The Côtes du Rhône appellation (which you can read about here) accounts for nearly 90% of the entire Rhône valley's wine production, and provides some of the world's most enjoyable everyday wines at its most bargain basement prices. The next step up the Rhône wine pyramid is to CÔTES DU RHÔNE-VILLAGES. The difference in wording is subtle, the difference in wine can be profound. Why?
1) OFFICIAL RECOGNITION
Côtes du Rhônes-Villages is the 'Appellation' name given for wine made from those areas within the Côtes du Rhône that the French authorities have recognized for possessing exceptional natural growing conditions, i.e. terroir. These same authorities have then required producers who wish to bottle their wines under the Villages appellation to adhere to stricter rules for yields, alcohol content, grape varietals etc., all of which should guarantee you a better bottle of wine.
2) SPECIFIC TERROIR
About 85% of Côtes du Rhône Villages wines are appended with the name of a specific southern Rhône village from which the grapes originate, such as Cairanne, Rasteau, Vinsobres etc. There are sixteen of these Villages in all, most of them ancient elevated towns whose surrounding hillside vineyards naturally produce more intense, flavorful and longer-lasting grapes than from vines on the valley floor. Some of these Villages have faded into obscurity, as we'll see; those that make it to the export markets are generally reputable.
3) COLLECTIVE AMBITION
The top villages have every reason to strive higher, because they have seen two previous Côtes du Rhône Villages - Gigondas (in 1971) and Vacqueryas (in 1990) be promoted into their own AOC. The general feeling among Rhône wine buffs is that Cairanne and Rasteau produce wines of equal merit to Vacqueryas and that it's only time until they too get the nod; in the meantime, these two villages offer some of the southern Rhône's best wines outside of Châteauneuf du Pape and at much better prices.
4) SUPPLY AND DEMAND
Prices for Côtes du Rhône-Villages wines remain relatively low because producers rarely feel confident enough to out-price the supposedly superior Vacqueryas and Gigondas whose prices start as low as £8/$13 a bottle. Many Côtes du Rhône Villages wines can be found for only a dollar or two more than generic Côtes du Rhône.
As is the case throughout the Rhône, there's far more red wine produced among the Villages than there is white or rosé. Yet some of the choicest white Rhône wines can be found under the Côtes du Rhône-Villages appellation. (You can read more about Southern Rhône white wines here, and rosé wines here.)
Among the reds, the wines tends to be more concentrated and a touch higher in alcohol than regular Côtes du Rhônes. This is usually because the producers put less Syrah in the bottle and much more of the jammy, spicy, high-alcohol (and hopefully old vine) Grenache. (Other blending grapes, in approximating decending order of percentages, are Mourvedre, Carignan, and Cinsault.) Given the better terroir and lower yields, all the welcome attributes of a good Côtes du Rhône - Provencal herbs, earthiness, black fruits, a "supple, velvety texture" and a spicy finish - should be amplified and more intense in a Côtes du Rhône Villages wine. In addition, strong tannins give many of them the stuffing to last five years or more.
Vintage can be an important factor among the 16 Côtes du Rhône Villages, which are spread across a relatively large area of land. After four stellar years - 1998 through 2001 there were appalling storms just before the 2002 harvest that devastated many a prime vineyard. Most southern Rhône fans are not even taking the risk, stocking up on the four years prior to 2002 and looking ahead to results from the hot summer of 2003. The wine producers should not necessarily complain: four great vintages out of five is a cracking track record anywhere in the wine world.
Learning about all sixteen Villages is not particularly easy. Some of them have similar names, several rarely show up on the export market, and a few that looked to have disappeared into obscurity have been resurrected in recent years by a new wave of négoçiants and family estates. Potential consumer confusion can be offset via a relatively simple caveat: almost any wine from the 16 individually named Côtes du Rhône Villages that has made it onto a foreign (i.e. non-French) shelf has already proven itself worthy. Consider vintage, remember the names of reliable importers, don't expect to pay too little for a bargain, and you're unlikely to be disappointed.
As the map at left shows, the 16 individual Côtes du Rhône Villages fall within three departements: the Gard on the west of the Rhône, the Drôme to the north-east, and the Vaucluse at the heart of tourist Provence. And that's the easiest way to explore them.
CONTINUE TO PART 2: The VILLAGES