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Côtes Du Rhône

Côtes du Rhône is a region-wide appellation for red, rosé and white wines covering the length and breadth of the Rhône Valley in eastern France. It includes more than 170 villages, following the course of the Rhône river southwards for 125 miles (200km) from Saint-Cyr-sur-le-Rhône to Avignon. A small proportion of the appellation's wines are white, but the classic Côtes du Rhône wine is a fruity, middleweight red blend based on Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre.

The Côtes du Rhône appellation was introduced in November 1937, to provide a catch-all title for good-quality Rhône wines from the valley's lesser-known and less-prestigious viticultural areas. Although it does not hold the prestige of the Rhône's more famous names (Châteauneuf du Pape, Côte Rôtie, Hermitage), the Côtes du Rhône title has risen to become one of France's most popular and famous wine appellations. In 1966, it was joined by the complementary Côtes du Rhône Villages appellation – granted exclusively to those Rhône villages producing wines of consistently high quality.

Some Côtes du Rhône wines are of extremely high quality. Some of the appellation's finest (and most expensive) wines command prices of more than $100 per bottle, often made by producers based in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Other notable examples come from the new wave of quality-focused winemakers, or from high-quality vineyards that fall outside the boundaries of the more famous appellations.

The Rhône Valley climate varies measurably from north to south. The northern Rhône climate is cooler and more continental than the south – influenced more by the Alps than the Mediterranean. As a result, northern Côtes du Rhône wines tend to be slightly more structured and "serious" than those from the south. The Mediterranean-influenced south enjoys a warmer, more stable climate with hot summers and mild winters. This contributes to richer, brighter, higher-alcohol wines.

Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre grapes form the core of most red Côtes du Rhône wines. The three work so well together that the blend has been keenly welcomed in other warm-climate wine regions around the world. Here in the Rhône, Grenache almost always dominates the blend, particularly in the southern half of the valley, where the vast majority of Côtes du Rhône wines are made. Syrah contributes structure and spicy notes, while Mourvèdre brings its dark, chocolatey notes and intense colour.

The Rhône Valley's north-south divide is reflected in Côtes du Rhône wine styles. It is even taken into consideration in the official appellation laws, which stipulate that Grenache should comprise at least 40 percent of any red wine made south of Montelimar – the transition point between north to south. Those from the north contain more Syrah, and lean more towards a cool-climate style, with good structure and notes of black cherry and fresh pepper. Those from the south favour Grenache, and a warmer-climate style – higher alcohol and abundant fruit flavours of stewed blueberry, raspberry and plum.

Ten other varieties are sanctioned for use in red and rosé Côtes du Rhône wines, although they rarely represent any significant part of the blend. These are: Carignan, Cinsault, Counoise, Muscardin, Vaccarese, Picpoul Noir, Terret Noir, Grenache Gris and Clairette.

The typical white Côtes du Rhône Blanc is relatively full-bodied, with notes of candied citrus fruits, acacia, herbs, straw, wax and possibly a hint of honey. The principal grapes used in Côtes du Rhône white wines are Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Marsanne, Roussanne, Bourboulenc and Viognier. Interestingly, Ugni Blanc (better known for its role in Cognac) may also be used, as may Picpoul Blanc – of Picpoul de Pinet fame.