Cotes du Rhone

Discovery Tasting: Cotes du Rhone

It has a 2000 year heritage and is the second largest producer of appellation wine in France. Rhône expert Matt Walls talks us through the terroirs, trends and drive for sustainability in this benchmark region.

Numbers in the Rhône valley are daunting. With 67,000 hectares under vine, it’s second only to Bordeaux in terms of growing AOC wine. Matt Walls is one of the world’s acknowledged experts on the region, and, with over 5,000 producers of Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages, even he admits that you’ll never get to know them all. ‘There’s new producers popping up all the time,’ he says. ‘It’s what makes it so exciting.’

The sheer number of growers is one of the things that makes the Côtes du Rhône such a region to watch

Not only that, but there are also 23 grape varieties to get your head around. In a region that’s 87% focused on red wines, Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvedre are the big names, but Carignan, Cinsault and Counoise are increasingly influential too.

It helps to think of the region’s wines in the form of a pyramid. The bedrock is Côtes du Rhône, which is about half of all production, above this are Côtes du Rhône Villages, Côtes du Rhône Villages with a named village (22 of them), and then at the top 17 Crus (such as Gigondas or Côte Rotie).

The Rhône ‘quality pyramid’
The valley from north to south

The further up the pyramid you go, the tighter the regulations, with lower yields and more restrictions on permitted grape varieties. Côtes du Rhône Villages wines, for instance, can’t include the Cabernet/Grenache cross, Marselan.

One of the features of the Rhône is that it regularly delivers impressive value for money – something which we found in this tasting. But Matt points out that the ‘Côtes du Rhône Village wines with named villages’ area is a particularly good place for dynamic sommeliers to go hunting.

They’re places that have demonstrated something special in their terroir, and are striving to get to the hallowed cru status. It’s a fluid system. Cairanne was promoted to Cru status in 2016, Nyons to ‘named village’ status in 2020.

Vinsobres (above) was promoted from Côtes du Rhône Village named village to cru status in 2006

‘These are the kind of wines that somms should know about because you can demonstrate your knowledge,’ says Matt.

‘Your customers won’t probably have heard of these villages but they’re a great way to give them extra quality.’

Like everywhere else in the wine world, the Rhône is having to face up to climate change. Temperatures are 1.4 degrees higher on average now than they were in the late 1970s. Rainfall hasn’t dropped, but now tends to come mostly in the winter, leaving hot, dry summers. Vintages are coming earlier.

To combat this, growers are increasingly adding dashes of white wine to their blends, which is permitted under the legislation. Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris and Clairette are all popular.

The Rhône’s grape varieties are already highly resistant to drought, but varieties such as Carignan, which retains its acidity, and Counoise which tends to give ripe grapes at lower alcohol levels, are growing in importance.

Grenache – the most-planted red
Carignan – retains its acidity
Counoise – one to watch for the future

With lots of sun and the ‘natural disinfectant’ of the Mistral wind blowing down the valley from the north (sometimes so strongly that it can snap vines) the Rhône is a good place for hands-off grape growing.

Already 11% of Côtes du Rhône vineyards are certified organic. For Côtes du Rhône Villages with named villages this rises to 16%. And across the region, the amount of organic vineyards is increasing. The Haut Valeur Environnementale scheme (HVE) launched in 2011 encourages growers to make decisions that are good for the environment without necessarily having to commit to full-on organic conversion.

Growers limit chemical products, promote biodiversity and practise good water management. It’s all helping to preserve this essential region for future generations.

The Wines

Les Cassagnes de la Nerthe, AOC Côtes du Rhône, 2020 White

Our first white came from Chateau de la Nerthe, one of the oldest wine producers in region, which began in 1560, and is based in Chateauneuf du Pape.

Grenache Blanc is the most widely planted white variety, so no surprise it makes up 40% of the blend here, along with equal parts Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier.

Grenache Blanc is a relatively plain variety but this makes it a good canvas on which to layer other, more expressive grapes.  

Acidity is not a big factor in Rhône whites – and it wasn’t in this rich, opulent wine. But Matt believes tasters need to reset their approach.

‘When you sink your teeth into a pear you don’t expect it to have acidity – you just appreciate its delicious flavours,’ he said. ‘Things don’t always need acidity to be refreshing. There’s room for other white wine styles out there. White Hermitage is low acidity but can age for 20 – 30 years and it’s brilliant with food.’

RRP £23.99, Bancroft

Domaine Galuval, AOC Côtes du Rhône Villages, Le Coq Volant, 2020

From round Cairanne and Rasteau, our second wine made an interesting contrast to the first. Equal parts Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Viognier and Clairette, with no malolactic, it was paler and crisper.

There was less of a sense of richness, and a little more freshness. At just 12.5% abv (low for the Rhône) it suggested it may have been picked earlier.

Rhône whites can be amazing value. While the first was very definitely a food wine, this well-priced example could work as a by the glass pour, though Steve Kirkham suggested it would also be a good match with sushi.

In a straw poll our tasters were evenly split as to which they preferred.

RRP £8.87, Awin, Barratt, Siegel

Domaine Eyguestre, AOC Côtes du Rhône Villages Séguret rosé, 2021

RRP £7.47, mrfrenchwine

Our only rosé and our first ‘named village’ wine, this came from Séguret in the Dentelles de Montmirail, round Gigondas. A mountain terroir, it’s a 50/50 Grenache/Cinsault blend from north-facing slopes at 250m altitude.

‘It’s nice to see Cinsault,’ said Matt. ‘It’s a lovely grape and people are just starting to get turned on to its charms. It retains its acidity and does well in dry, drought conditions, so we’re going to see more of that.’

The muscular food-rosés of Tavel are the best known pinks in the region, but many producers of Côtes du Rhône rosé are moving towards paler and drier styles. Somewhat more Provence-like, though with the advantage of being generally well priced.

Domaine St Patrice, AOC Côtes du Rhône, 2017

RRP £12.59, Charles Mitchell

Bordering Chateauneuf du Pape, this was a famous property in the 1800s but fell into disrepair and has since been revived, with its first vintage in 2015.  2016 was the star vintage for the region, though 2017 was also pretty good – structured and tannic.

A Grenache, Mourvedre Syrah, it’s quite old for a Côtes du Rhône, with most wines drunk within a couple of years of vintage, though the majority of wines happily last for several years and well-made ones from good vintages can go for decades.

‘These wines often last a lot longer than people think,’ said Matt, and our Collective members had good things to say about the commercial usefulness of wines at this price and in this style.

Domaine de la Mordorée, AOC Côtes du Rhône, 2021

This estate grows across a number of different terroirs. Certified biodynamic, this Grenache, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Carignan blend tasted very Grenache-y – red plums and strawberries with a little floral, violet edge. Our tasters liked its fluidity, acidity and energy.

‘In Tavel you can only make rosé,’ explained Matt. ‘Reds or whites need to be bottled as Côtes du Rhône. But the sandy terroir is amazing – and you’re seeing a lot of experimentation there and in Lirac.’

Gonzalo Rodriguez found it ‘playful and perfumed but robust enough for food matching’. Sara Bachiorri described it as ‘elegant, beautiful, and fragrant. Very pretty’.

RRP £16.22, Lea & Sandeman

Domaine de la Montine, AOC Côtes du Rhône Villages, Caprices Village, 2020

Based in the northern reaches of the Southern Rhône, this wine is mostly Grenache (70%) on galets roulés (pudding stones) and tasted markedly different to the previous (sand-grown) wine: darker, richer and more structured.

Despite being only 30% Syrah, its brambly character meant it tasted a lot more Syrah-y, and we wondered whether there might be some whole-bunch in the ferment.

‘It’s something we’re seeing more and more,’ said Matt. ‘It helps to counter the hot vintages that we’re seeing. It adds freshness and a bit of herbal detail and reduces the alcohol level.

‘Syrah structure is quite particular,’ he continued. ‘You often feel tannin on the middle of your tongue rather than the lips, which is where you’d see Grenache tannins’. A useful tip for blind tastings!

RRP £10.49, Wine Society

Domaine de l’Amandine, AOC Côtes du Rhône Villages Séguret, 2020

RRP £12.70, Ellis of Richmond

From the mountain terroir of Séguret, this village goes right up into the mountains with lots of different expositions. Soils are mostly clay limestone, sometimes with a bit of sand.

The wine is made by a South African, Alex Suter, who was working in France on a year out and fell in love with the daughter of the estate owner.

There’s an unusually high proportion of Syrah in this wine (60%) – the variety responds well to the higher, cooler vineyards in this appellation.

Michael Stewart said the fruit ‘pops out – blackcurrant, black pepper and herbs.’

Domaine des Pasquiers, AOC Côtes du Rhône Villages Plan de Dieu, 2020

RRP £14.99, Hayward Bros

The ‘named village’ of Plan de Dieu is a very dependable appellation, with this estate one of the best producers.

It’s a high quality wine with lots of damson and plum compote flavours backed up by a herbal note. Generous and full-bodied it nonetheless has freshness and balance. Aemelia Nehab said it would be good with lamb and mint.

Certainly, it’s the kind of wine to back up Matt’s earlier assertion that the ‘named village’ part of the pyramid is the sweet spot in terms of quality and value.

Wisdom has it that Laudun could be the next to be promoted to Cru level, but Plan de Dieu, Séguret, Massif d’Ucheaux, Signargues and Sablet all have excellent – and very different wine styles too.

‘There are named villages that give wines with zing and electricity and ones that are bigger and more powerful,’ said Matt. ‘It all depends what you like.’


WINES OF THE RHONE by Matt Walls

If you’d like chapter and verse on the Rhône and its producers, check out Matt’s seminal Wines of the Rhône book, which was recently short-listed for the Andre Simon Food and Drink Book awards.

Download the slide presentation

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