With the exception of Chateauneuf du Pape, most of us are unfamiliar with wines from the southern Rhone region of France. That’s a shame because there are so many delicious, value-oriented bottlings readily available to us from this very special wine appellation.
With about the same texture and intensity as Chianti Classico, southern Rhone reds are very versatile wines that are also quite food compatible. Listen up, you’re about to become a Rhone Ranger!
There are 13 grapes that can be used to make red Chateauneuf Du Pape and other wines of the region, but most wineries blend a combination of just three: the ubiquitous grenache; the more famous syrah; and just a touch of mourvedre. This blend produces flavorful, medium to full-bodied wines.
Chateauneuf Du Pape (priced anywhere from about $40 to more than $100 a bottle) can produce truly exceptional wines, particularly from producers such as Beaucastel, Domaine de la Janasse, Domaine du Pegaü, Rayas, Paul Autard, Vieux Télégraphe and Clos des Papes. But these same producers and many others also make excellent value wines known by the village names around which they are produced or from the larger region known as Cotes du Rhone.
Remarkably, there have been a series of exceptional to superlative vintages in the Southern Rhone region over the past 15 years. With the exception of 2002, when many vineyards were inundated by torrential rain and flooding, every vintage that has been released since 1998 has averaged a rating of more than 90 points (on a 100 point scale). And, while there are some good white wines made in the southern Rhone, the major emphasis is on red. Here is some information on the various appellations in the region.
Cotes Du Rhone can be made from grapes grown anywhere in the broader Rhone region and is generally a medium-bodied wine with appealing peppery, spicy and dark cherry flavors. Rated just a little higher in quality, Cotes Du Rhone Villages is produced from grapes within the lager Cotes Du Rhone area.
Both Cotes Du Rhone and Villages are typically priced from $12 to $20 a bottle. One of my favorite wines from Cotes Du Rhone is 2012 Jaboulet Parallele 45. Try it with pizza, chili or an Italian sausage and pepper sandwich.
After Chateauneuf Du Pape, the most notable wine areas in the southern Rhone are around the villages of Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Cotes du Luberon. These wines are labeled by the producer or winery and then the village (i.e., La Vieille Ferme, Cotes du Luberon).
The wines around Gigondas are often mistaken for Chateauneuf Du Pape because of their dark fruit flavors, black pepper aromas and intensity.
When young, bottles of Gigondas can be a little rough around the edges. But these wines are significantly less expensive (priced between $20 and $40) than their more famous neighbor, and they are a great accompaniment to roasted and seasoned meats.
Vacqueyras (pronounced vack-er-as) is a little village right next door to Gigondas, yet the wines seem to be fuller and richer with an earthy character. One of my favorites is 2012 Domaine la Garrigue “La Cantarelle” Vacqueyras ($25). Try it with roasted leg of lamb. Most Vacqueyras wines are priced between $12 and $25 a bottle.
Cotes du Luberon wines are made mostly with grenache. Soft, round and flavorful, you should be able to buy them for around $10 -$20 a bottle. I recently matched a Cotes du Luberon – the aforementioned La Vieille Ferme – with beef stew and it was yummy.
So the next time you’re looking for an alternative to zinfandel, shiraz or some other juicy red, saddle up, channel your inner Rhone Ranger and choose a wine from the southern Rhone. You won’t be disappointed.