Why Côtes du Rhône Is the Wine to Drink Right Now

In the Rhône, 2020 was a very good year. Our wine columnist tasted her way through this excellent vintage and recommends the best bottles, red and white.

By guest author Lettie Teague from the Wall Street Journal.

What constitutes a “humble” wine? The question occurred to me recently after I read—for the umpteenth time—a reference to a “humble” Côtes du Rhône wine. Is it because Côtes du Rhônes are affordable and often made in large quantities that they are saddled with this sad adjective? Whatever the reason, humble isn’t the word I’d use to describe some of the 14 reds and whites I tasted recently, all from the excellent 2020 vintage.

While the name Côtes du Rhône seems to suggest one wine or wine type, there is a wide range of Côtes du Rhône wines—in terms of style, color and geographic location. Côtes du Rhône communes (designated regions) are scattered all over the Rhône Valley, some very close to famous regions like Cornas and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Côtes du Rhône wines can be produced from many different grapes and in three colors—red, white and rosé—though red is far and away the dominant type, accounting for nearly 90% of all Côtes du Rhône wines. Grenache is often the dominant grape, while Mourvèdre and Syrah play supporting roles, except in the northern Rhône where Syrah is key. Depending on grape composition and vineyard location, the wines range from soft-textured and lush with notes of red fruit to more tannic and structured with notes of earth, spice, and red and dark fruit.

Côtes du Rhône whites, which account for about 5% of all Côtes du Rhône production, are varied in character too, from light and simple to textured and rich. The composition might include some or all the following grapes: Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne and Bourboulenc. The dominant grape varies according to place—Grenache Blanc thrives in the south, for example.

Although white Côtes du Rhônes can be hard to find, I made a point of seeking them out and found two I particularly liked: the 2020 Domaine Pélaquié Côtes du Rhône (USD 15), produced in the southern Rhône, and the 2020 Domaine Jamet Côtes du Rhône (USD 46), from the north.

The 2020 Domaine Pélaquié was a light- to medium-bodied, textured white with notes of melon and citrus, produced in vineyards “just in front of Châteauneuf-du-Pape” according to Nicolas Benivay, who handles the domaine’s distribution. A sizable proportion (25%) of the domaine’s production is devoted to white wine, which Mr. Benivay credited to the site and soils, both suited to growing Grenache Blanc, Clairette and Roussanne. He further noted that 2020 was a particularly good year for the wines, “warm but with a perfect situation before harvest, with cold nights and warm days, very good for an optimal maturity.”

The 2020 Domaine Jamet Côtes du Rhône was much more substantial in style and complexity as well as price. A blend of Marsanne, Viognier, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc, it’s a full-bodied white produced from a vineyard just above Côte-Rôtie. It was certainly impressive, but would the Côtes du Rhône name make a drinker pause at the price? I put the question to Anthony Lynch, whose company, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, imports Domaine Jamet wines. “I imagine consumers buy this wine because they want to drink Jamet, not because they want to drink Côtes du Rhône!” Mr. Lynch replied via email.

The Jamets—considered among the best producers in the northern Rhône—don’t have a choice as to the wine’s appellation. However much theirs might outclass a standard Côtes du Rhône white, it has to be labeled as such thanks to the vineyard location.

There are some Côtes du Rhône precincts in the southern Rhône whose wines are allowed to carry the arguably more lofty label of Côtes du Rhône Villages or, more particularly, Côtes du Rhône Villages with the name of a village attached. They are widely regarded as a step up from “regular” Côtes du Rhône, though the truth of this varies according to producer and place.

A few of the Côtes du Rhône Villages wines I tasted were no better and in some cases were actually less interesting than “basic” Côtes du Rhônes. One wine from a fairly new appellation did deliver: the 2020 Frédéric Reverdy Côtes du Rhône Villages Plan-de-Dieu (USD 24). Produced by Ferraton Père & Fils, this Grenache-dominant wine was well-balanced, marked by bright fruit and an earthy note. Although it was fairly high in alcohol (15%) thanks to very ripe fruit it was beautifully balanced.

The 2020 Franck Balthazar Côtes-du-Rhône (USD 28), a nuanced and savory Côtes du Rhône, was a bit closed at the start but unfurled beautifully over several hours. Produced by Franck Balthazar, nephew of famed Cornas producer Nöel Verset, it‘s a well-structured and beautifully balanced Grenache-Syrah blend. The 2020 Domaine Gramenon Sierra du Sud Côtes du Rhône (USD 43) is one of a number of small-production, high-quality Côtes du Rhône wines produced by Michèle Aubéry-Laurent and her son, Maxime-François Laurent. I tasted it with my friends Eberhard and Paulette. While we all admired the wine’s rich texture and depth of flavor, we agreed it needed more time in the bottle. But how well, I wondered, can one expect a “mere” Côtes du Rhône to age?

Eberhard disappeared into his cellar and returned with a well-aged Côtes du Rhône: the 2002 Coudoulet de Beaucastel Côtes-du-Rhône. He liked the wine so much when it was released he bought 25 cases. This was one of his last bottles. I was prepared for anoxidized and over-the-hill wine, but it proved to be a revelation, with notes of earth and spice and soft tannins. It wasn’t the wine that was humble in this case but, rather, the drinker, humbled by the wine in her glass.

1. 2020 Frédéric Reverdy Côtes du Rhône Villages Plan-de-Dieu, USD 24

Named for Ferraton Père & Fils founder Jean Orens Ferraton’s father-in-law, this appealingly toothsome, well-balanced Grenache-Syrah blend is produced from vineyards in the Plan-de-Dieu appellation.

2. 2020 Franck Balthazar Côtes-du-Rhône USD 28

Mr. Balthazar began making wine over 20 years ago when his uncle, famed Cornas producer Nöel Verset, sold him a small parcel. This first-rate Côtes du Rhône is an aromatically gorgeous, savory Grenache-Syrah blend.

3. 2020 Domaine Gramenon Sierra du Sud Côtes du Rhône USD 43

An all-Syrah Côtes du Rhône is fairly uncommon. This explosively aromatic, rather tightly wound red (decanting helps) is one of many Côtes du Rhônes from this small, quality-minded estate.

4. 2020 Domaine Pélaquié Côtes du Rhône USD 15

This bright and lively white with aromas of citrus and melon is produced from a family-owned domaine in the southern Rhône close to Châteauneuf-du-Pape. They also produce wine in Lirac and Tavel.

5. 2020 Domaine Jamet Côtes du Rhône USD 46

With vineyards across Côte-Rôtie, Domaine Jamet is regarded as one of the region’s greatest producers. This white blend—predominantly Marsanne and Viognier—is full-bodied, balanced by bright acidity and a mineral note.