Joanna Simon in the Sunday Times (1 June 2008) helpfully provides an explanation of the appellation rules for the Cotes du Rhone, which produces such a wealth of good wines, but where the nomenclature can confuse rather than illuminate. You can find a cheap basic Cotes du Rhone for well under £5.00 but get something really special for £10 and over – but the label will often not enlighten you. Furthermore the region is split into two – North and South, which are quite different in style – the north (which is home to Hermitage, St Joseph etc) is more dominated by Syrah, whereas the south (the larger and better known region) tends to be more dominated by blends of Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault.
So, let us begin with Côtes du Rhône. This is the basic AOC and the largest – a status reflected in low prices. The difference comes when the word Villages is added, as in Côtes du Rhône-Villages. It signifies superior land and stricter production rules, and it shows in the quality.
The next step up is to the 20 communes allowed to append their own name, for example, Côtes du Rhône-Villages Séguret, or Cairanne or Rasteau. These can be great value. Finally, over time, four villages – Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Beaumes de Venise and Vinsobres – have been promoted to AOC in their own right, and so have dropped the Côtes du Rhône moniker entirely.
In essence the better wines are made on the higher ground on the sides of the valley, which is where the “villages” and individual appellations are located. Here the soil drains better, there is more breeze to mitigate against the blistering heat which the region can experience.
Amongst our recommendations would be
Any of the wines of E Guigal, real Rhone specialist negociants – e.g. Cotes du Rhone AC from Majestic Wines
Domaine du Vieux Chene where the Bouche family contradict my claim that the best wines come from the sides of the valley – these are superb organic wines from Camaret near Orange (84 Vaucluse, Provence). Justerini & Brooks stock their wines in the UK – try the Cuvée des Capucins (A 90% Grenache 10% Syrah cuvée, really lively red and black forest bery fruits, warm generous and juicy with a lovely bitter sweet touch. Delicious.)
Domaine de Mourchon at Seguret, run by Scot Andrew McKinlay, who has established an awesome reputation for himself in the appellation – try the Tradition 2006 from The Big Red Wine Company – “an enticing freshness with good upfront fruit and great texture and length. Lighter than the 2005 and, as such, more approachable in its youth with lovely sweet cherry fruit (more noticeably red fruit in character when tasted alongside the 2005) and good mouthfeel. A decent tannic structure to give the wine a real lift. Very friendly wine.”