Côtes du Rhône is an ubiquitous term. It covers most of France’s Rhône Valley, both north and south, including 171 communes. Beyond the basic level of AOC Côtes du Rhône, there is Côtes du Rhône Villages, which encompasses a smaller area just in the southern Rhône.
There are also several villages, like Cairanne, that can add their names to the labels to denote that their wines come from a higher provenance. Several AOC’s, like Gigondas and Vacqueyras, used to be under the Côtes du Rhône umbrella, but have since established their own identity.
Grenache in particular, along with its sidekicks syrah and mourvedre, dominate the reds, which are usually blends. Grenache blanc, marsanne, roussanne, clairette, bourboulenc and others are used for the whites. The rosé may have both red and white grapes.
Given the swell of Côtes du Rhône that is available on the market, let’s narrow the field down just a bit to reds from the largest of the designations, AOC Côtes du Rhône. There is an overwhelming amount produced, and navigating through the masses is a task that is not nearly as enjoyable as one might think. Here are a few that you should not fear.
Denis Tardieu Côtes du Rhône, 2010: You may be thinking, “Tardieu? Sounds familiar.” And you may very well have seen, if you haven’t been lucky enough to try, the olive oil that gave this family its good name. Until 1981, when Denis took over, it was just an olive tree orchard. Over time he has increased his vineyard plantings and now has 21 acres dedicated to Côtes du Rhône production. Fermented in cement vats, this is a light, bright, squeaky-clean wine with zesty berry fruit with traces of black pepper and tea rose. Suggested retail: $15
Texier Côtes du Rhône, 2010: Originally from Bordeaux, Eric Texier was an engineer before he changed his career in 1990. He took some viticulture classes, worked at Verget in Burgundy and traveled before attempting his first wine in 1995. Today, he makes 25 from three areas: Burgundy and the northern and southern Rhône. His Brézème Côtes du Rhône from a vineyard near Hermitage gets lots of props, but this little sibling is delightful. Youthful and brash with cassis, cherries and spice, its pedigree reflects Texier’s reputation. Suggested retail: $16
Haut Cances Côtes du Rhône Cuvée Tradition, 2010: You hear about doctors buying vineyards and making wine in California after retiring. Dr. Anne-Maria Astart and her husband, Jean-Marie, a psychiatrist, did not go seeking out a vineyard, but inherited her family estate in the village of Cairanne in 1992. She learned how to make wine, fast, by taking classes and eventually Jean-Marie joined her full-time efforts. The Côtes du Rhône is 45 percent grenache with the usual suspects — syrah, cinsault, carignan and mourvedre. The fruit comes from many older vines and was aged in Burgundy barrels. It’s floral and spicy with dried rose petals, peppercorns and raspberry fruit. Suggested retail: $17
These wines can be found through Bi-Rite Market (18th Street), The Wine Club SF and Solano Cellars.
Pamela S. Busch is a wine writer and educator who has owned several wine bars in San Francisco, including Hayes and Vine and CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen.