The Côtes du Rhône is a sprawling region in France’s Rhone Valley, and it’s actually home to a pair of similar-sounding levels of wine: Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages. The difference can be particularly confusing, because the areas overlap and intersect. The 411 on what you really need to know here is that Cotes du Rhone Villages specifies a higher quality of wine with a more restricted geography — though it’s also a rather large appellation.
Here’s how they’re distinguished, in brief:
Classified as an AOC in 1937, Côtes du Rhône is the largest appellation in the Rhône Valley, covering 171 communes, and offers top value for its approachable price point, often found for less than $20. These blended wines are primarily made with Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre [GSM] for reds and rosés or Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Marsanne, Roussanne, Bourboulenc and Viognier for the whites. While they vary from producer-to-producer they will have a deep concentration yet still a bright, vibrant palate. They are crowd-pleasers and reliable wines that are widely distributed.
The more restrictive Côtes du Rhône Villages was recognized in 1967 with appellation status. Côtes du Rhône Villages has stricter production regulations in regards to maximum yield and minimum alcohol, and different guidelines for blending and grape percentages. Additionally, they are produced from top vineyards around 95 villages only in the Southern Rhône. These conditions together with the expertise of the talented producers yield unique wines that have a more distinct sense of place and layers of complexity and character.
Recently we had the opportunity to try four recent releases of these wines, two from each quality level — though oddly both the Cotes du Rhone bottlings we received were more expensive. Does a “Villages” designation always mean you’re getting a better wine? Let’s find out.
2018 Éric Texier Chat Fou Cotes du Rhone – A blend of (red) grenache and some white varietals, this is “no ordinary Rhone wine,” per the label. Unfortunately, it’s no great shakes, a quickly forgettable mix of intense earth and flabby fruit that lacks some needed vibrancy, eventually finishing on a note of tobacco, prune, and sticky mud. C- / $20
2017 Stephane Ogier Le Temps Est Venu Cotes du Rhone – This is a more iconic bottling of Cotes du Rhone, with a vibrant fruitiness and notes of tea leaf, bold raspberry, and some bay leaf elements. A silky body pumps up blackberry and cassis notes, with some chocolate and allspice evident on the finish. Delightfully satisfying. A- / $20
2017 Lavau Cotes du Rhone Villages – A silky, chocolate-heavy wine, Lavau has a simple construction but a focused one — plums and currants, with plenty of caramel-laced chocolate notes bringing up the rear. There’s a surprising hint of citrus on the finish, some tart lemon working to brighten things up a bit and breathe a bit of extra life into an otherwise straightforward — and well-priced — bottling. B+ / $13
2017 Louis Bernard Côtes du Rhône Villages Rouge – Classically structured, this wine melds lots of earth and spice with a curiously nutty undercarriage, almost pistachio-like on the finish. The iconic density of the Rhone Valley is fully on display in this wine, yet it comes across with a surprisingly light touch, its currants melding with strawberry notes on the expressive conclusion. B+ / $13