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. The quality of grape-growing and winemaking has greatly improved and rather than selling grapes to cooperatives, more growers are making their own wines with reduced yields and greater care. As a result 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, Côte Rotie, Côteaux de Pierrevert, Grignan-Les-Adhémar (until 2009 known as Côteaux du Tricastin), Côtes du Luberon, Côtes du Rhône, Côtes du Rhône Villages, Côtes du Ventoux, Côtes du Vivarais AOVDQS, Crozes-Hermitage, Gigondas, Hermitage, Lirac, Rasteau (for the sweet wine only), St.Joseph, St.Peray, Tave, Vacqueyras and Vinsobres.
Southern Côtes du Rhône Appellations (A.O.C.s):
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. The wines are mandated to be at least 40 percent Grenache and have a minimum alcohol level of 11 percent. They can be a bit fruity 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. The wines must be made of at least 50 percent Grenache and have a minimum alcohol level of 12.5 percent. 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.