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.

Appellation Pecking Order in the Cotes du Rhone

Within the southern Rhone Valley wine growing area, where the general Cotes du Rhone appellation dominates, some of the finest red wines come from specific established appellations such as Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Lirac.  The red wines of the newly recognized appellations of Beaumes de Venise and Vinsobres can be excellent.  These appellations, or AOCs, are at the top of the “pecking order.”  The wines of Cairanne, Rasteau, Sablet and Seguret, while bearing only the Cotes du Rhone-Villages appellation rather than having their own AOCs, are often outstanding.  In our opinion, each of these four villages is fully deserving of AOC status and should be regarded as such.

The wines of the Cotes du Rhone-Villages appellation that bear the name of their individual village (e.g., Valréas or Visan) are often very good, and represent a level below the AOC wines but a step above general Cotes du Rhone-Villages status.  The wines of the general Cotes du Rhone-Villages appellation represent a level above generic, no pedigree Cotes du Rhone status.  Or at least that is the theory of the appellation system.

Plonk and Gems in the “Plain Old” Cotes du Rhone

Roughly 75% of the wine in the Cotes du Rhone area comes from the generic appellation rather than the specific AOCs or the Cotes du Rhone-Villages level.  There is no single Cotes du Rhone style or quality level.  The reds are generally blends based on Grenache, but a few cuvées have more Mourvedre or Syrah.  Most Cotes du Rhone wines feature fruit flavors that reflect this sunny terroir.  Some are thinner and others are richer.   Some are rather ordinary and many are quite delicious.  Generalizations are meaningless.

The vast majority of this production comes from cooperatives, many of them indifferent with respect to grape quality and production methods.  These anonymous cooperatives were no doubt the sources of the ordinary Cotes du Rhone wines we encountered at the sidewalk cafes in Paris.  Nevertheless, many of the cooperatives manage to produce soundly made, pleasant wines without any particular complexity or depth.  A few cooperatives frequently offer enjoyable bottlings well above the plonk level.

Similarly, many individual producers of Cotes du Rhone offer wines equivalent to the cooperative products.  Some are merely acceptable, and many are reasonably enjoyable, especially for the price, as Cotes du Rhone wines are often great values for the money, even in the face of the weak exchange rate.

Aside from the producers of plonk or of reasonably enjoyable Cotes du Rhone, there are producers of outstanding red wines that bear the “plain old” Cotes du Rhone appellation.  Their properties are outside of the boundaries (sometimes by inches) of one of the established AOCs or even one of the villages of the Cotes du Rhone-Villages classification.  These producers have chosen a blend of varietals well suited to their vineyard sites, their vineyards are favorably sited, they employ first rate viticultural practices (such as keeping their yields low), and they take great care in the actual wine-making process.

Examples of Top Producers

Some of these producers of first-rate red Cotes du Rhone are well-regarded producers of AOC wines, and others are independent growers whose only product is generic Cotes du Rhone.

Chateau de Fonsalette, the source of the Cuvée Syrah we so enjoyed at La Beaugravière, is an example of the former.  It is made by Emmanuel Reynaud, the proprietor of the legendary Chateauneuf du Pape, Chateau Rayas.  In addition to the Syrah bottling (the production of which is tiny), Fonsalette offers a “regular” Cotes du Rhone blend of Grenache, Cinsault and Syrah.

Domaine Gramenon, the source of the Cuvée Sagesse we had with two meals at La Beaugravière, is an example of the latter.  The Laurent family used to sell their grapes to negotiants and began making and selling their own wine about 1990.  We have been fans since their first releases.  Gramenon wines still offer a very high quality to price ratio.

Another top Cotes du Rhone is from our favorite Chateauneuf du Pape producer, Domaine de Beaucastel.  It is the Coudoulet de Beaucastel.  But for an artificial boundary, the Coudoulet property would be in Chateauneuf du Pape.  It is just across the autoroute from Beaucastel itself.  Like Beaucastel’s Chateauneuf, Coudoulet has a higher proportion of Mourvedre than most Cotes du Rhone.

We have encountered red wines from a stone-covered area called the Plan de Dieu (the “plain of God”), near the village of Violes, that despite the lack of any pedigree other than Cotes du Rhone, have been highly concentrated and flavorful.  A prime example would be a bottling with deep fruit flavors, from a vineyard in Violes belonging to its producer, Corrine Couturier of Domaine Rabasse-Charavin in nearby Cairanne.  Why this area doesn’t have at least Cotes du Rhone-Villages status is a mystery to us.

Excellent Cotes du Rhone reds are offered by a wine range of specialists from other appellations.  Our favorites include the Mon Coeur cuvee from J. L. Chave (of Hermitage fame), Andre Brunel (of Les Cailloux in Chateauneuf du Pape), Domaine Santa Duc (of Gigondas), and Domaine Brusset and Domaine de l’Oratoire St.-Martin (of Cairanne).

Some wine drinkers behave like trophy hunters and focus on the wines of the most famous (and expensive) appellations such as Hermitage or Chateauneuf du Pape.  Ignoring a lowly appellation such as Cotes du Rhone is unfortunate, because every Rhone appellation has its gems, and that includes the Cotes du Rhone.  The top Cotes du Rhone wines are complex, rich and delicious, despite their common lack of a vineyard location in a place with a more elevated pedigree.  For those wine lovers who take the time to get to know the top Cotes du Rhone producers, the reward is great enjoyment without spending a fortune.