Côtes du Rhône is one of the most recognizable French wines on the market. Americans rank number one as the largest consumers of Rhône Valley wines outside of France. But despite its recognition in the marketplace, there’s still a lot of confusion as to what exactly Côtes du Rhône is. You don’t need to be a sommelier to fully appreciate the excellent value and consistent quality of these wines, but it helps to know a few basics when it comes to navigating the vast and complex world of Rhône wine.
First, a word about appellation, the French system that designates the geographic location where a wine is made. A wine can be from the Rhône Valley but not technically be called a "Côtes du Rhône." Confused yet? The easiest way to think of Rhône Valley appellation is as a pyramid. At the very bottom is Côtes du Rhône, which is the most generic appellation that can be granted a Rhône wine. As you move up the pyramid, the criteria for how the wine is made become stricter. Next comes Côtes du Rhône Villages, then Côtes du Rhône Villages with a specific name attached, such as Côtes du Rhône Villages Cairanne. At the top of the pyramid are the crus, like Hermitage, Lirac, Côte-Rôtie, or Châteauneuf-du-Pape. These are the big dogs in the Rhône Valley, and represent the highest level of sophistication in the winemaking process.
The most important thing to keep in mind about the geography of the Rhône Valley is that it’s divided into two main regions, each producing a different type of wine. In the northern Rhône, where temperatures are colder, reds are made from 100 percent syrah. In the southern Rhône, where the climate is more Mediterranean, more varieties of grapes can thrive, and many of the wines are blends. Vines throughout the entire Rhône are affected by the legendary Mistral wind, which helps to dry out the grapes and concentrate the flavor of the fruit.
There are 27 grape varieties that can be used in Côtes du Rhône wine, the number and proportion of which can vary according to the individual appellation. The three big players in red wine are grenache, syrah, and mourvèdre. Grenache is the foundation of Côtes du Rhône because it can grow in practically any condition. All three red grape varieties result in wines with flavors of dark red fruit, spice, leather, and black pepper. The predominant white grapes are marsanne and viognier, creating dry, florally whites with notes of stone fruit. Reds are really the stars of the show when it comes to Rhône wine, making up 90 percent of production, but the production of white and rosé wines is growing with their popularity.
Some of the most widely recognized Rhône wines are the top crus, such as Hermitage or Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but you shouldn’t necessarily judge a bottle of Rhône wine by the label alone. Many independent winemakers are rebelling against the strict AOC criteria, opting for more flexibility and criteria in the winemaking process, and for many consumers here in the U.S, a well-designed label and the words "typical Rhône wine" are all that are needed to make the sale. That being said, while imitations like the "Rhone Rangers" might be similar, they can’t match the complex history and tradition found in a bottle of true Rhône wine. Becoming fluent in Côtes du Rhône and truly understanding the nuances of each storied winery and appellation could take a lifetime, but it’s a challenge most would happily drink their way through.