Take a journey to France for standout red wines


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If there were ever a wine-producing region to be relied on for pumping out high-quality reds at a reasonable price, it’s France’s Rhône Valley — particularly wines from the southern Rhône.

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If there were ever a wine-producing region to be relied on for pumping out high-quality reds at a reasonable price, it’s France’s Rhône Valley — particularly wines from the southern Rhône.

One of the southernmost wine-producing regions in France, the Rhône Valley runs north-south along the river of the same name, and is separated into two primary grape-growing regions — the northern and southern Rhône.

The northern Rhône enjoys a continental climate, with producers making red wine from the Syrah grape. Most of the Rhône Valley reds coming from the north tend to be pricier, with tightly wound, age-worthy wines from appellations such as Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage costing quite a pretty penny. A few more reasonably priced northern Rhône reds do also make their way to our market, particularly from communes such as Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas and Saint-Joseph, but they’re still in the $30-50 price range.

It’s in the southern Rhône where the great-value reds, primarily blends in the $20 range, tend to be made. Grapes grown in the southern Rhône enjoy a more Mediterranean climate, making for riper, more fruit-forward wines. That warmer climate, combined with using the dense and fruity Grenache grape as the base for most of the blends (with a supporting cast including Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignane), contribute to the wines being more fruit-forward and immediately drinkable.

While red wines using the Côtes du Rhône appellation can be sourced from both north and southern parts of the region, the bulk of the juice that goes into these wines comes from the south. The overarching Côtes du Rhône region also includes southern sub-appellations such as Côtes du Rhône Villages, made from grapes sourced from specific sites within the region, as well as cru wines made in communes such as Vacqueyras, Gigondas and, most famously, Châteauneuf-du-Pape. These wines offer greater complexity and ageability, albeit with price points starting at $25-30 and up.

The best-known and most distinguished southern Rhône sub-appellation, Châteauneuf-du-Pape translates to “the pope’s new castle” as a result of the pope relocating from Rome to Avignon for a time in the early 14th century. Up to nine different grape varieties (including Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre) are permitted in Châteauneuf-du-Pape reds, which tend to be big, dense and extremely age-worthy. (They also make some stunning, complex and age-worthy white wines in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.)

But Châteauneuf-du-Pape isn’t cheap, and it’s in the reds whose labels sport the more overarching Côtes du Rhône designation on the label where the killer values are to be found. These Grenache-based wines tend to be dominated by dark berry and cherry flavours, with more typical “Old World” characteristics — earthier, peppery, more rustic flavours — taking a back seat. This balance of fruit and character means they’re often more approachable Old World reds than, say, Spanish Rioja or entry-level Bordeaux wines.

While Rhône Valley producers make some very good, well-priced white wines (typically made with some blend of Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier and a couple other grape varieties) as well as some solid rosés (particularly from the Tavel), it’s in the region’s red blends where Rhône wines truly shine.


Twitter: @bensigurdson


Wines of the week

Louis Bernard 2021 Côtes du Rhône white (Côtes du Rhône, France — $16.99, Liquor Marts and beyond)

A blend of White Grenache, Bouboulenc and Roussanne grapes, this vegan, sustainable Rhône Valley white offers fresh pear, white peach and floral aromas as well as a subtle honeycomb note. On the dry, medium-bodied and luscious palate the peach, ripe pear and fleshy tropical fruit flavours are front and centre, while modest acidity adds focus. A decent white for the price. 3/5

Domaine La Floraine 2021 Je Ne Souffre Plus (Côtes du Rhône Villages, France — around $25, Calabria Market)

A 50-50 blend of Grenache and Syrah, this vibrant purple, organic and biodynamic French red offers blackberry, cherry, red licorice, plum and subtle smoky and leather notes aromatically. It’s medium-plus bodied and juicy, with rich red and black berry flavours coming with hints of iron and licorice, a dash of white pepper, no oak (the wine’s aged in concrete vats for five months), medium acidity and a finish of decent length (it’s 13.5 per cent alcohol) as well as a subtle bread dough note. Chill for 10-15 minutes. 4/5

Ortas Caves de Rasteau 2020 Le Dôme du Grand Bois (Côtes du Rhône, France — $17.99, Liquor Marts and beyond)

A 55-30-15 blend of Grenache, Carignane and Syrah, this Rhône red brings spice, red licorice, blackberry, cherry and mocha notes on the nose. It’s full-bodied and jammy but dry, delivering dense dark berry notes, a ripe cherry component, hints of tar and white pepper that come with modest tannins before a long, slightly warm finish (it’s 14 per cent alcohol). 3.5/5

Famille Perrin 2019 Réserve (Côtes du Rhône, France — $16.99, Liquor Marts and beyond)

This Rhône red, a 40-40-20 blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah, brings complex leather and tobacco aromas that come with black cherry, plum, blackberry and cedar aromas. It’s dry, full-bodied and dense, with chewy blackberry and cherry flavours front and centre, secondary iron, white pepper and plum jam flavours that come with hints of spice from wood (a portion of the wine is aged in barrels, the rest in vats), medium tannins and a long, warm finish (the wine’s 14.5 per cent alcohol). An exceptional value to be drunk now or put away for 18-24 months. 4.5/5

Ben Sigurdson

Ben Sigurdson
Literary editor, drinks writer

Ben Sigurdson edits the Free Press books section, and also writes about wine, beer and spirits.


Updated on Saturday, January 7, 2023 12:57 PM CST: Corrects spelling of Châteauneuf

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