are 100% Grenache.

There are several hundred different bottles of Côtes du Rhône available out there, which makes any kind of conclusive tasting near impossible. (Though it would be good fun!) So while I do wish to recommend some personal favorites, the following suggested steps are intended to steer you, wherever you may live, towards finding the better examples of one of the wine word's most superb bargains. Continue

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iJamming! Site Copyright Tony Fletcher 2000.
I've since found out why vines dominate the vista. In 1956, the cruel winter Mistral wind blew so hard and cold for so long that it froze the region's other main crop source: olive trees. But the hardy vines survived. Farmers took Mother Nature's point and replaced the dead olive trees with more vines. Back to the story.
The range of figuresgiven here are drawn from The Oxford Companion to Wine, Robert Parker's Guide to the Rhône Valley, and the materials of the Côtes du Rhône AOC. The map was taken from the Oxford Companion to Wine. Back to the story.