On this episode of “Next Round,” host Zach Geballe chats with Florence Quiot of Rhône Valley winery Famille Quiot and Christophe Tassan of The Battery in San Francisco to discuss the wines of Côtes du Rhône. Listeners will learn about this region — located in the very south of France — that produces high-quality reds, whites, and rosés.
Quiot and Tassan explain that the region is best known for its blends of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre, which are beloved for their rich balance of fruit flavors and freshness. Finally, our guests suggest food pairings that go well with the wines from Côtes du Rhône.
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Zach Geballe: From Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe and this is a “VinePair Podcast” “Next Round” conversation. Today, we’re chatting about the Côtes du Rhône, and we have the privilege of having two experts with us. First, Florence Quiot who is the owner of Quiot Vineyards in the Côtes du Rhône, and then Christophe Tassan, who is a sommelier and a wine director at The Battery in San Francisco. Florence and Christophe, thank you so much for joining us.
Florence Quiot: Thank you very much.
Christophe Tassan: My pleasure, bonjour.
Z: Excellent. It’s so nice to have both of you. I wish my French were strong enough that we could do this in French. Sadly, we’ll stick to English for this. Florence, I want to start with you and just a very simple but important question here. When we talk about the Côtes du Rhône, where are we? Where in France are we? And what wine region are we talking about?
F: We are in the very south of France, near Avignon, the very famous city of the popes. It is a wonderful area for tourism, for lavender, and everything.
Z: When it comes to a broad understanding of the wine styles that are made in the Côtes du Rhône, I know you make red, white, and rosé, but can you give a very general idea of what the wines are like?
F: I think the wines are quite fruity, but you have a lot of complexity. Generally, you have some wine from blends, of course, GSM are most well known for Rhône blends. When you have a Côtes du Rhône in your glass, it’s a tradition in your glass. Also, this is the landscape of glass, terrior, and I think this is more than just wine. This is a culture that we have here.
Z: Very cool. Christophe, when we talk about these wines here in the United States and serving them in restaurants and things like that, in your experience professionally, where do you most often encounter these wines?
C: Thank you, by the way, for asking to locate Côtes du Rhône geographically. I believe, as Florence explained, it is one of the most important factors of the wine and how the wine comes out to it so I might use a reference point to that which is well known for the people watching the Tour de France. Mont Ventoux is a part of the Rhône Valley and everybody knows to climb it with a bicycle. That’s where the Côtes du Rhône is located, and it’s probably one hour to the shore, to the Mediterranean Sea, which is important to notice in the sense that the climate has a huge influence. It’s often very helpful when you present the Rhône Valley wines to a table. Then, to answer your question of where do you find them, somehow having Rhône Valley, Côtes du Rhône, and Côtes du Rhône Villages AOC on the wine list is an opportunity to bring to a table the lifestyle of the Côtes du Rhône area. Avignon is the capital of gastronomy, so it’s a huge deal, the lifestyle and the meals. I think the Rhône is pretty well set for food pairing at a table or munching around or for bites.
Z: Christophe, this is also a somewhat simple question, but I think it’s important to get this out there early on. Florence mentioned that the wines from the Côtes du Rhône are generally blends. Is that true for just the reds, or is that true for white and rosé as well?
C: Through the centuries, the Rhône vineyards have been built around how the civilizations developed around the river. That was a way to communicate and travel in the old days. Vienne was the birthplace of many vineyards after the Romans instilled peace during the Pax Romana era. There has always been a tradition of blending, in the sense that the climate is sometimes not friendly down there. You have a lot of wind, and you have a lot of different soil. There was always a tradition of creating the blend. One year, the Grenache is going to be the main one in the blend, and another year, it is very fragile with flowers, wind, and rain, so the Syrah and Mourvèdre are there to help. There are 26 different grapes that can be in the blend. As well as the rosé and the white wines, this allows us to play with the the soils and create a complexity that somehow is going to come out in a consistent manner. If you have a single grape, you’re more sensitive to variation. The concept of blending is set up to accommodate nature and climate challenges. It’s a better way to answer and to have consistency in the production, I believe.
Z: Interesting. On this question of blending and understanding the way the wines are made, I think one thing that I’ve heard from customers in the past and from other wine professionals sometimes is that there’s this interesting question when you’re talking about making blends. Are you trying to make a wine that is very similar, year to year, in terms of the finished taste? Or are you trying to stick to similar proportions of different varieties? How do you and your winery approach blending? Is it about looking at the final product? Or is it about sticking to a pretty standard proportion of grapes?
F: I would say as a producer, of course, the vineyard stays the same every year, so we have the same grape varieties. Proportions can be different, but what is quite important when we are making some wine is the profile of the wine. For example, if we decided to have a round and fresh white wine from Côtes du Rhône, year after year, we have to keep the same profile. However, the wine won’t be the same every year because the climate is changing, so it’s not the same wine. That is what is very important and very interesting in our job. With the same grape variety and the same terroir, we can either make one kind of wine or another. Generally, we try to stay on the same profile, but there is some change every year. This diversity is a gift from nature. We don’t want to make the same wine every year with the same profile of wine. When the customer opens our bottle, they’ll know what they will get, but vintage after vintage, it will be slightly different.
Z: OK, and on that general topic, Florence, with a question about changes. In the time that you’ve been running things at Famille Quiot, in the way you approach winemaking or the growing, how have things changed in the time you’ve been there?
F: I would say that things are changing because the world is changing. We have to adapt over time, for example, with Covid.
Z: Yes, of course.
F: We have to adapt to when we are working, but also our way of exporting and everything. We have to adapt year after year, and decade after decade. For example, biodiversity. Twenty years ago, it was nothing. Nobody had heard about this, and now it’s very important. This is just one thing, but we adapt every time.
Z: OK, can you talk a little more about biodiversity? I find this really fascinating. What is actually done in the vineyards and around the vineyards to promote biodiversity?
F: There are many things and I think that each producer has its own way of taking care of the environment. You can be organic, you can be sustainable, or you can have none of these certifications but are still taking care of the environment. This means you are taking care of trees, and bees. When you are making some treatments, you are also trying not to put too many products in. So as a producer, the source and terrior are our main property, so it will be totally stupid to destroy them. We have to take care of each one in its own way in taking care of its own property.
Z: I want to come back to some of this in a little bit and talk more about what’s going on in the appellation itself, but Christophe, talking again about these wines in the context of restaurants here in the United States. I think for most people their first point of entry for wines from the Côtes du Rhône is going to be with red wines. They’re more widely available. They’re a little more well known. And I think they fit a flavor profile that a lot of people who enjoy these red blends and fruit-driven wines with complexity and earthiness will appreciate. Can you talk a little bit about someone who might be interested in trying a rosé or a white wine, what they might be looking at in terms of some of the varieties involved, and what the wines might be like? Obviously, it’s hard to make too many generalizations. It’s a big region with a lot of different producers doing different things but as an overview, what do those styles look like?
C: You’re right. Mostly, the Côtes du Rhône, Côtes du Rhône Villages, and the Rhône Valley are a picture of us as red wine. It’s just simply because two-thirds of the wines produced are red. This is a southern geographical-located vineyard and therefore, with a very warm climate, which invites more to elaborate red wines than whites and rosé. Interestingly, the rosé production has grown up on a regular motion for almost over 20 years. With the white wine, I’m going to go back to the tradition of co-planting in the vineyard, which is very specific to the Rhone Valley in the old days, like the early ‘30s or 19th century later, 20th century, the white varieties were co-planted in the vineyard in the middle of the reds. The white varietal was a way — when the winemaking was not temperature controlled, maybe with other technical assets — to influence the wine. The white varietals were a way to bring acidity to the wine. Traditionally, the white varieties that you can find in the Rhône Valley, like Claret (or Clairette) of course, White Grenache, Marsanne, and Viognier are bringing freshness. Naturally, early in the ’80s, because of the tools that you can use on the cellars, the white wine is vinified separately. And everybody finds it so enjoyable because you have that complexity with freshness still and the dry version of it. Now you find them frequently on tables because I think these whites from the Côtes du Rhône from the right bank, from the village of Laudun, for example, or even the rosé from the Côtes du Rhône, are rosé wines that are co-fermented. There is a short skin contact to the process that was meant to add to the complexity and the enjoyment to it. Now, these wines are amazing, the drinks and beverages, to enjoy with food pairings because they are so friendly and seasonal. With the Rhône being one of the producers of orchards and vegetables, all of these goods go to the Rungis market in Paris, which is the first market in France because that’s the Mediterranean lifestyle. These wines nowadays, the Côtes du Rhône whites and rosé, are such a delight to enjoy with the seasonal leaves, vegetables, spring, and summer. The rosé has been such a fruitful wine that you might enjoy obviously, without much knowledge. You don’t need to know wine to enjoy these wines. They are just delivering. They have such potential to trigger your emotion, your senses. And yes, they are very fruity as Florence mentioned earlier.
Z: Excellent. Florence, bringing us back to the area itself, you mentioned at the beginning where we are in the connection to Avignon, both historically and still currently. For someone who might say, like me and dreaming of going to France sometime in the not-too-distant future, what is it like to actually be in the region in terms of the landscape? What would someone visiting do, besides obviously just drinking and eating, which are all I really ever care to do on vacation, but someone might want a few other ideas?
F: What is quite interesting in our area is, of course, the landscape. You have the Ventoux, Dentelles de Montmirail, which has very lovely nature. You have a lot of flowers, of course. During summer, you have fewer flowers because it is so hot, but if you love the heat and everything, you can come. Even during your winter, you have wonderful weather. We also have a lot of museums. We have a very rich history. Of course, Le Palais de Papes, Le Pont d’Avignon, Pont du Gard. They are very famous because we have a very big story with the Romans and Greeks. We have a lot of old monuments. You can also play sports because we have the Rhône River, so there is some kayaking. There are spots you can climb and also ride bicycles at Mont Ventoux.
Z: Maybe on foot, definitely not on a bike. Very cool. And I know the answer to this, but I would like to give you both the opportunity. This is also a wonderful area for gastronomy. If I recall it, it’s definitely one of the parts of France that have some of the highest density of Michelin star restaurants. If someone comes there and is expecting to enjoy more traditional cuisine, what are some dishes that people might want to be familiar with?
C: I would as well mention that if you pick a central location like Valence or if you stay in Avignon, you have everything around you within a 30-minute drive, which is nothing for American drivers. Then, yes, you have all of these wonders around. In terms of the specialties of the Rhône, I’m going to start in a funny way, hopefully. In Lyon, in northern Rhône, it is almost a different country because they cook with butter. In the south of Rhône, in Avignon, you cook with olive oil, so that’s almost a different culture. But yes, it offers this amazing diversity of cooking. Interestingly, in the south, close to Avignon as we mentioned earlier, it’s interesting to notice that you don’t have cow pastures. You have a lot of sheep, a lot of goats. Therefore, you’re going to have sheep milk cheeses, goat meat cheeses, and all of these specialties as well related to the river. They are specialties like red wine sauce. You’re going to have a lot of roasted lamb at barbecues with lamb that is delightful. You have young goat specialties and then some of the river fishes that are still-water fishes. You have pike, and one of the most known specialties is probably the Pike Quenelle, made with and that with Syrah is amazing or you can go with this nutty flavor of the Côtes du Rhône white with a Marsanne. Then, in the south, you have a lot of specialties that are related to outside picnics and sharing with friends. You go with the tablecloth, you put it on the grass, and then you open your bottle of rosé with some of the local charcuterie, some of the cheese, and lots of vegetable gardens. Then it can go to what is a specialty, which is an omelet with herbs, tomatoes, and layers. There are so many vegetable-based specialties. You have pig trotters or lamb trotters specifically with a white wine sauce that is a specialty from the Rhône that goes amazingly with white wine and rosé. Then, I’m trying to think about a lot of the production of the tomatoes that go well with all of these rosé wines. I’m sure I’m missing a few other specialties, but there is a tradition of using anchovies as salt in the south of France. That is enhancing the taste of many things, bases, and sauces. Talking about rosé, there is a specialty like an aioli, which is a poached cod fusion just with the poached vegetables, a hard-boiled egg, and garlic sauce. I mean, that is an amazing specialty down there that is a delight with rosé and white.
Z: Excellent. Florence, did Christophe miss anything? I feel extremely hungry, so I don’t think he missed much.
F: I would just add that what is quite interesting is that with Côtes du Rhône, you can eat everything quite simply with everything. The wines can go with pizza. Of course it’s not a lot there, but you can do that. There are the Mediterranean dishes, as Christophe said, tomatoes, of course, are very simple because it’s very hot here. For example, today, it was 35°C (95° F). It was very hot, so when we were home, we opened a bottle with some tomatoes, vegetables, and drank a little glass, and this is everything. This is just something from our lifestyle.
Z: You mentioned the temperature today, and obviously we’re recording this in the middle of June so we’re still probably not at the hottest days. And it’s something we discussed before we recorded this that was of interest to me was the sense that in regions like Côtes du Rhône, where there is a lot of historical experience with hot weather, the sense is that you are better prepared to deal with increased temperatures due to climate change. Is that true or false? And how do you, as a grower and producer, handle hotter weather?
F: I couldn’t say it’s not true because everything you said is right. However, I would say when I was younger, when I was a kid, I remember a harvest at the end of August. Last year, the harvest was mainly between the 5th and the 15th of September. The harvest is not earlier, but what is different is that the climate is not the same, so it can change. For example, two weeks ago, it was quite cold here, and today it was very hot. We had a very rainy spring, but now it’s very hot and very dry, so it changes all the time. For example, in March, it is raining. In April, things are changing, so we have to adapt. This is the main difference, I think.
Z: Gotcha. I don’t want to get too much into the technical details, but when you deal with these changes, is that another reason why making wines that are blends is an advantage? As Christophe said at the beginning, you’re not as beholden to one variety that might be more affected by these changes than another?
F: Yes, it could be. For example, this year there was a very, very big frost. Mainly the Grenache was impacted because the flowering and everything is earlier normally. Grenache may freeze, but that means that with many different varieties, we can adapt. For example, some varietals can be more impacted with some illness or with dryness, so blending can be an advantage.
Z: OK, gotcha. I think I just want to leave things with this last question for each of you. I think that we’ve got to know a lot in this conversation about what makes the place and the wines special. This is for our listeners who are still somewhat unfamiliar with the wines or might have had them once or twice, but not consider them part of their regular drinking regimen. If you could make a short sales pitch for wines from the Côtes du Rhône? Christophe, if you don’t mind starting with whether it’s what you already say to the tables or why people should drink these wines?
C: Yes, my pleasure. Be curious. Give Côtes du Rhône or Côtes du Rhône Villages a chance to get to your table. Better than us, the wine will tell you the story of its place, so that’s the magic of the Rhône Valley wine. I’ve often found that if you enjoy wines and you are a wine lover, there are two parts to your approach to wine, of the tasting. There is the sensitive and emotional part that is created by the wine, and there is the intellectual part triggered by your knowledge. I truly believe that the wine of the Côtes du Rhône has the capacity to trigger your emotions, even if you’re not familiar with wine. Give it a chance, and we can share together. Also, thank you, Zach, for driving us to share our input on the approach of the Côtes du Rhône wines. I would recommend really highly to make that difference between Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages. If there is a village suggestion, it’s because the place matters, and the name of the village will tell you on a map where the wine is coming from. There are 17 of them, maybe over 22, that can share more of a specific character because of the new ones, like Nyons is one of the most eastern, but it has a cooler climate. Then if you go to the Massif d’Uchaux, you are a little more northern. Now, you have a cooler area as well. If you go on the right bank, as we said with the Chusclan or Laudun, you have a lot of freshness in the wine and probably more of a white wine, too. Anyways, please make yourself familiar with the name and the name of a village because on the label, you will read Côtes du Rhône Villages appellation. To me, that is a higher level than the Côtes du Rhône that can be your daily friend.
Z: Florence, anything to add?
F: Yes, I would say that Côtes du Rhône is available to all types of customers, from the beginner to the experts. You can have it all the time: during a meal, at a picnic, or as an aperitif. We have some white, rosé, and red. You have some very simple wine and some very complex ones because of the blend. We also have some with just one grape variety. From the beginner to the expert, that can be very interesting after you have wine from Côtes du Rhône or Côtes du Rhône Villages. I think it’s impossible to not find the wine you will be fond of, so you can try many Côtes du Rhônes, and you will discover a region with great variety and terroir. I would say try it yourself and after, you will be fond of it.
Z: Christophe and Florence, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate learning more about the Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages from both of you. I look forward to tasting more of these wines in the future.
F: Thank you very much.
C: Thank you, Zach.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please give us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits, VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and in Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.