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Shortcuts to great value Rhone reds

Here is a simple guide to unpacking Southern Rhone’s classification system – and to finding good value options at each layer.

With 6000 vine growing properties producing almost 70 million gallons of wine there, finding the great value options from the Rhone is hard.

This post is designed to help that task in three ways.

First, it narrows things down to red wines from the Southern part of the main Rhone Valley wine areas.

Secondly, it provides the lowdown on the classification system the region itself uses.

Finally, it provides good, easily sourced examples from each rung of that ladder, based on personally tasting and choosing them.   

I sense that any such help is desirable because of the substantial variation in quality among the Côtes du Rhȏne level (and above) wines that vie for our attention.

As usual, this post uses images and hyperlinks where possible to make the wine easier to recognise and to help you discover more about it.  

First the classification system

In effect, there are four levels to the Rhone classification system but it is not an absolute quality ladder and, despite occasional changes, it does not vary from year to year to reflect different vintages.

The levels are:

  • Côtes du Rhône: This basic level (which, nevertheless, contains some terrific value wines) covers over 170 communes spread across six French Departments and is the start point for those seeking to ascend the hierarchy.
  • Côtes du Rhône-Villages: Authority to add “Villages” as a suffix  is granted to 95 communes and sets the bar higher in respect of several winemaking and vine growing issues.
  • Côtes du Rhône-Villages + the village name: Because they meet even more exacting requirements, about 20 communes are allowed to add their actual name to the “Villages” designation thus opening up the possibility of 43 letter tongue twisters like Côtes du Rhône-Villages Saint-Pantaléon-les-Vignes. A subsection of this Wikipedia page lists the communes affected.
  • Cru: Word length sanity is restored at the top of the tree when the top 17 “crus” drop all the “Côtes du Rhône-Villages” stuff and use just their name.

So, with the crus, the label will simply say, for instance, Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

That, the thinking goes, is enough to signal that this is wine from an area that consistently meets the high standard required for flagship Rhone wines.

If you need more details of the crus, this website lists them all but, unlike many other parts of France, the name of the actual property producing the specific wine seldom appears on the label.

Remember, too, that there is appreciable variation in the prices each cru attracts so it is worth finding the underappreciated ones if value for money is your aim.

Although a number of the Crus (and about a quarter of the basic Côtes du Rhône wines) are in the Northern Rhone, this post concentrates on the red wines of the Southern Rhone.

That is where grenache led blending is king – but, bear in mind that the climate this far south means that most red wines will carry appreciable levels of alcohol.  

But let’s look at some examples.

Where better to start to get a sense of what a region is all about than with Majestic’s “Definition” range.

This series was launched six years ago this month aimed, as its name implies, at providing definitive examples of familiar names and wine regions – and here is the Rhone version.

Full and dark in colour, 2018 Definition Côtes Du Rhône (from £8.99 at Majestic and 14% abv) brings us savoury plum and raspberry flavours with contrasting hints of sweetness and all neatly supported by balanced acidity, firm tannin and suggestions of vanilla, clove and caramel.

And for a lighter option

Some situations (and, indeed, personal preferences) call for something a little lighter than classic Rhone reds and this guy from the Co-op can help you out nicely there.

Obviously, this is less textured than the previous wine and also has softer tannins – while its fruit analogues are nearer the raspberry (rather than blackberry) end of the spectrum.

Light and smooth, 2019 La Grange St Martin Côtes Du Rhône (£7.75 at the Co-op and 14.5%) contains cherry and red currant flavours coupled with firm acidity (but little tannin) and traces of pepper, oregano and ginger.

Moving onto the “Villages”.

As already discussed, wines labelled with “Villages” have to meet slightly more exacting requirements than basic Côtes du Rhône (higher minimum alcohol and more control over varieties for instance).

Despite many challenges (not least learning new “Covid avoidance” tricks) the 2020 Southern Rhone vintage seems to be developing well and here is one of its outriders – from an excellent producer – for those anxious to assess the charms that harvest produced.

Full but still with nippy acidity, 2020 Chapoutier Cotes du Rhone Villages (£9 at Tesco and 14.5%) exhibits blackberry and black cherry flavours accompanied by balanced tannin, hints of sweetness and herbs with lavender and baking spice elements too.

And the previous vintage

For me, however, 2019 has yet to exhaust its charms and this version has three big virtues – it is close to the peak that “Villages” attain; it is largely from a top commune (Seguret) and, thirdly, it currently costs a mere £7.

Medium bodied and with an attractive mineral backbone, 2019 Best Cotes du Rhone Villages (£7 – instead of £8.25 until 21 September – at Morrisons and 14.5%) delivers loganberry and plum flavours enlivened by sharp acidity but modest tannin, all supplemented with black pepper, sage, chocolate and ginger touches. 

Next we add that extra name

It is fitting that Séguret was mentioned in relation to the last wine because that commune (famous since Roman times) is one of the places allowed to add its name to Cotes du Rhone Villages on bottle labels in certain circumstances.

Although that Morrisons wine did not do that, this Waitrose version is far from coy and shouts its name loudly from the bottle front.

The wine itself is one of the most savoury in today’s selections but examples from the more elevated parts of Séguret tend to be widely praised and do mature quickly

Full and floral, 2019 Terroir Daronton Seguret  (£9.79 at Waitrose and 14.5%) exhibits damson and blackberry fruit supported by firm tannin, touches of mocha and a vague tar and leather finish to add contrast to the fruit components.

Finally, then to the Crus

Given the prices Chateauneuf du Pape currently attracts, I have chosen to feature crus to its east and west instead, along with the most recent addition to the list – which actually lies some way to the north.

For the first call – Vacqueyras – I headed for that celebrated importer of Rhone (and Loire) wines, Yapp, to see what they were offering from that 2019 vintage.

While their delightfully rounded 2019 Vacqueyras Domaine du Grand Montmirail is obviously destined to be a superstar, I felt one of the other wines may be a tad readier for immediate drinking (and is one which has a reputation for being approachable early on).

I speak of 2019 Vacqueyras: Pascal Frères Cuvée Spéciale (£17.75 at Yapp and 14.5%) which has sophisticated raspberry, blackberry and ripe plum flavours, firm tannin, good acidity along with a balanced texture that has an integrated sweetness but partners it all with clove, star anise and a meaty savouriness.

Or, alternatively

On the western side of the river from Chateauneuf du Pape lies Lirac – once largely celebrated for its rosé but nowadays sought after for the softness (and great value) of its reds and its slightly reduced reliance on grenache.

Dark and smooth, 2019 Lirac La Fermade (£13.50 at The Wine Society and 14.5%) is from an acclaimed producer and centres itself around loganberry and red plum flavours with good acidity, attractive depth, balanced tannin and suggestions of incense, cinnamon and almost cola style sweet influences.

Finally to a newcomer

As the most recent addition to the “cru” elite (only promoted in 2016) Cairanne quickly won friends – and was described in The World Atlas of Wine as “one of the most exciting villages of the Southern Rhone”.

This example seems slightly lighter than many wines from the longer established crus that sit a little further to the south.

Soft and medium bodied, 2019 Cairanne ‘Relais du Roi’(from £12.99 at Majestic and 14%) provides smooth plum and black cherry flavours accompanied by firm acidity – but gentle tannin – along with hints of chocolate, black tea and ginger.

Do call in again on Monday when I reveal my latest Top Tips and outline the current promotions in major retailers.

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8 Responses

  1. Not sure if you can correct it but spellcheck has changed ‘than’ to ‘that’ twice in the lighter option para. Otherwise an exemplary tour round this enormous area which produces some of my favourite wines. Many thanks.

  2. WOW! Wonderful stuff Brian thank you. About 8 years ago I got a case of Gigondas from Tesco and was still drinking it 5 years later. A bottle every 12 months! Try as I might I couldn’t get it to work. And I’m very wary too now of the inevitable CNdePs thrown up for silly money on every suermarket list at Xmas to go with the bird! Some of those bottles you list look very good value and must be worth collecting now and keeping for the festive lunch. Thank you again …

  3. Thanks David for those kind words and for spotting those typos that eluded me and the proof-reader. Errors now corrected with, once again, my thanks … Brian

  4. Appreciate your praise for the piece, Eddie – always grateful for your contributions. Once problem with Rhone wines can be, as you hint, the substantial variation in quality. That is why I was anxious to include sound examples where I could. None of the Chateauneuf’s I sampled for the feature scored as highly as the three version from the Crus that were included. Excellent ones do exist but they are often a little more money than equivalents from neighbours.

  5. Thanks for yet another informative article, Brian. I love Rhone wines but the range is daunting and it’s all too easy to end up with a disappointment. This really helps.

  6. Thanks Carl appreciate your taking time out to respond. As you say, the vastness of the Rhone area and multiplicity of producers means that quality can vary appreciably. Although the classification guide is not infallible, it does help (in the words of the cliche) “manage expectations”.

  7. Morrisons is not my first port of call for wine but on your recommendation I tried their Villages Segurat (my back label implied it was entirely Segurat) was a cracking £7 worth Full, yet without any grip on the back of the throat. It was also the cheapest in your review. I tried it against a 2020 Carianne at £8.99 from Aldi and it beat that, too. Perhaps the extra year in bottle made all the difference, although the Aldi wine did improve immeasurably half an hour after opening.

  8. Hi David and thank you so much for getting in touch. Knowing that people have unearthed (and enjoyed) wines they wouldn’t otherwise have tried is one of the motivations behind the site so I am delighted that it worked for you. As you say, that Morrisons Rhone is a terrific seven pound’s worth and easily capable of holding its own with more illustrious (and more expensive) company. In tasting a range of wines for the piece, it was pretty clear that most 2020 versions are some way from being ready yet. Exposure to air does help (as you discovered with the Aldi example) – especially using the rudimentary decanting technique of pouring the wine into a jug and back into the bottle. Watch out for splashback though!

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