This article was first published in The Irish Times, Saturday 14th May, 2022
If you are heading off to France on holiday this summer, it is worth keeping the name Côtes du Rhône in mind, as it is an ever-present on lists in cafes and restaurants and on supermarket shelves in most parts of the country. This is not surprising as the Côtes du Rhône appellation is the second-largest in France (after Bordeaux).
Typically these are supple, warming, easy-drinking, food-friendly wines that don’t cost the earth. While quality certainly increases as you pay more, I find inexpensive Côtes du Rhône one of the more reliable options. This is partly down to the warm sunny climate, perfect for ripening grapes, but also the generosity of the Grenache grape. There are no fewer than 21 permitted grape varieties for Côtes du Rhône, but the vast majority of the wines are a blend of Grenache with varying amounts of Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault.
Grenache is a thin-skinned grape that typically produces wines that are full of ripe jammy fruit, low in acidity and light in colour and tannins. This makes them ready to drink as soon as they are bottled. But beware! They can also be quite high in alcohol, anything up to a heady 15% ABV. However, these days many producers are picking a little earlier and 13-14.5% is far more common. Once dismissed by many wine-lovers, Grenache is enjoying renewed interest, not just in the Rhône but also in parts of Spain, its original home, where it is known as Garnacha.
Food-wise, the wines of the Rhône offer plenty of opportunity. In winter, drink it alongside rich beef stews and roast game. In summer it will go very nicely with most grilled and barbecued foods, including gourmet sausages and burgers, as well as pork, lamb and beef.
The wines of the Rhône are divided up into a quality pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid, there are some 171 villages entitled to call themselves Côtes du Rhône, and another 95 villages permitted the superior Côtes du Rhône Villages appellation. The next step up is to Côtes du Rhône Villages with a village name attached, such as the Valréas below. At the top of the triangle is a small number of villages entitled to simply use their own name. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the best-known of the group, which also includes Gigondas, Rasteau, Cairanne, Vacqueyras and others.
Much of the production is in the hands of large negociants and co-operatives, but there are plenty of small producers producing great wines. Of course, you don’t have to travel to France to enjoy the wines of the Rhône; there are plenty available here at home too.
Côtes du Rhône Villages 2020, Lidl 13.5%, €8.49 Medium- to full-bodied with soft rounded strawberry fruits – this would go down nicely with richer beef or lamb stews, roast lamb or baked Mediterranean vegetables. From Lidl
Côtes du Rhône Samorëns 2020, Ferraton Père & Fils 14.5%, €14.95 A smooth, rich, easy-drinking red with soft dark fruits, a touch of garrigue and a rounded finish. Enjoy alongside a pepperoni or mushroom pizza, posh burger or a steak sandwich. From O’Briens
Clos Bellane Côtes du Rhône Villages Valréas 2019 (organic) 14.5%, €23 Velvety, voluptuous blackcurrants and plums with savoury black olives and a refreshing note. Drink alongside a côte de boeuf or a vegetarian Wellington. From Ely Wine Store, Maynooth.
Poignée de Raisins 2020, Gramenon, Côtes du Rhône, Biodynamic14%, €26.50 Lovely wine; restrained yet full of lovely, gentle, ripe dark cherries with a fresh, juicy edge. Enjoy with a gourmet burger (including vegetarian) or grilled lamb chops. From boujee-booze.com; Sheridan’s Cheesemongers, D2; Kells, Co Meath; Galway; siyps.com; Lennox Street Grocer, D8; Green Man Wines, D6; Ely Wine Store, Maynooth, elywinebar.ie; Provender Bread & Wine, D8.