In a nutshell: Warm, rich reds.
Main grapes: Grenache, Syrah.
This is the region of France's most user-friendly wines, and, with Bordeaux, an important source of appellation contrôlée wine. Côtes du Rhône is south-east France's warmer, richer, spicier answer to the dry austerity of AC Bordeaux. The wines of the southern Rhône are France's most alcoholic, with 14-15 per cent by no means uncommon for its most famous appellation, Châteauneuf-du-Pape (and no chaptalisation, or extra alcohol from added sugar, is allowed this far south).
Perhaps it is the alcohol that makes these southern Rhône reds so easy to appreciate. Perhaps it is the openly fruity character of the Grenache grape, which dominates here, concentrated by the relatively low yields forced upon it by the stony soils and low rainfall. Perhaps it's because the southern Rhône is the gateway to Provence, a land of olive trees, cicadas, sunshine and Impressionist summer landscapes.
The wines made in this seductive countryside are, contrarily, best drunk in much cooler climates. They can seem head-thumpingly inappropriate when drunk in the place and season that produces them (although the small proportion of rosés and dry whites made in the southern Rhône solve this problem - see below).
The southern Rhône is an important hunting ground for the merchants of the northern Rhône, and a significant proportion of the wines made here are shipped north in bulk to be sold with a Tain or Tournon address on the label. Co-operative wineries are also extremely important here.
While Côtes du Rhône can come from a vast area of around 42,000 ha (104,000 acres) around the southern end of the French Rhône Valley, Côtes du Rhône-Villages comes from a tightly defined area barely a eighth as big on particularly suitable land north and west of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Some Côtes du Rhône is vinified using the Beaujolais carbonic maceration technique to yield juicy, fruity wines for whom life is short but an increasing proportion is made to last a few years in bottle and can be great value. Among the hundreds of Côtes du Rhône-Villages producers, however, are many with even greater ambitions for their wines, which are made to develop for five and sometimes more years in bottle. With maximum permitted yields a good sixth lower than those allowed for Côtes du Rhône, Côtes du Rhône-Villages is one of France's best-value appellations, perhaps because promotion prospects are so obvious.
Since the appellation was formed in 1966, five of the nearly 20 villages have been granted their own appellations – Beaumes-de-Venise, Gigondas, Rasteau, and Vacqueyras and Vinsobres – and the other village names encountered on labels and also marked on the map produce some seriously fine, often underpriced wines.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the region's most famous and best wine, and all other reds and whites made here apparently use it as their model. Châteauneuf is most famous in wine books as the appellation in which 13 different grape varieties are permitted. In practice, however, the reds are made predominantly from Grenache, supplemented by Syrah, Mourvèdre and, to a decreasing extent, Cinsaut, while the relatively rare whites are made from a more variable recipe including Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc and Roussanne.
Red Châteauneuf is a big, beefy wine with lots of alcohol and extract, with a come-hither, if slightly bludgeoning, approach to the wine drinker. I find this one of France's most reliable appellations, and have had remarkably few disappointments among wines bottled in the signature-embossed, heavy bottle. (In fact if there is a regional fault it is that in some very hot years the wines can be just too alcoholic, and in particularly dry years they can be too tannic.) The fact that so much Châteauneuf meets a certain minimum standard probably reflects the fact that yields have to be kept remarkably low as well as the mandatory selection of only healthy, ripe grapes.
There is considerable variation in how the wines are made, but hi-tech methods are rare here among the pines. The stereotypical Châteauneuf vineyard has low bush vines struggling up for sunlight between large boulders, whose effect is to continue the warming process well into the night, but in fact many of the best vineyards are on much more conventional ground.
White Châteauneuf obeys far fewer rules. Some of them are still very flabby and unappetising, while an increasing proportion have enough fruit and acidity (with, always, lots of alcohol) to make truly interesting bottles. Roussanne can be a particularly interesting ingredient. See Châteauneuf doesn't have to be red.
Châteauneuf has a multitude of good to very good producers, but Beaucastel, Domaine de la Janasse, Domaine de Pegaü, Rayas, Vieux Télégraphe and Clos des Papes are almost always excellent (and Rayas' second label Pignan and even its Côtes du Rhône label Ch de Fonsalette are well above average).
Gigondas is another relatively reliable wine made, as a red and full rosé, in the image of Châteauneuf from higher, rockier ground. It costs less and usually tastes rather more rustic, a characteristic which has its own charm. Reliable names include Château La Bouissieres, de St-Cosme, Les Pallieres and Domaine Les Goubert. Vacqueyras, the other upgraded Côtes-du-Rhône-Village, is not usually quite so dense, but can be very good value.
With the exception of Châteauneuf, whose regulations are stricter than almost any others in France, wherever red wine is made in southern France, rosé is too, most of it being drunk locally during the hot summer months. The Grenache and Cinsaut of the southern Rhône, with their relatively thin skins and open, fruity flavour are particularly suitable for making pink wine. The southern Rhône's most famous rosé by far is Tavel, made on the right bank of the Rhône and a serious, historic wine in its own right. Just as Châteauneuf is France's most positive red, Tavel across the river is its most powerful pink. This is a wine not for gulping in the garden but as a substantial red wine substitute in hot weather. Chilling is essential. Ch d'Aqueria is one of the best-known estates.
Just north of Tavel, Lirac produces considerable quantities of rosé very similar to Tavel and full-blooded red wine, as well as some full-bodied dry white. Domaine de la Mordorée is one of the best producers.
The southern Rhône also produces some sweet, relatively alcoholic vin doux naturel, most famously Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise. This golden, grapey mix of the juice of the best Muscat with alcohol is made in the village of Beaumes-de-Venise, now recognised as a separate appellation. The village of Rasteau has its own special appellation for red and oak-aged tawny vin doux naturel, which has a much less cosmopolitan taste than Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise. (Regular red Rasteau is interesting for the amount of Mourvèdre grown there.)
Many producers make not just, say, a Châteauneuf but also Côtes du Rhône and possibly another wine from one of the named wine villages around Châteauneuf du Pape so for this reason we have not divided this list of favourite producers by appellation.
Some favourite producers: Barroche, Bastide St Dominique, Beaucastel, Chanssaud, Chaume-Arnaud, Clos des Papes, Clos du Caillou, Clos St-Jean, Cuvée du Vatican, Fortia, Fonsalette, Galet des Papes, Gigognan, Giraud, Gourt de Mautens, Gramenon, Janasse, Marcoux, Montirius, Mordorée, Pegau, Rayas, Roger Perrin, St-Cosme, St-Paul, St-Préfert, Solitude, Tardieu Laurent, Raymond Usseglio, Vaudieu, Vieille Julienne, Vieux Télégraphe.
Almost a bridge between the Rhône and Provence is Côtes du Ventoux, whose vineyards lie on the slopes of Mont Ventoux, one of the few peaks ever to be covered in snow for the winter in this region. The Grenache-based reds and rosés are considerably lighter than most Côtes du Rhônes but can be all the more refreshing for it. La Vieille Ferme is a very successful brand built on this appellation by the Perrin family of Ch de Beaucastel. Pesquié and Fondrèche are two of the star producers here.
Coteaux du Tricastin tastes like a halfway house between Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Ventoux even though it is in fact effectively a northern enclave within the Côtes du Rhône-Villages. Grangeneuve is the leading producer. Across the Rhône is the rather similar appellation Cotes du Vivarais, where Domaine du Belvezet has outperformed its neighbours.
Costières de Nîmes is sometimes thrown into the Languedoc but it's really part of the southern Rhone, and its wines tend to taste like a blend between those of the eastern Languedoc and those of the Côtes du Rhone, as one would expect from looking at a map. I have enjoyed wines from de Beck, Grande Cassagne, Mas Neuf, Mourgues du Grès and Ch de Nages.
And finally, the greater Rhône Valley has its curious eastern outpost, around Die on the river Drôme. Hannibal and his elephants are invoked in the names of the local wines, of which the most famous now are sparkling: either dry Crémant de Die made in the image of champagne, or the grapier, fuller Clairette de Die. The co-operative is in charge here.