This is my latest newspaper column – it’s a bit of a primer on Cotes du Rhone wines for newbies. All of my nearly 50 columns are posted on Grape Sense, linked in the right column.

If you like affordable and richly flavored wine you have to embrace the French.
Wine drinkers who want great fruit, a bit of earthiness, and smooth drinking juice, should try wines from the Cotes du’ Rhone region.

The wines pair great with food, have a spicy and almost juicy fruit characteristic on the palate, and the better ones give you a taste of what the French call “terrior” – the earth or environment. These wines will give you a beautiful bouquet on the nose that will bring you back again and again.

The Cotes du Rhone region sits in the very southeastern corner of France above Provence and below Beaujolais and Burgundy. The area is broken down into about 20 appellations or regions.

If you’re relatively new to wine or French wine, you know there is something different going on with the French. Well, in this case, we’re just talking about the wine.

Very few French producers put the name of the grape on the bottle. The French labeling laws are extensive and confusing for the non-French. The wines are labeled by the region where they are grown. The varied and rich French soil, which has grown grapes for decades, produces very different wines from micro climate to micro climate.

Don’t expect to see that change any time soon. Italy is the same.

So for great and inexpensive French wines keep your approach simple. Cotes du Rhone means it comes from the region. It might be a blend of grapes from different vineyards. Cotes du Rhone Villages wine comes from a specific region and is usually a little higher in price and quality. There are many great Cotes du Rhone wines under $15 and really great ones aren’t unusual at $12.

The top of the line wines are the big, bold and earthy Chateauneuf-du-Pape or “New Castle of the Pope.” You can read up on the 1300’s and Pope Clement V’s residency in Avignon in your spare time.

But the Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines are generally the area’s best. They are pricey starting at $35-$40

So let’s stick to the Cotes du Rhone. The area produces mostly reds but also some white and rose’. Grenache is the dominant grape. The wine is often blended to include Syrah, Cinsault, Carignane, or Mourvedre.

I’ve liked the Grenache-Syrah blends best. They deliver big dark fruit flavor from the Grenache with a hint of spice and earthiness from the Syrah.

Many of the producers are very small by Bordeaux, and especially California, standards. But in 2008/2009, the region produced nearly 400 million bottles. It is the second largest French wine-producing region in land mass and production.

Cotes du Rhone has become my fall back wine. When I don’t know what I want to drink I grab one. If I want to give a gift of wine I can do so with the confidence the label may bewilder the lucky recipient but they’ll like the wine.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions at your favorite retail shops. Cotes du Rhone wines are easy to find.

Howard’s Picks:
Domaine Lafage Grenache Noir
– This juice is incredible. I looked back at my blog tasting notes and wrote “rich feel in the mouth, and very smooth finish.” I’ve had it several times since that first bottle. It is a great introduction to the region, especially at $11.99.

Patrick Lesec’s Bouquet – I’ve plugged this wine several times but it’s for a reason. It was my 2009 ‘wine of the year’ in my newspaper column and online blog. It’s bigger in taste than the Domaine Lafage with more herbal notes and a bigger flavor. It has more of the earthiness and pairs great with food. It is dynamite wine for $12.99.

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