In many respects the wines of the south are the antithesis of the rare and uniquely stylized wines from the diminutive vineyards of the northern Cotes de Rhone: bulk where the former are boutique, fat rather than austere, smooth and soft where the latter are hard and harsh in their youth. The common denominator throughout the Cotes de Rhone is the relentless sun which drives up sugar content and, from overripe, sunbaked berries, creates heady wines perfectly suited for heavy meals and those cold winter nights.
In the south the river serves as a focal point, but most of the vineyards lie a good many kilometers from its banks and direct influence. Nearly all imported red wines come from the left bank -- to the east. Typical vineyards are expansive, generally flat with chalky clay soil and sometimes covered with stones. The land is adorned with lavender, thyme and olive and lemon trees. The climate is strongly affected by the Mediterranean Sea with typical conditions very hot and dry and subject to wind and storms. A large number of grape varieties are combined -- the blend depends on historical precedent and on availability. The wines tend to be fruity, smooth, silky, soft to a flaw and easy to understand.
The most famous wine of this region is Chateauneuf du Pape, of which over 2 million gallons are produced annually. Nearby, several small communes have applied for individual recognition under their own name. One such red wine village is Gigondas. The generic classification for much of the remainder is simply Cotes du Rhone, or the more prestigious Cotes du Rhone Villages with an added commune name. (For some reason, these latter are generally unavailable in the Washington market.) Other regions producing some decent reds are Coteaux du Ventoux and Lirac.
Chateauneuf du Pape is renowned for its reasonably priced, full-bodied, velvety red wines. A great Chateauneuf du Pape comes only through the skillful blending of several types of grapes or wines to achieve a depth and balance in the vital components. The classic or traditional wine is deep crimson, generous and pungent with ripe berry flavors, balanced, and has a slightly bitter finish. Most wines are barrel-aged and require three to eight years to develop (not as much time as for Cote Rotie or Hermitage).
Recently the prices have become considerably inflated in response to the influence of skyrocketing Burgundy to the north. At the same time, it is well known that some producers of Chateauneuf du Pape have been converting to "new" vinification techniques to produce an inferior wine for immediate consumption. More and more low quality wines are being made from very high percentages of Grenache; this yields convenient wines which are attractive when young, develop rapidly and save a barrels. The change in styles is reflected, however, neither in the label nor the price. The basic rule of thumb for identifying the traditional wines is simple: If the wine is smooth when it is young, forget it; a well-made Cotes du Rhone will be just as good and less expensive.
The generic "Cotes du Rhone" wines originate from over 120 communes on both sides of the river. In good years, many sound and excellent wines are available at reasonable prices. Some are wines carefully constructed for a bit of aging potential, but most are simple, ripe, fruity wines meant to be consumed casually.
A blind tasting was recently held for which 20 Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas and Cotes du Rhone selections were chosen at random from local retail shelves. One wine stood alone as a true classic. The 1967 Chateauneuf du Pape, Chateau de Beaucastel, displayed a tawny ruby robe and projected a pleasing cigar box or truffles scent. If offered richly intense earthy flavors, a great balance and a long spicy finish. The only drawback with this wine was the price -- $14(at A&A).
Two other wines were considered outstanding. The 1976 Gigondas, Chateau Raspail ($8 at A&A Liquor) was very dark ruby with an excellent nose; it had good structure and a long, fruity finish. The 1974 Chateauneuf du Pape, Clos des Pape ($6 at A&A) exhibited good style but lacked freshness and was unbalanced by unresolved woody flavors.
Other wines considered well made were the 1976 Chateauneuf du Pape, Domaine des Pontifes ($8 at Calvert), the 1976 Cotes du Rhone, Grand Comtadine ($4 at A&A), the 1976 Gigondas, Cave St. Pierre ($4.50 at MacArthur), and the 1976 Gigondas, P. Jaboulet ($8.50 at A&A).
Of significant interest is the fact that all three wines from Gigondas and one Cotes du Rhone were rated in the top seven. The Gigondas producers fought hard for a separate classification and deserve it. The Cotes du Rhone wine, the Grand Comtadine, put many of the more famous and expensive Chateauneuf du Papes to shame. This wine, at $4, and the Cave St. Pierre Gigondas, at $4.50, rate as the best buys.
As a whole, this group of wines was as soft and flat as the northern wines were harsh and aggressive. They are high in alcohol, but the alcohol is unually well integrated into the heavy, glycerine-rich body. A frequent flaw is a pronounced lack of acidity. This is to be somewhat expected for wines which spend so many hours soaking up sunshine; but in this case, the more probable cause may be related to the hot and dry 1976 vintage (which was originally highly rated, but in some circles has been reevaluated downward).
Favored vintages in the south during the last 20 years are 1961, '64, '67, '70 and '71. The '76's and '78's will bear watching. Southern Rhone wines are somewhat spotty and must be carefully considered in terms of price versus performance in a market that includes a river of reliable, highly competitive wines from California.