'Vous etes en Provence." You see the sign just south of Valence. Driving at 75 miles an hour -- and being effortlessly overtaken by Citroens and Mercedes -- you notice changes in the countryside that prove the Midi has indeed begun. Yet, in French wine terms, you are still only halfway through the Cotes du Rhone.
The towns of Ampius, Condrieu and Tain l'Hermitage, whose name incorporates its famous vineyard, the Hermitage, are northern in spirit. Uniformly gray houses open onto narrow streets. The Rhone winds past vineyards terraced up the hills immediately behind the towns. One the lower land are oak trees, fruit orchards and corn. It's a green, temperate land. And the number-one red grape is the sirah: at its best, producing big, earthy, rich wines.
There's a no-man's-land for vines, between Valence and Montelimar, the nougat town. Just where the sign welcomes the south, the scenery changes. The valley opens out. It is drier, scrubbier, with olive trees, outcrops of hills and distant mountains. The white houses have orange-tiled roofs. Pines take over from oaks. It smells Mediterranean.
In the southern cotes are the wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and Tavel. Blending is the norm, using grenache, sirah and any of 11 other varieties. The south has seven times as much vineyard land and six times as much wine as the north.
Given the differences in vegetation and climate and the different grapes, one wouldn't expect the wines of the north to be the same as the south. Yet, there is one general appellation controlee for both. Unless the label specifies a particular town or vineyard, the Cotes du Rhone appellation is a catch-all. In America it has come to mean the lesser wines of the region.
Caution here: One producer's Cotes du Rhone wine can be as smooth and lively as a well-made Crozes-Hermitage from the north, or as chewy and fruity as a Vacqueyras from the south. Another can be lighter and less fruity than a decent northern beaujolais.
How can one tell before opening a bottle? The reputation of the producer and importer and the price are sound guides to the quality, plus, of course, personal preferences. Most Cotes du Rhone wines are produced in the south, providing a useful label for grapes from the newer plantings. Perhaps one day the rhones will have a couple of sub-categories for the simple Cotes du Rhone appellation.
It is no longer accurate to say that all rhone wines are underpriced in the Washington market, but they are underrated. In tasting the selection currently available, I was pleased to learn that there are more on the way. Those from the smaller, top quality producers will be in very limited quantities, but there should be enough to satisfy the rhone fans.
Of those available now, the following represent good buys.
Inexpensive Cotes du Rhones or similar appellations:
Cotes du Rhone, Vidal Fleury, $3.99
78 Celliers des Dauphins, $4.99
78 Parallel 45, Paul Jaboulet, $5.49
Full-bodied, medium price:
78 Crozes-Hermitage, Albert Larive, $5.99
78 Corzes-Hermitage, Paul Jaboulet, $6.99
78 Cru de Coudoulet, Beaucastel, $6.99
Big and immature, worth laying down for a few years:
78 Cote Rotie, Vidal Fleury, $10.95
78 Gigondas, Vidal Fleury, $8.49
78 Gigondas, Paul Jaboulet, $12.99
78 Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Beaucastel, $12.49