Village People

If you read my blogs or if you like the Rhône Wine Tours Facebook page (here’s the link, I don’t need to tell you that I love the wines from this region. Still, nothing’s ever perfect and so, just for once, and without wanting to come across like the grinch that stole Christmas, I want to get a complaint of my chest. But in order for me to do it, you need to know a bit of background…

Most of the wines made in the Rhône are covered by a four layer hierarchy. Here are the basics:

Level 1, Côtes-du-Rhône covers 171 “communes” (the idea of  a commune doesn’t translate easily but think village and you’re just about there). As long as a commune’s winemaker sticks to rules regarding, for example, what grape varieties he or she can grow, the resulting wine can be sold as Côtes-du-Rhône.

A label from a simple Cotes-du-Rhone. This is unusual because i was made by a (very) small-scale producer based in the northern Rhone when almost all CdR comes from the southern sector.

A label from a simple Côtes-du-Rhône. This wine is unusual because it was made by a (very) small-scale producer, Francois Corompt, based in the northern Rhone, when almost all CdR comes from the southern sector.

95 of the 171 communes have a higher ranking – Level 2, Côtes-du-Rhône Villages – and should be making better wine. Provided slightly tighter rules are followed, wines from these communes can be called Côtes-du-Rhône Villages. Otherwise, the catch-all Côtes-du-Rhône label applies.

Level 3, Named Villages. 18 of those 95 have been singled out because they have (supposedly) something special about them. These are the “Named Villages” and a wine from one of these has a label that states both Côtes-du-Rhône Villages and the name of the village itself. Here’s the list of 18 villages in full:

Cairanne, Chusclan, Gadagne, Laudun, Massif d’Uchaux, Plan de Dieu, Puymeras, Roaix, Rochegude, Rousset-les-Vignes, Sablet, St. Gervais, St. Maurice, St. Pantaleon-les-Vignes, Séguret, Signargues, Valréas and Visan

A typical label for a wine from a Named Village. Underneath the vintage you have the producer's name (Domaine Castan), the "village" name, Signargues, and then, under that, Côtes-du-Rhône Villages.

A typical label for a wine from a Named Village. Underneath the vintage (2012) you have the producer’s name, Domaine Castan, the “village” name, Signargues, and then, under that, Côtes-du-Rhône Villages. Just to confuse matters even more, there isn’t actually a village called Signargues; it’s the name given to a group of four tiny neighbouring villages. Nobody said French wine was easy.

At the very top you have Level 4, Cru. There are 16 Cru wine regions, 8 in the north and 8 in the south, responsible for the most famous wines of the Rhône Valley. In the north you have Château Grillet (actually a single estate), Condrieu, Cornas, Côte-Rôtie, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, St. Joseph and St. Péray. And in the south, Beaumes-de-Venise, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Lirac, Rasteau, Tavel, Vacqueyras and Vinsobres.

All sixteen are in fact part of the Côtes-du-Rhône family – they’re essentially just posher versions – but in most cases the wines don’t mention CdR on the label, so unless you have an intimate knowledge of French geography you wouldn’t know.

You might have noticed that the classification only deals with the villages not the wineries (“domaines”) themselves. That means that domaines in the Rhône, many of which will have a dozen vineyard plots or more, can make a range of wines with different official quality levels depending on exactly where the vines are planted. It also means that a great winemaker in an unrecognised village may only be able to make a wine carrying, at best, the Côtes-du-Rhône label while a poor winemaker in, say, Hermitage will still be able to sell his wine as Hermitage (with corresponding price tag, no doubt).

Coralie Goumarre in the doorway of her cellar at Domaine Galevan.

Coralie Goumarre’s Domaine Galévan estate lies at the junction of three appellations, Côtes-du-Rhône, Côtes-du-Rhone Villages and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Because she has vineyards in all three areas she’s able to make a range of wines of different status.

You might also have noticed that there’s no “Grand Cru”catergory in the Rhône. It’s not that the best wines aren’t worth it, it’s just that the Rhône uses a different vocabulary to Burgundy (where you will find Grand Cru), which in turn uses different terms to Bordeaux. And Alsace. Oh, and the Loire too.

Now that all might seem a little complicated, but that’s not my complaint. Personally, I don’t have a problem with classifying the villages according to potential quality, as long as the classification reflects some form of reality. My issue is the creeping promotion of less deserving villages and the potential that has for devaluing the very idea of the hierarchy – if every village ended up a Cru then the very idea of a Cru would become meaningless.

Some of the 16 Cru have greater reputations than others (as you’ll notice when you pay for a bottle of Côte-Rôtie and a bottle of Lirac) but I sense a general acceptance that all have met some sort of hypothetical minimum standard that makes them worthy of of their Cru status. And come 2016, the Named Village of Cairanne is likely to join the list. Now Cairanne has enough great producers like Marcel Richaud and Domaine Alary to show that it has something special about it. The question is, how special? If you accept that every one of the existing 16 should be a Cru then I’d say fair enough, Cairanne, too, is worthy.  But one could argue that 16 Cru were already too many and that the number should be reduced rather than increased, with certain lesser Cru being demoted to join Cairanne in the Named Village category. (But then to start naming names you would have to be braver than I.)

More difficult to defend is the list of Named Villages. Some have a number of excellent estates – Séguret can count on Domaine du Morchon, Domaine Jean David and La Fontaine des Fées, to name just three – others have just one or two star producers, but sometimes it seems that politics and power have as much influence as the quality of the wine. For example, Domaine des Escaravailles and Domaine Elodie Balme make great Roaix (although both are actually based in neighbouring Rasteau), but in volume terms production is dominated by the Roaix-Séguret growers’ co-operative which makes some distinctly average stuff (and that’s me being polite). The question is do you rank the village highly because of two talented estates or on the back of the vast majority of Roaix? If you’re judging the whole village rather than individual estates, which is more representative of Roaix’s ultimate potential?

What’s worse is that there are some Named Villages where there isn’t a single producer that would justify their special status. St. Pantaléon-les-Vignes and next door village Rousset-les-Vignes have none that would lead you to think that their terroir is special. The village of Puymeras went from a generic Côtes-du-Rhône Villages to a Named Village in 2005 and while I’ve had individual tasty, honest wines, that’s not enough to make me think that the promotion was merited. (I don’t want you to think I’m picking on those three – I could go on.)

Looking down the rows of vines in St. Pantaleon, early evening in July. There's another major local crop, lavender, at the end of the row.

Looking down the rows of vines in St. Pantaleon, early evening in July. There’s another major local crop, lavender, at the end of the row. Yes it’s pretty, but that’s not enough to make it a Named Village.

And there’s more. Next year Sainte Cécile, Suze-la-Rousse and Vaison-la-Romaine will probably make the jump to Named Village status. Why?

I want to say straight away that I work with an estate based in Sainte Cécile, Domaine Rouge Bleu, and it makes excellent wines, Cru standard in fact. But again one estate doesn’t make an argument for promoting a whole village.

Thomas bringing in the harvest at Domaine Rouge Bleu, the stand out estate in Sainte Cécile.

Bringing in the harvest at Domaine Rouge Bleu, the stand out estate in Sainte Cécile.

Patrice and Chloë Chevalier at Mas Poupéras in Vaison-la-Romaine make great wines, but nobody else in the area comes close. As for Suze-la-Rousse, well the LePlan-Veermeersch estate has an ambitious pricing policy, if that’s enough to justify anything.

Patrice Chevalier who makes the Mas Pouperas wine with his wife Chloë.

Patrice Chevalier who makes the Mas Poupéras wine with his wife Chloë.

So by the end of 2016 we could have 17 Cru and 20 Named Villages. Too many, I think. I love the Rhône and its wines, but when everybody has a high status then the title means nothing. Better to let the truly special regions shine. A shake-up is in order, but who’s going to accept being demoted?

Santé and Joyeaux Noël (with a small helping of bah humbug),


Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. If you’d like to visit some of the places that really are worthy of their status just get in touch with us – here’s the link to our home page which has our contact details. There’s also a Facebook page with (much) shorter pieces and lots of photos.





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