The Rhône Valley in southeast France is a source of high quality, and often relatively inexpensive wines. It's made up of two parts—southern and northern—and the wines from each are quite different. Syrah tends to dominate the northern Rhône, while in the south you'll find more blended wines made from grapes like mourvèdre and grenache. Red wines account of most of the valley's production, but very good whites and rosés also come from the area. The most well-known wine from the south is Chateauneuf-du-Pape, while the north is particularly known for Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie.
For my money, the red and white wines of the southern Rhône appellation called Côtes-du-Rhône are terrific "workhorse" wines of great value. It's easy to find good Côtes-du-Rhône for well under $20. Sure, I'd rather drink Rhône wines like Condrieu and Gigondas, but they are beyond my daily budget.
Most come from vineyards in the southern Rhône, and they are staples in French cafés and bistros. Very different from the north, and separated by about an hour drive, the southern Rhône is Provençal, with a Mediterranean-like climate. Vineyards tend to be sun-drenched—except during the cold, windy snaps called le mistral—and surrounded by fields of lavender and olive orchards. The terroir there is unique, too; some vineyards are devoid of dirt, with vines growing in gravel, clay, stones and limestone. It's a rough winegrowing area that produces what have traditionally been seen as rough wines, not known for their subtlety. But, in recent years, that has changed, and Côtes-du-Rhône wines are increasingly harmonious and well-balanced, if not exactly elegant. Here are a few of my favorite Côtes-du-Rhône bottles—ones that are pleasing both to the palate and the pocketbook.
Saint Cosme Côtes-du-Rhône Rouge 2015 ($15.99) is produced with grapes grown on vines that average 60 years old. In this case, syrah from two difference vineyards—one owned by the Cosme winemaker's childhood friend and the other by his cousins. Made on a Gallo-Roman site near Gigondas, you might mistake this Côtes-du-Rhône for its more pricey Gigondas big brother. It's an intense, but early drinking wine and the 2015 vintage is superb—easily the best since 2010. I'm also a fan of the Viognier- and Marsanne-based white wine of Côtes-du-Rhône. Saint Cosme Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc 2015 ($21.50) is a blend of 30 percent each viognier, marsanne and picpoul de pinet, plus 10 percent clairette. The hot summer of this vintage provided a technical challenge to the winemakers, who needed to considerably hasten their harvest. You'll enjoy the pineapple and stone fruit aromas and flavors in this yummy blanc.
Les Dauphins Côtes-du-Rhône Reserve Rouge 2015 ($12.99), a well-structured blend of classic Rhône varietals—grenache, syrah and mourvèdre—is a deep, intense red poured into the glass. The wine quickly offers up ripe fruits on the nose, with hints of spice. On the palate, earthy cherry and black currant flavors mingle along with spicy pepper notes. Soft tannins and well-balanced acidity make this an easy-drinking, very enjoyable and economical choice for winter meals. It's perfect paired with steak au poivre.
Delas Saint-Esprit Côtes-du-Rhône 2015 ($12.98) is a bit unusual for a Côtes-du-Rhône, as it's composed of 75 percent syrah and 25 percent grenache, not the more typical "GSM" blend of grenache, syrah and mourvèdre. I think that the large percentage of syrah gives this wine a little more complexity, more delicate tannins and a rounder palate than predominantly grenache-based Côtes-du-Rhône. Mocha and plum are the main flavors here, with a bit of green pepper on the finish.
E. Guigal Côtes-du-Rhône Rosé 2015 ($16.99) is a 60/30/10 percent blend of grenache, cinsault and syrah that is a lovely Rhône-style pink wine. It's blended from cuvées of several top growers throughout the Rhône Valley, and shows hints of raspberry, strawberry and gooseberry, along with a strong mineral backbone.