Despite what it has to offer for wine aficionados and tourists, the Cotes-du-Rhone is probably least well known of all the important wine regions in France.

Cotes-du-Rhones wine comes from a region lacking both physical and climatic unity. Shaped like an inverted funnel, the spout, starting at Lyon and running southward 100 kilometers to Valence, constitutes one distinctive area. Here the climate is continental. With simple classic methods its winemakers produce wines of such distinction as Condrieu, Cote Rotie (once rated along with Romanee-Conti), Hermitage, and St. Peray. On the other hand, this accounts for only 2.2 percent of the Cotes controlled-appellation wines.

The cup of the funnel - the southern area - flares southwest from Valence along the Gevennes mountains and southeast to the foothills of the Alps. Here the climate is dry and hot. There is adequate moisture, but it is delivered with torrential rainstorms in spring and fall. Thus, the favored vines are those that resist dryness and the Mistral (a heavy wind that blows about 200 days a year).

The choice - owing to alluvium from the north, east, and west, and the divergent preferences of vignerons migrating from Italy and Spain over the centuries - is great. More than a dozen grape types are used - in varying combinations and proportions - throughout the region. Such variety - with a high plateau of quality rather than scattered peaks of excellence - is what makes getting to know them such a pleasing experience.

To be sure, until the last few years one had to search diligently for consistent quality, except from a few well-known subareas such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Tavel. As one Swiss merchant told me in 1970, "not withstanding many good producers in the area, you have to taste each barrel before purchasing it." But much has changed since then.

One may be excused for thinking this is unique to North America. But not so. From talk with many producers in the Cotes, it is quite clear they have profited not only from what their own institutes pass along, but also from personal visits to California to study technical advances in the vinification of grapes.

By concentrating resource and vinifying grapes from many small proprietors, the cooperative movement (70 percent in one large district) also has had a major influence on quality. So too has the drive to control and upgrade quality for special recognition within the omnibus Cotes-du-Rhone appellation. No longer do you hear about wines that "don't travel" (a euphemism for wines without good quality control). In the early '70s, wines with some defect (usually oxidation) that might not be corrected prior to sale, were not exceptional. But now they are - to judge by a sampling of 60 to 70 wines at the annual Foire-aux-Vins in Orange this past January.

A further indication of improved standards, and increased recognition of this fact, was the broad representation at the Foire this year. Gone are the days when a few Swiss, British and Dutch merchants formed the core of non-French attendance. In those times we assembled in the charming intimacy of "Les Grottes du Theatre Antique" on 25 juries to taste about 450 wines. This year the event took place in the well-appointed municipal exhibition hall. There were 47 juries working on 800 wines, the whole presided over by distinguished representatives of French officialdom, and consuls-general from six nations.

There was a consensus that as well as being a large harvest (49 million gallons of A/C wines - second only to Bordeaux in the major league), 1978 quality was quite good.

A description of the Cotes-du-Rhone wine region, and technical talk about wines, isn't the whole story of this delightful part of France. Most North Americans visit it for outstanding tourist attractions. Between Lyon and the Mediterranean there is a gradual and fascinating transition from the atmosphere of north Europe to that of the sunny south with its Roman history. Vienna for instance is a fountainhead of Latin culture. After Valence there can be no doubt that one is in the lovely land of Provence with its blue, smogless skies, mountain peaks off to left and right, and from time to time old chateaux perched on rocky roosts. Then soon, the city of Orange, rich in reminders of the Romans; and further on Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Avignon, famed for their association with the popes of former ages.

Instead of following the Rhone down to Orange, wine lovers might branch left at Montelimar and wander via Grignan, Valreas, Nyons; see splendid vestiges of the Gallo-Roman era in Vaison la Romaine and surrounding the majestic Mount Ventoux, medieval villages such as Seguret, Sablet, Gigondas, Beaume de Venise - all perched on hillsides with good food and wine available along with the scenery.

For a tour of the region, understanding the five major classifications of wine will be useful. First the whites. For these, better that you stick to the northern area: Hermitage, Croze Hermitage, St. Joseph and St. Peray, etc. Roses are produced mainly in the southern area. Tavel and Lirac are perhaps best known. Whereas they were a cut above the competition in years past, they are no longer easily recognized standouts, because of improved quality throughout the whole area.

For above average Reds, Cote Rotie, Hermitage and Croz Hermitage from the Northern area, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, and several village appellations from the south, all produce well-balanced wines with potential for sophistication with age. However, it is worth noting that they command a higher price than other reds. When young they all have a deep purplish color, lots of alcohol and a robust character, in common with many other reds that are less well publicized.

Next ranking category of red wine is Cotes-du-Rhone Cafe. The name sounds slightly pejorative and tends to be confused with Carafe reds. But they have little in common. The Cafe red wine is made with a very short maceration, is light in color and caters to a clientele all over France that prefers something less aromatic, and lighter than the lusty reds which are a hall-mark of the region.

Finally, mass consumption Carafe Reds. Producers claim that because of grapes used, and relative lightness of their wines, they have an "incontestable superiority" over competitors. And having recently selected the carafe Cotes-du-Rhone over a carafe Beaujolais, on a blind tasting in Switzerland, I would have to agree.

For scenic tourist itineraries, together with information on vineyards, tasting possibilities, etc., contact Maison du Tourism et de Vin, 41 Cours Jean Juares, Avignon, France.