Created in 1937 to provide a generic Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée for a vast swathe of the Southern Rhône between Valence and Avignon, Côtes-du-Rhône has been an incredible success story and now has over 30,000 hectares under vine. It is also home to over 1,000 wineries including some dynamic Caves Co-opératives and canny négociant merchants who sell wines made from grapes grown under contract. No lesser an authority than Jancis Robinson OBE, MW has observed that it 'has almost become the French for red wine' but also cited it as a source of some of France's 'best value' wines.
Considering its size, it is remarkable how quality is consistently good, which is testament to the geography, geology and climate of its sunny, free-draining landscape and also to the vision and dedication of its creators and tenacity of their successors. Red wine accounts for 87% of production, rosé 8% and white wine just 5% and its wines have become popular on both the domestic and export markets.
Situated between Sablet and Gigondas, the Meffre family's Domaine Saint-Gayan has long been a source of well-crafted Cru bottlings, exemplary Côtes-du-Rhône and some excellent IGP wines. Their white 'Argiles' (making a welcome return after a hiatus with the 2021 vintage due to frost and mildew), is made from a blend of Piquepoul, Bourboulenc and Grenache Blanc and is intended to provide accessible drinking with or without food. With white peach and melon notes and a smooth palate underscored by fresh acidity, it makes a fine partner to shellfish and salads. A rosé sibling is blended from Grenache Noir, Mourvédre, Carignan and Cinsault and has a limpid coral-pink robe, a raspberry and redcurrant bouquet, soft red fruit flavours and an elegant, dry finish. It is perfect for picnics and impromptu al fresco lunches. A Côtes du Rhône-Villages blanc Sablet is made from a mixture of Viognier, Bourboulenc, Roussanne, Clairette and Grenache Blanc and has uplifting wildflower scents and a supple stone-fruit palate. It pairs well with salmon or chicken and has enough weight to support short-term bottle age. Dominating production at this dependable domaine, is an excellent red Côtes du Rhône 'Trescartes' that is made from a blend of Grenache Noir, Syrah, Carignan and Mourvèdre. With briary hedgerow fruit aromas and a core of dark garrigue berry fruit with peppery undertones, it drinks well from release and is well-suited to classic Gallic dishes such as cassoulet or pot au feu.
Another seasoned denizen of the Côtes du Rhône 'Méridonale' is viticulteur and vigneron Yves Cheron who makes a superb négociant bottling of his red 'Cuvée Personelle' under his popular 'Pascal Frères' label at his HQ in Vacqueyras. Made from a blend of Grenache Noir and Syrah, it has a wealth of brooding autumnal fruit, peppery undertones and fine-grained tannins. It makes for quintessential fireside drinking - tweeds and terriers are optional accessories.
Making its debut here is a mature Cairanne from the appellation's inaugural vintage as a Rhône Cru. Ably sourced by the talented Yves Chéron, it comprises a typical Southern Rhône base of Grenache Noir with Syrah and Carignan as lesser partners in the blend. Described by critic Jeb Dunnuck as 'beautifully fruit-driven', it has oodles of plum and forest fruits on the palate with the depth of spice and complexity to last 6 to 8 years from vintage.
Jean-Louis Chave is a celebrated Rhône wine-maker who has shrewdly secured supplies of Grenache Noir, Mourvèdre and Syrah grown around the hill villages of Cairanne and Vinsobres to produce his excellent red Côtes du Rhône 'Mon Coeur'. With a beguiling dark fruit bouquet, damson and blackcurrant notes offset by hints of spice and graphite, it drinks well from release with small game or wild mushroom dishes.
At Domaine George Vernay in Condrieu, Emma Ansellem is learning the ropes from her mother Christine Vernay who is an internationally-acclaimed vigneronne with an impressive stable of wines from sought-after locations. Their 'Sainte-Agathe' bottling - from mature vines that border Côte-Rôtie - exhibits signature slick black fruit scents and a sensuous palette of dark cherry and blackberry flavours yielding to smoothly-textured finish. Her 'Fleurs du Mai' bottling – another pure organic Syrah – is classified as a simple IGP Collines Rhodaniennes and comes from 50+ year-old vines on the plateau above Condrieu. Floral violets abound on the nose followed by characteristic forest fruit and silky tannins. A bavette and frites is essential accompaniment.
The Graillot family's contribution to Côtes du Rhône bottlings consist of the tiny farm named 'Clos Somi' near the picturesque hill town of Aiguèze in the Gard. Old-vine Cinsault, Grenache Noir and Syrah are blended in equal parts to give a bright and fresh-fruited wine in the approachable Graillot style. Only a handful of bottles are produced so prepare your salade Landaise.
Completing the compendium from Southern Rhône sites is the Boisson family's great value Vin de Pays de Vaucluse 'Le Petit Caboche'. Made from an eclectic blend of Syrah, Egiodola, Caladoc and Marselan, it has wonderful ripe berry scents and palate of red and black fruit with fine-grained tannins and fresh acidity.