Southern Cotes du Rhone wines overview

December 31, 2010

About Wines from Rhone
Best wine supplier in Philippines discusses wine related topics

Southern Côtes du Rhône Wines (Overview)
Rhône wines are a diverse bunch, unlike Bordeaux Cabernets, which have less differences in taste. Rhônes differ a lot in style. They can be earthy, fruity, spicy or a combination of all. It depends of course on the soil. But even more important is what the wine maker does. While the blends are fairly similar, the wine making techniques differ a lot from winery to winery.
There is no doubt that the ever increasing transparency – initiated 25 years ago by the US wine writer Robert Parker – has enabled a great number of smaller producers to prosper. There is more diversity than ever and the internet enables them to better market their wines. “I probably drink more Southern Rhônes than any other kind of wines because it fits in with our cooking. These are wines that are not oaked. You can drink them young and I appreciate the purity of their fruit. I love grenache.” said Parker (New York Times 3-22-06). That’s nice to hear from one of the most important international wine writers, who has been accused by his UK counterparts, Jancis Robinson and Clive Coates for giving his highest ratings only to full bodied, oaked, high alcohol content wines, the “Parkerized” wines.
The A.O.C. Classification System
The French system of labeling wine is confusing to many grape-oriented wine lovers. In France, the label shows the wine growing area and not the grape variety. The French established the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (A.O.C) system in the 1930s, which covers a wide array of agricultural products, such as wine, cheese, sausages and sweets. It goes by the regional system; goal is to protect a region’s specific product and gourmet tradition. The Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO) is the regulator. It is illegal to sell a product under one of the A.O.C. labels if it does not comply with the criteria set by INAO. While the French A.O.C. system has its merits, its disadvantage is that mediocre producers can legally make use of what is supposed to be a quality seal and thereby devalue its very purpose. It is also said that it stifles creativity and innovation. In our opinion that is not the case. Even if you are in an A.O.C. region you do not need to follow INAO’s rules; you just cannot label your product under the respective A.O.C. label. A few vintners have voluntarily done so. To sum it up: Even with the A.O.C. system one needs to focus on the usual criteria, in the case of wine: the vintner’s reputation over the years, the micro-terroir, the grape varieties used, the vintage and the wine making process.
The Côtes du Rhône appellations area comprises over 171 communes in 6 Departments: Ardèche, Drôme, Gard, Loire, Rhône and Vaucluse. In 2004 10 new communes suitable for the production of A.O.C. Côtes du Rhône wines were added, and two communes were dropped due to urbanization.
The different appellations in the Côtes du Rhône area are: Beaumes de Venise (for the reds and the sweet wines), Chateau Grillet, Châteauneuf du Pape, Clairette de Die, Condrieu, Cornas, Cote Rotie, Coteaux de Pierrevert, Coteaux du Tricastin, Cotes du Luberon, Côtes du Rhône, Côtes du Rhône Villages, Cotes du Ventoux, Cotes du Vivarais AOVDQS, Crozes-Hermitage, Gigondas, Hermitage, Lirac, Rasteau (for the sweet wine only), St.Joseph, St.Peray, Tave, Vacqueyras and Vinsobres.
Côtes du Rhône A.O.C.s in the Northern Provence:
In the Northern Provence – the area we are focussing on – you will find the following appellations given by the French authorities:
The A.O.C. Côtes du Rhône at the bottom of the wine pyramid provides some of Frances’s best loved wines for everyday use at reasonable prices. They can be fairly fruity, a bit like Beaujolais, and in general are unsuitable to be aged.
The A.O.C. Côtes du Rhône Village is the next step up. The areas designated as Côtes du Rhône Village are thought to possess exceptional natural growing conditions and producers are required to adhere to stricter rules for yields, alcohol content, grape varieties and the wine making process. 18 villages have the right to append the Côtes du Rhône Village appellation with the respective village name, they are:
In the Provence: Cairanne, Plan de Dieu (Camaret-sur-Aigues, Jonquières, Travaillan, Violès), Rasteau, Roaix, Sablet, Séguret, and Massif d’Uchaux as well as Valreas and Visan in the Enclave des Papes.
In the Drôme Provençale: Puymeras, Rochegude, Rousset-les-Vignes, St.Maurice-sur-Eygues and St. Pantaléon (near Nyons).
In the Gard Provençal: Chusclan, Laudun, St.Gervais and Signargues (Southwest of Avignon)
Roughly 80% of the Côtes du Rhône Village wines are produced from grapes growing in the above villages. The ambition of the top wine villages is to become an A.O.C; i.e. have their own appellation like Châteauneuf du Pape (A.O.C since the beginning of the A.O.C. system in the 1930’s). Four Côtes du Rhône villages have achieved this so far. Gigondas (in 1971), Vacqueryas (in 1995) and Beaumes de Venise and Vinsobres (both in 2005). Other candidates are rumored to be Cairanne and Rasteau. In Cairanne this goal is not shared by all vintners; some maintain their wines are marketed better as the top Côtes du Rhône Village rather than under its own Cairanne A.O.C. label. The Côtes du Rhône Village wines are medium body and very diverse from one area to another: rich and able to age in Vinsobres, very fruity rosé in Chusclan, red and white sweet liquorous in Rasteau, spicy red in Cairanne.
On top of the Southern Côtes du Rhône wine pyramid are the 5 wine villages with their own A.O.C appellation: Châteauneuf du Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras and since 2005 Beaumes de Venise and Vinsobres.
There are four more Côtes du Rhône A.O.C. appellations in the Northern Provence:
Côtes du Ventoux:: On the Southern slopes of magnificent Mt. Ventoux, with its poor limestone soil, grows this very agreeable, fruity red wine; good value at very reasonable prices and drink them when they are young.
Côtes du Luberon: The wine growing region between Cavaillon and Apt produces mostly reds, some excellent rosés and a few whites. The reds are very agreeable with a delicate bouquet and the rosés fresh and exciting. Drink them when they are young.
Tavel: The king of rosés! Since the 16th century Tavel produces the best rosé in France. This is a structured, slightly bodied rosé wine, which will surprise you if you are used only to the light and crisp rosés. Tavel can age and is consumed in France year round, not just as a summer wine.
Finally there are two A.O.C. appellations for sweet wines:
Beaumes de Venise: since 1943 the village is known for the ” Beaumes de Venise Vin Doux Naturel A.O.C”, the well known Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, a natural sweet wine.
Rasteau: the “Rasteau Vin Doux Naturel A.O.C.” is less known than its cousin in Beaumes de Venise, but received its own A.O.C. label at the same time.
…. confusing?
If the French A.O.C. appellation system sounds too complicated, let’s agree on the following: The quality of the wine depends on factors such as soil conditions, grape varieties, yield management and the wine making process. Vintage is a lesser factor in the Southern Rhône Valley unless it is a disaster year. Finally more subjective factors like fashion and the preferences of the person writing the review play a significant role. Robert Parker, Mike Tanzer, Janice Robinson, Wine Spectator, Decanter Magazine or the New York Times carry more weight than you or the editors of this website. So to sum it up: there is widespread agreement that a considerable number of wineries in these 5 A.O.C. villages (Châteauneuf de Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Beaumes de Venise and Vinsobres) as well as in Cairanne and Rasteau, the top Côtes du Rhône Villages, produce on a very consistent basis top notch wines and that there are a few exceptional wineries in the other villages, like St.Gervais and Uchaux, producing on an equally consistent basis equally superb wines.
…. and more information:
Characteristics: The Côtes du Rhône wines are very diverse from one area to another, it is quite impossible to find a common denominator. You need to judge each area and each producer individually.
Climate: In the Northern Provence – the area we are focussing on – wine growing faces a number of challenges: hot and dry summers, cool and very windy winters. The positive is that there are close to 300 days with sunshine per year. During the growing season the heat of the day is stored by the stones and released at night.
Terroir: In the Southern Côtes du Rhône Valley soil is primarily limestone covered in alluvia, with a couch of clay 1 – 5 m below. Quite often stones are placed on top of the soil to act as heat storage. Conditions vary a lot however. Best example is Cairanne; the premium vineyards are located on the slopes of the St.Andéol hill. The wines have a different taste and structure than those produced in the “Garrigue”, the flat country below the hill. So terroir does matter to some extent, but you can still get mediocre wines from prime locations (not in Cairanne of course).
Grape Varieties: In 1996 the Côtes du Rhône Appellation decree was amended in order to enhance the typical characteristics of Côtes du Rhône wines. For the red and rosé wines, Grenache must make up at least 40% of the grape variety mix (excluding Northern wines based on the Syrah grape variety). 80% of the white wine grape variety mix must be made up of: Grenache white, Clairette, Marsanne, Roussanne, Bourboulenc and Viognier. Minimum alcoholic strength must be 11%.
For Côtes du Rhônes Village and the 5 A.O.C.s of Châteauneuf du Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Beaumes de Venise and Vinsobres more specific regulations apply. For example the red Côtes du Rhône Villages are required to use 50% Grenache noir, 20% Syrah and / or Mourvèdre; other grape varieties are allowed up to 20%. Grenach noir, introduced from Spain in the 18th century, withstands the mistral and drought and develops a full bodied, fruity and spicy flavor. Syrah (sotanum) was probably introduced in the region by the Greeks (they settled in Marseille) in 6 BC. It produces colourful, richly aromatic wines with excellent ageing potential. Mourvèdre, also of Spanish origin, requires light and heat – both are optimal in the Provence. It produces intensity and complexity.
Vintage: is an important factor though less so in this region. Vintage is more of a factor in marginal climates for wine growing, i.e. the more Northern regions in Europe. Exceptions are disaster years like in 2002, a year of heavy rain and flooding. The sticky clay top soil made a mess of the harvest; vintners were desperate. However, late-ripening Gigondas, with its higher vineyards, were better placed than most to handle the situation. The hot year of 2003 is shaping up as another excellent vintage like the four years from 1998 – 2001. It was relatively cool and dry in 2004 and yields were down, but this vintage is most likely another good one.
Prices: for Côtes du Rhône wines remain relatively low; there is so much competition and the recent French campaign to limit advertising of alcoholic beverages has not helped. The A.O.C. wines from Châeauneuf du Pape, Vacqueryas and Gigondas start as low as Euro 12 a bottle but can quickly reach into the 20s, 30s and more a bottle. Many Côtes du Rhône Village wines can be found at Euro 4 – 5 a bottle; the better vintners, such as Domaine Alary in Cairanne sell in the high 10s to mid 20s. The Côtes du Rhônes, Cotes du Ventoux and Cotes du Luberon are sold from Euro 5 a bottle or “en vrac” (in the container) for as low as Euro 3 a litre.
…..and here is some history:
For those of you interested in the region’s history of wine here is a short synopsis:
With the arrival of the Romans in 125 BC wine growing started in the region. Roman soldiers were partially paid in wine and retired soldiers were given land for agriculture. Wine growing was a natural. Wine was stored and transported in amphorae. You can see excellent examples of amphorae in the museum in Vaison la Romaine. From then on it was steady progress, interrupted only by the frequent wars and invasions in the early middle ages. The origin of the term “Côtes du Rhône” goes back to the 17th century and applied only to the wine growing region around Uzès on right bank of the Rhône. In 1650 the first regulations were introduced in France to guarantee origin and quality and by 1737 all the wine casks from the Uzès region had to be labeled with “C.D.R.”. In the middle of the 19th century the wine growing regions on the left bank of the Rhône were added to this label and the Côtes du Rhône became Côtes du Rhône.
A serious setback came in 1863 when phylloxera first appeared and progressively destroyed the whole French vineyard, although leaving some sandy terrain untouched. At the beginning of the 20th century the winegrowers struggled to revive the ravaged vineyards and enhance the quality of their wine. Pivotal was the use of resistant rootstock from the Five Finger Lake region in Upstate New York to guard against phylloxera as well as a focus on quality rather than quantity. Finally Baron Pierre Le Roy Boiseaumarié, a trained lawyer and winegrower from Châteauneuf du Pape, successfully obtained legal recognition of the “Côtes du Rhône” appellation of origin in 1937.


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