Cotes du Rhone
By Marty Ramsburg
The only consolation that summer is over is our drop-dead, gorgeous New England falls, though that season is even shorter than summer. Despite its beauty, fall means shorter days and colder nights—and the reintroduction of red wines for those wine choices are influenced by the changing of the seasons. One of the red wines that always beckons me back is a nice Cotes du Rhone.
Cotes du Rhone wines are inviting, warm, welcoming reds—not tannic, just full, juicy, and savory. The Rhone River dissects France into east and west, starting somewhere around Lyon and heading south to the Mediterranean. Below Montélimar is the Southern Rhone Valley, within which lies the Appellation de Controllée (AOC) of the Cotes du Rhone.
So, from what grapes are they made? Well, that does not have a straightforward answer. Usually in France, AOC gives you tons of information, including which varietal(s) you are drinking. Cotes du Rhones, however, give us very little specific information. They can be red, rosé or white. More daunting, there are 23 allowable grape varieties; narrowing the field to only red Cotes du Rhones leaves us with 12 different varieties. Fortunately, two or three of those varietals compose most of the wines made. The rest are mostly footnotes.
The principal varietal is Grenache Noir—the most planted red variertal of the Mediterranean. It loves a long, hot summer to ripen. As the berries get riper, their sugar levels go up, flavors get sweeter and, when all of those sugars are converted to alcohol for a dry wine, the alcohol levels are high, usually between 14-15% alcohol by volume. The result of that degree of ripeness is a wine with lots of fruit and a lush, almost creamy mouthfeel. In Cotes du Rhones, you might also get a lovely herbal component referred to as “garrigue,” hints of the wild herbs that sprout throughout the western Provence, carried by the Mistral winds—lavender, thyme, rosemary, and savory.
The other varietal most frequently blended in Cotes du Rhone wines is Syrah, generally used less in the Southern Rhone since it loses its identity when it gets too ripe. Grown more in the northern reaches or at least on north-facing slopes, Syrah adds a savory, cured-meats sweetness and occasionally a mineral element to the wine.
Finally, and used in moderation, Mourvedre adds its own brand onto Rhone blends. Like Grenache, Mourvedre is a grape that requires a long, hot ripening season. It hugs the Mediterranean coast, planted on warm, south-facing slopes where it can develop its ripe blackberry, leather and herbal character. Less than fully ripe, Mourvedre will influence the blend with its signature barnyard, unappetizing brackish aromas.
For the wine adventurous, Cotes du Rhone is an area for affordable exploration. A good wine merchant ought to be able to give you an array of wines to try side-by-side so that you might taste different blends and begin to know which ones fit your palate preference. We enjoy this exercise, sending people home with a wine that is mostly Grenache, one that is mostly Syrah, and one that is a blend of both with some Mourvedre and often something else. In the era of smartphones, you just snap a picture of the labels in the order that you liked them. Show that to your local wine merchant and voila!—you have armed them with the information they need to help you achieve satisfaction.
Here are some wines that we recommend that give you the range. You can do the experiment on your own. We hope you’ll take an exploratory journey this fall, easing into reds through the welcoming embrace of Cotes du Rhone.
• Le Grand Ribe, Cotes du Rhone, “Centennaire” — 90% Grenache, 10% Syrah. The current vintage of this wine is 2009, so it lets you taste what happens when Grenache gets a bit of bottle age. Flavors knit together to produce a whole that shimmers among flavors of red and black berries, herbs and smoke. Lush, full-bodied, delicious.
• Gassier, Cercius, Cotes du Rhone Villages — 85% Grenache, 15% Syrah. Younger, still a bit feisty, but all the elements are there, from sweet red berries to roasted meats and herbs, this wine always delivers satisfaction.
• Little James Basket Press, Red — I have to come clean and tell you that this is technically not a Cotes du Rhone since some of the grapes come from the contiguous Costieres de Nimes AOC. It is 100% Grenache from the Southern Rhone Valley, so it allows you to taste just that grape. If you can get past the label, this is a delicious wine made from a superb producer—Saint Cosme, of Gigondas.
• Saint Cosme, Cotes du Rhone — 100% Syrah, unusal for a Cotes du Rhone but Saint Cosme has some vineyards in the north (Vinsobres) from which it makes this Syrah-driven Cotes du Rhone among its otherwise Grenache-dominatred stable of legendary Gigondas. Blackcurrant fruit, fennel, sulumi and violets, this wine will make a lovely contrast to the Grenache Cotes du Rhones.
• Andezon, Cotes du Rhone — 90% Syrah, 10% Grenache. Produced by the Estézargues cooperative of growers, this wine almost always over-delivers for its price. Expect dark berry fruit, smoke, and cured meats in a smooth, silky style.
• Chateau de Beaucastel, Cotes du Rhone Condoulet de Beaucastel—a blend that always includes one of the largest representations of Mourvedre, approximately 30%, followed by roughly equal parts Grenache and Syrah, and dollops of others like Cournoise and Cinsault. This wine is really a baby Chateauneauf du Pape, since it is virtually contiguous to the Perrin family’s plots there but technically outside of that AOC and within the Cotes du Rhone AOC. You might consider it a well-priced Chateauneuf, or an expensive Cotes du Rhone. Either way, it is unique—earthy, peppery, fruity, tasty.
• Saint Cosme, Les Deux Albion — Syrah, Grenache, Carignan, Mourvedre, Clairette. Another unique, impressive wine from the estate of Louis Barruol who clamins that he can “smell his cellar” in this wine. I wish ours smelled like this — gingerbread, strawberries, bacon fat, herbs.
It’s tempting to think of the localvore food movement as trendy, but a little historical perspective is in order.
The interest in local foods is having a revival today in Vermont, and the Vermont Folklife Center, a statewide organization based in Middlebury, researches and records the history of local food production and its preparation through the years.
Gregory Sharrow, the center’s co-director and director of education, describes the raison d’etre for the Vermont Folklife Center as connecting with “the people who know” to create a documentary record, then sharing their knowledge and experience with a broad public audience.
“We do this to help to bridge the many differences that shape us,” says Sharrow.