Range of styles characterizes stunning Cotes du Rhone

Vive la Difference!

They were all Côtes du Rhônes. Red. Wonderful, but as different as night and day.

The Domaine du Bois de St. Jean "L'Intrepide" Côtes du Rhône 2009 ($13) was a blockbuster. It reminded me of those expensive and exotic gourmet chocolate bars that combine peppercorns with cocoa beans or resinous herbs with cocoa beans. It was dense, supple and concentrated with a sun-dried cherry finish — plus pepper, herb and chocolate, of course. This was one for the books.

I made my notes, then popped a second cork.

Whoa. The Domaine des Escaravailles Les Sablieres Côtes du Rhône 2010 ($16) was pure perfume, lavender and black pepper, and herb de Provence. It was delicate silk across the palate and totally feminine, yin to the Domaine du Bois yang.

The Delas St. Esprit Côtes du Rhône 2009 ($14) was stylistically quite different (yet again). It was full of mineral and cranberry fruit with a touch of pepper and a bucket load of stone. Its winemaker was a mason.

The Perrin Nature Côtes du Rhône 2010 ($13) was yet again different stylistically. There was an explosion of cherry when the cork was popped, followed by waves of bay leaf and thyme. It was exquisitely balanced with a fragrant scent of the scrub brush that clings to the limestone outcroppings within the Rhône Valley. It was as intriguing as it was appealing.

For sure, the Côtes du Rhône category is a celebration of differences. But these were none too subtle.

By law, a red Côtes du Rhône must be at least 40 percent grenache. The other blending partners have maximum allotments. Syrah and/or mourvedre can be no more than 60 percent of the mix. Carignan, cinsault, counoise, muscardin, vaccarese, picpoul noir, terret, grenache gris and clairette rose (together or separately) can comprise no more than 30 percent of the blend. Vignerons can even add up to 5 percent white varieties into the hopper.

You would think that this little wine recipe, with all its flexibility, would explain such variations on the stylistic theme as described above. Makes sense, right?

Yet, you will find excellent Côtes du Rhône bottlings that are 100 percent syrah, such as the St. Cosme Côtes du Rhône 2010 ($16), which packs as much power and punch as a Chateauneuf-du-Pape. There are even Côtes du Rhône bottlings that are 100 percent grenache. And none of these producers are breaking the law at all, despite the blending "formula" as described above.

It just so happens that the Côtes du Rhône blend mandates percentage of grapes in the ground, not in the bottle. At this level, within this category, the producer dictates wine style. The blend is at his discretion.

This is not the case with Côtes du Rhône Villages.

Côtes du Rhône Villages is a mandatory blend in the bottle comprising at least 50 percent grenache plus a minimum of 20 percent syrah and/or mourvedre with the optional addition of up to 20 percent of any (or all) of the other red varieties sanctioned for CdR production.

In other words, there is much more stylistic similarity at the Côtes du Rhône Villages level than at the Côtes du Rhône level.

When purchasing Côtes du Rhône, know your producer. When purchasing Côtes du Rhône Villages, wine law has much more influence in the structure of the wine and the flavors in the glass.

It's a small point that makes a huge difference.

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