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First things first, the Rhône Valley is split into two significantly different areas: Northern Rhône where Syrah and Viognier are its prominent grapes, and Southern Rhône, where red blends prevail, but Grenache is king.
Côtes du Rhône is in the Southern Rhône. It’s sunny and warm, unshielded by strong mistral winds; resulting in very ripe grapes at harvest.
Second, wines in Rhone are labelled geographically, not by grape variety. A wine withChâteauneuf-du-Pape label, for instance, can only come from the vineyards surrounding the small town north of Avignon of the same name.
Next, knowing cotes from crus: In the Rhône, there are four levels of appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC), starting with Côtesdu Rhône AOC, the largest AOC and accounts for two thirds of Rhone production. These are easy-drinking, food-friendly wines – precisely what good wine is all about.
Whilst wines produced here must be made from the 21 sanctioned grape varieties and have a minimum of 11% alcohol, rules are not as strict as the other levels.
Côtes du Rhône Villages come from a far more limited area; better than usual for growing grapes i.e. more complex, lower yields, slightly higher alcohol (12.5%) and stricter rules. Red wines for example, must contain at least 50% Grenache with 20% Syrah and/or Mourvèdre.
Out of the 95 communes, there’s also ‘Côte-du-Rhône Villages AOC with mention of the village’(yes, rather a mouthful). These 21 communes may append their respective village name on the label.
The Crus sit at the top of the hierarchy. These are distinctive, premier regions deemed to show the best expression of terroir. Nine lie in the south, including the most famous of the AOC’sChâteauneuf-du-Pape.
One last thing, the blend: GSM.
There are 19 different grape varieties used in the Côtes du Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines; three particularly define the style. They are: Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre.
The Grenache provides lighter, red fruit flavours as well as perfume and spice; Syrah contributes richer fruit flavours and structure; while Mourvèdre brings earthy and spicy elements and texture to the mix.
France isn’t the only place that produces GSM blends. In California, where interest in Rhône-style wines has exploded; promoted unabashedly by a group of winemakers, suitably called the Rhone Rangers.
The Paso Robles winery, Tablas Creek remains at the epicentre of this surge. Together with the Perrin family, the partners imported vinefera from the French estate, allowing them to replicate the clonal selection of the Château de Beaucastel estate.