Cotes du Rhone Wines: Sans Pedigree, Are These “Plain Old” Wines Any Good?

The Rhone Report: About Rhone and Rhone-Style Wines and Winemakers is part of an ongoing series.

Twice, when dining at La Beaugravière, a restaurant in the town of Montdragon near the southern Rhone Valley wine growing areas, we have ordered the very same pair of wines.  La Beaugravière has a renowned list of Rhone wines available, perhaps the best in the world.  So why would we order the same pair of wines on a second occasion?  Because we found them to provide an ideal contrast with each other, and to both be ideal companions to the simple Provençal food served at La Beaugravière.

Our first selection of this pair was a 1995 Cuvée Sagesse from Domaine Gramenon.  The second wine of the pair was a 1999 Cuvée Syrah from Chateau de Fonsalette.  These two wines have in common (1) the fact that neither has a fancy appellation pedigree (both are “plain old” Cotes du Rhone), and (2) both are outstanding wines from highly regarded and reliable producers. 

Otherwise they are very different.  The Sagesse is mostly Grenache.  The Fonsalette wine is Syrah.  Gramenon’s property, near the tiny village of Montbrison-sur-Lez, is in the department of the Drôme, near the very northern limits of the Cotes du Rhone, and in one of the coolest vineyard sites in the Cotes du Rhone.  By contrast, the Fonsalette property is in the department of the Vaucluse, with its vineyards near the village of Lagarde-Paréol, in the warmest end of the Cotes du Rhone.  The Sagesse wine was mature, delicate, nuanced, aromatic and elegant.  The Fonsalette Syrah was young, forward, concentrated, powerful and mouth-filling.  It could have been left in the bottle for many more years, but in its youth it was delicious with grilled local lamb chops.

During each of these trips we also visited Paris, and both times we ordered a glass of unidentified Cotes du Rhone at sidewalk cafes.  What we got bore no resemblance to either the Gramenon or the Fonsalette wines cited above.  The Parisian offerings were ordinary, passably drinkable pours of red wine.  Yet they shared the same Cotes du Rhone appellation.

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For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.