The Lowly Côtes du Rhône

Paul Blow

The weather turned cooler recently; the wind started gusting. Most people’s instinct is to reach for a scarf. Mine is to reach for Rhône wines. This is a palpable feeling I get each fall, a real desire to have spicy and slightly thick red wine coating my tongue. My wife obliged, putting in front of me a mystery glass that smelled like sweet, ripe cherries dusted with a fine mixture of black and white pepper; the nose was just smoldering with spice. As I ran the wine over my tongue, I picked up coffee, graphite, and licorice. The wine had a lot of flavor, though it was not heavy; it was soft and airy with silky tannins. The pepper suggested a Rhône wine—Syrah, perhaps—but the cherries suggested something else. I thought, finally, that it must be Grenache. A very fine Grenache. But from what great estate?

I was right about the grape but wrong about the lofty provenance. It was a Côtes du Rhône, which most people just think of as weekday quaffs, party wines, or something to serve in plastic cups at art openings. The wines have earned that reputation by being simple, savory, and good, while lacking any outstanding characteristics. But thanks to a surge of youthful energy and ambition in the region, you can find Côtes du Rhône wines that have the complexity, elegance, and concentration that are usually the hallmarks of wines from more high-end appellations.

The designation of Côtes du Rhône is considered lowly because places in the Rhône that make more distinguished wines generally get their own appellations, such as famous towns like Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas. The côtes—meaning hills or slopes—were just those country areas where ordinary wine was grown.

Since winemakers from the lower appellations know that they’ll never be able to sell their wines for as much money as wines from the better regions, they don’t try as hard. In fact, they overcrop to try to make up in volume what they can’t earn by price. The result is an appellation with a mediocre reputation.

Now, members of the new generation have realized that if they make better wines, they can sell them for more money. They’re working organically, dropping yields, and spending more time among the vines. The effort and care show in the wines. The one my wife poured me was Domaine Gramenon “La Sagesse,” a “lowly” Côtes du Rhône that happens to be selling for $35. Another brilliant wine, the 2007 Domaine de la Janasse “Les Garrigues,” is selling for $40.

Great Southern Rhône wines don’t even have to be that expensive. The wines of Domaine Richaud, in the village of Cairanne, are smooth, ripe, plump, and delicious, and the price is still reasonable.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.