Côtes du Rhône Villages wine has the quality and reasonable prices needed to be hugely successful, but not enough is known about the appellation, as ROGER VOSS discovers

Côtes du Rhône Villages wine has the quality and reasonable prices needed to be hugely successful, but not enough is known about the appellation, as ROGER VOSS discovers

Perhaps because I am not a frequenter of power breakfasts, I rarely see computers produced at restaurant tables. And the last place I would expect to see one is at a dinner table in the Rhône Valley. Yet, as Jérome Quiot, president of Inter Rhône, powers up his laptop to explain statistics to me, it seems perfectly natural. Partly because the Rhône has statistics to be proud of, but also because this is so indicative of the forward-thinking approach of Rhône winemakers and producers.

There is so much energy in the Rhône these days, the southern Rhône in particular. It is the closest in wine style France can get to the New World, especially Australia, and with the current stagnation of the Languedoc, the Rhône is at the forefront of efforts to meet the New World challenge.

What Quiot shows me are some of the fruits of that energy. While both Bordeaux and Burgundy exports declined in 2000, those for the Rhône surged ahead. Bordeaux and Burgundy were down 1% in value in 2000, but the Rhône was up 14%. And that general trend was repeated in Britain, as drinkers followed the advice given in the promotional slogan: ‘Think Red, Think Rhône’.

The southern Rhône has logical layers of appellation quality. At the base are appellations like the Côtes du Ventoux, Côtes du Lubéron and Côteaux de Pierrevert. Above these come the generic Côtes du Rhône, wines from the huge area of vines that spreads across the Rhône valley north and west of Avignon. At the top of the pile are the crus – Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the most famous, along with Tavel, Lirac, Gigondas, Vacqueyras.

Between generic Côtes du Rhône and the crus, there is a gap, both in price and in quality. Into this gap have come the Côtes du Rhône Villages. ‘Twenty-five years ago,’ Quiot says, as we tuck into a bottle of Côtes du Rhône Cairanne, ‘there were a certain number of villages in the Côtes du Rhône which began to stand out from their neighbours. Cairanne was the first. Rasteau came soon after, followed by Séguret and Sablet, Vacqueyras and Beaumes-de-Venise. They had an identity, a personality, and they wanted to develop their quality. They became almost crus in waiting.’ So the concept of Côtes du Rhône-Villages was born.From early on there were two tiers of Villages. There was a privileged group of villages that could add their name to the appellation, such as Côtes du Rhône Cairanne. There are now 16 of these, situated mainly in the east of the Rhône Valley, on the slopes of the Dentelles de Montmirail, along a range of hills running parallel to the Dentelles and in the hill country to the north. There are also three villages on the western side of the valley. These are the wines which, as happened with Vacqueyras in 1990, could be promoted to crus in their own right.

Other Villages wines are not village-designated – they are called simply Côtes du Rhône-Villages. As is the way of things, of course, producers in these unlabelled villages want to get the chance to put their village name on the label and there are moves in communes as far apart as Bourg-Saint-Andéol in the Ardèche and the area known as Le Plan de Dieu just outside Vacqueyras Everybody, producers and consumers alike, agrees that Côtes du Rhône Villages wines are better than generic Côtes du Rhône. The landscape, the soil and the history of the region are the first clues, and to these are added the lower yields and higher percentage of better grape varieties laid down in the appellation laws. The big debate in the Rhône, according to Quiot, is ‘whether the idea of Villages generically is more important than individual Villages. There is a whole area which has the quality potential to be Villages. This level is essential in the range of Rhône wines as the price of crus has moved upwards.’It is the Villages wines that have achieved the greatest success in Britain during the past few years. Between 1999 and 2000, sales of Côtes du Rhône Villages increased by a whopping 56%, while those of generic Côtes du Rhône fell. The share of Villages as a percentage of total Rhône sales leaped from 13.5 to 20.1%. One swallow does not a summer make, nor does one year’s sales increase represent a trend. But the figures underline what had already become apparent. ‘I have seen a doubling of sales of Villages wines in the UK over five years,’ says Quiot. Buyers obviously like the quality Villages wines bring, as they search for alternatives to increasingly expensive cru wines such as Châteauneuf and Gigondas. What consumers need now is a better explanation of Côtes du Rhône Villages wines. How much do we really know about them? According to Quiot, there is ‘confusion about the Villages. They are not much more expensive than basic Côtes du Rhône, but their quality is closer to the crus.’ One way to learn is to visit. The villages are classic Provençal: sleepy during the day, men playing boules in the early evening, and vignerons’ cellars always welcomingly open. The next best thing is to try the wines at home, and learn that there is a difference between, say, a Sablet and a Rasteau. As he shuts down his computer, Quiot tells me one last thing. ‘We’re very aware of the competition from the New World. But we believe we have the best answer: modern wines made in an old tradition, and sold for a reasonable, stable price.’

Written by ROGER VOSS