It's easy to become set in your ways with wine. Some wine drinkers find a brand or a varietal they like and stick with it. We all know people who order only Chardonnay or Merlot at a restaurant. A friend of mine expects to drink only Petite Sirah or a rustic Chianti Classico; that's all he likes.
A few years ago, my California-wine-loving cousin moved to Switzerland. The switch to drinking Bordeaux and Burgundy was easy enough because she could relate them to the California Cabernets, Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays she drank back home. But good Bordeaux and Burgundy were too expensive for her to drink every day.
What she really missed were the fruit-forward, zesty Zinfandels she used to open during the week. When her e-mail SOS arrived I knew what to recommend: Côtes du Rhône. Produced in the warm Southern Rhône Valley of France, Côtes du Rhône reds share a similar burst of bright fruit and spice with Zin. The connection made her happy.
I started thinking: Sometimes all a wine drinker needs is an introduction, a connecting line between two dots, to venture off onto a whole new wine path.
All this came to mind the other day when I connected a few dots of my own. I opened a bottle of M. Chapoutier Côtes du Rhône Belleruche 2007 and fell for its fleshy, ripe black cherry fruit, lively acidity and notes of spice and licorice. Chapoutier produces some of the Rhône Valley's best wines but also knows how to craft a good value. Selling for about $12, the Belleruche 2007 is a blend of 60 percent Grenache and 40 percent Syrah. Along with Mourvèdre, those are the main grapes used in Côtes du Rhône reds.
The dots I decided to connect were not Côtes du Rhône back to Zinfandel, but rather Côtes du Rhône to the increasingly popular Rhône-style red blends of California and Washington. While the top wines like Alban Pandora Seymour's Vineyard are pricy collectibles, there are value alternatives.
A favorite of mine over the years has been Qupé Los Olivos Cuvée, and the 2008 is a charmer, with elegant notes of fresh cherry and pomegranate, as well as zesty brown spice, all balanced by good acidity. The blend is about half Syrah with the rest split between Grenache and Mourvèdre, and you can find it for $25 or less. When I had it recently with dinner, I rated it 88 points, non-blind.
Two other Central Coast Rhône blends that are often safe bets are Tablas Creek Côtes de Tablas from Paso Robles and Zaca Mesa Z Cuvée from Santa Ynez Valley.
A fairly new entry to the Rhône-style group comes from Washington: the Chateau Ste. Michelle Austral Columbia Valley. The 2008 bottling—a blend of 53 percent Mourvèdre, with the rest Grenache and Syrah—is a supple and jammy red with smoky cherry and peppered herb notes. It sells for $20, and I rated it 87 points, non-blind.
A browse through our recent reviews offer many good choices, both from California, such as the Morgan Cotes du Crow's Monterey 2008 (88, $16), and from Washington, such as the Novelty Hill Royal Slope Red Columbia Valley 2007 (87, $18) and the cheekily named Fruit Bomb Columbia Valley 2008 (85, $11).
It's not easy for these America-born value blends to compete in the market with Côtes du Rhône when there are so many alternatives, such as other values from elsewhere in southern France and the new generation of wines from Spain. Generally, the U.S. Rhone blends could benefit from more acidity for vibrancy and balance, and I miss that touch of eccentric Rhône funk—but those are quibbles.
Côtes du Rhône has centuries of winemaking experience, after all. For America's vintners, it's just a matter of time, and connecting the dots.
Leonard & Terry Korn — Cathedral City, California, USA — March 30, 2011 7:26pm ET
Homer Cox — Warrenton, VA — March 30, 2011 7:51pm ET
Joseph Trdinich — Mars, PA — March 30, 2011 9:36pm ET
Tim Fish — Santa Rosa, CA — March 30, 2011 10:37pm ET
Adam Bremer — nashville, TN — March 31, 2011 12:30pm ET
Keller Ford — Cape Girardeau, MO — March 31, 2011 5:26pm ET
Joe Dekeyser — Waukesha, WI — April 1, 2011 10:53am ET
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