For many drinkers, Côtes du Rhône wines are a happy medium. They aren’t the standard Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon, but they taste friendly. They’re easy to find, but not too “common.” They won’t break the bank, but they aren’t cheap plonk, either.
The problem with Côtes du Rhône, however, is that it’s a blanket appellation. Some producers make excellent, interesting, nuanced wines under this label, but others rely on inferior vineyard land and cheaply purchased grapes to up their cash flow while focusing on more costly ventures. Châteauneuf-du-Pape has long garnered attention for producing lauded, age-worthy reds, but those wines come with a healthy dose of sticker shock. The Côtes du Rhône loyalist, accustomed to paying $15 to $20 per bottle, isn’t going to shell out an extra $50 to drink CDP on a regular basis.
It’s worth seeking out four other cru appellations in the warm, sunny southern Rhône. These oft-overlooked areas offer regional specificity, artisanal production, and high quality at bargain prices. Lirac, Vacqueyras, Beaumes-de-Venise, and Rasteau may be less familiar than the ubiquitous Côtes du Rhône, but they offer incredible exploration and value for the in-the-know wine enthusiast. Why settle for what everyone else is drinking?
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Lirac: The OG
Anyone who has an incredibly successful sibling can identify with Lirac. Situated on the western bank of the Rhône River, Lirac is just a stone’s skip across the water from Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It shares much of the region’s famed quartzite soils — the galets roulés, or large, smooth stones, that cover both regions’ red clay. It doesn’t help that the other closest region to Lirac is Tavel, which garners intrigue for being a rare rosé-only appellation.
Lirac is generally treated as an afterthought to its big brother CDP, but make no mistake: Its wines are excellent. Recognized since medieval times, Lirac winemakers were actually the first to label their wines as “C.d.R.,” making it the OG Côtes du Rhône region.
They are also quite diverse, since galets make up only one part of Lirac’s landscape. Sandy and limestone-rich soils give area winemakers the chance to produce red, white, and rosé wines, all characterized by fresh aromatics and structural balance. Lirac wines tend to lean closer to easy-drinking Côtes du Rhône than aggressive Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and prices are typically lower than the southern Rhône’s other crus, meaning that the OG CdR can be part of your regular repertoire.
Vacqueyras: The Next Big Thing
Vacqueyras winemakers believe the best example of Grenache is produced here, in the foothills of the Dentelles de Montmirail. It’s the “diamond” of this southern Rhône variety, they say. (Then again, producers from every southern Rhône cru would probably argue that.)
But the Grenache-based reds of Vacqueyras really do have a diamond-like quality to them, with a careful juxtaposition of power, brilliance, and finesse. For decades, however, small Vacqueyras has played second fiddle — recognition-wise, at least — to its larger neighboring cru, Gigondas.
That won’t be the case for much longer, as Rhône lovers discover the value offered by Vacqueyras reds, whites, and rosés. The soils progress from limestone deposits through sand to the prized plateau des garrigues, which produces powerful, well-structured wines. Vineyards on mountain slopes tend to work better for the juicy, mineral-driven whites and rosés that comprise just 5 percent of the region’s production. Despite the intensity of these reds, there is usually a remarkable delicacy that characterizes Vacqueyras wines. Most Vacqueyras wineries are small, making their wines historically difficult to find. It’s worth the effort: These winemakers offer careful, hand-crafted quality that areas with larger wineries do not.
Beaumes-de-Venise: Altitude Diversity
The southern Rhône is known for intense warmth and sunshine, resulting in full-bodied, powerful wines. The vineyards of the Beaumes-de-Venise appellation, however, use altitude to add freshness to their otherwise concentrated reds. More famous for the sweet, fortified Muscat Beaumes-de-Venise, the region primarily plants Grenache in three different types of soil as vineyards climb farther into the Dentelles de Montmirail mountains. The most elevated of these vineyards have a sprawling view of the southern Rhône, appearing like a mythological paradise with olive trees nestled among vines.
Diversity is one of the hallmarks of this area as well. Lower vineyards below the town of Beaumes-de-Venise produce wines with bigger spice and fruit, while more elevated vines offer lift and linear acidity. This region isn’t geographically far from Gigondas and Vacqueyras, but its wines offer considerably more opportunities for growth and exploration.
Rasteau: Refining Rusticity
The landscape of Rasteau, where unruly vegetation and gnarled vines crawl along the hillside from the tiny namesake village, doesn’t do much to evoke refinement. It feels like the backcountry of the southern Rhône, with south-facing vineyards overlooking the looming Dentelles de Montmirail. If the sun bakes most of the southern Rhône’s regions, it downright broils Rasteau, hence why the region was historically known for producing sticky-sweet, fortified wines. The grapes here have no problem gaining sugar content.
Since 2010, however, more producers have opted to produce dry reds from the old Grenache vines that cover these hills. The vines must dig deep to get water and nutrients in the poor Rasteau soil, creating fruit that is structured and concentrated. Lovers of unapologetically bold wines will gravitate toward the heat and heartiness of Rasteau. There is certainly a rustic edge to many of the wines produced here, along with intensely tangy acidity, but producers are newly attempting to imbue their wines with more elegance.
Drink These Four Southern Rhône Wines
Juicy yet layered, with savory and herbal elements, this Lirac is excellent for pairing or solo sipping. Average price: $18.
Dark fruit is lifted by high-toned, herbal acidity. Average price: $20.
Brooding and intense, this sustainably-produced wine has a certain earthy wildness to it. Average price: $20.