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The wines of the Cotes du Rhone are loved in America

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California has its "Rhone Rangers," winemakers enamored of the style of wine produced in France's Rhone Valley. Fairview Estate in South Africa pays homage to southeastern France with its "play on words" bottlings--the popular "Goats Do Roam."

What is it that's so lovable about these wines? Is it the name that trips lightly off the tongue, like Chianti Classico or Bristol Cream? Maybe. Yet Bordeaux and Burgundy are nice enough names (easy to pronounce), but their sales in America, like those of most French wine, have suffered during recent political tensions. Champagne sales remain very good, but there never really is enough Champagne, is there? It's an irreplaceable commodity. But solid red wines are plentiful around the globe, so why are Cotes du Rhone sales strong and steady? It's as though this little corner of France were a separate nation.

The Rhone is something akin to a pair of warm slippers. The comfort level of these wines has always been a strong suit. Add rather dependable yearly weather patterns, competitive pricing and less stodgy advertising than its more famous cousins, and the reasons for success seem clearer. I remember a superb national advertising campaign a few years back with a remarkable visual display employed in three major U.S. cities: "Think Red--Think Cotes du Rhone" was emblazoned by an ingenious light display on the sides of the World Trade Center. The wines from the Rhone go so very well with the full flavored, rambunctious cuisine we love in America. Be it grilled beef or chicken, lentil and mushroom entrées, pizza or pot roast, Rhone wines are often an inspired choice.

There's no lack of history behind these magically placed vineyards. The Romans discovered this fertile region about 2,600 years ago, long after it had been settled by wandering tribes and, later, the Celts. As always, the Romans planted vines with great abandon and gusto. These properties, lying only a stone's throw from the Rhone River, could easily ship their wines the short distance to the present-day port of Marseille. From there the wares could be dispatched to other seaside towns.

My tasting of 24 Cotes du Rhone (and closely related areas such as Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas and Ventoux) presented two clear approaches to winemaking style. Grenache, in most instances the core grape, produces many examples of very well made, open and showy styles that are ready to drink upon release. Then there are those that are more brooding and power-packed with complexities; examples that really require bottle age to be fully revealed and appreciated. Price has little to do with these stylistic differences and, in my book, there's plenty of room for both. My aim is for you to consider each style, get the best wines for drinking tonight and perhaps invest in some that will need to be coddled for a couple of years. In many cases, these power-packed wines will be the most exciting given time.

All wines were tasted blindly and the results, as always, were enlightening. Some "all star" wines showed less than spectacularly. Some more outwardly modest entries showed splendidly. Take the 2004 DOMAINE PAUL AUTARD COTES DU RHONE, $10 (87 points). A fine mélange of satisfying fruit, mouth cleansing flavors and long, lingering aftertaste. It's this week's BEST VALUE. Now, look at the 2003 PAUL JABOULET AINE BEAUMES DE VENISE, $16.75 (90). This exuberant Cotes du Rhone is a longtime favorite of mine, just glowing and ready to enjoy. Beaumes de Venise is a village better known for its rare and finely sweet muscat wine. For years this misconception (Beaumes de Venise = muscat) kept its red wine prices ridiculously low. I took full advantage of this in my student years! But the word got out and their memorable reds are now justifiably sought after. How about the 2003 SAINT COSME COTES DU RHONE, "LES DEUX ALBION," $21 (90)? This exotic, highly complex and vigorous wine is delicious, but only just beginning to reveal what's in vitro. Drink this in two to three years and you may wonder if you've ever tasted a better $20 wine.

I only realized, after the bottle was revealed, that there was one older vintage wine in the tasting. And what a wine! The 1998 GIGONDAS, J. VIDAL FLEURIE, $29 (93) emits a heavenly perfume and rich engulfing fruit. It's the kind of wine where a wine writer can make a total ass of himself in overboard poetic description. But that's what the great bottles do: the words just bubble forth. With bottle age, and from a great year, this has become mind-boggling--a perfect example of what cellaring may accomplish. Best of all, it's still available at retail.

All the wines were good except a few not bad but disappointing ones and a single abysmal bottle. In this context, that bottle turned out to be a shock given the general high level of quality. Along with all of their positive elements, the "sure bettedness" of Southern Rhone reds came shining through. So, take one of these home with you tonight. Good quality should know no borders.

CIOMPI'S GRADES

91-100: Wine that seems to give all it is capable of, offering terrific complexities and memorable attributes. Wines at 95 points or greater are extraordinary and worthy of a special search.

83-90: Good to extremely good, with genuine flavor interest and highlights constituting a fine wine.

77-82: Average to quite decent. No true defects, but minor problems hinder charm or excitement. The wine is recommended.

70-76: Irritating flaws and weakness take away pleasure. The wine is drinkable.

69 and under: Undrinkable. Aberrant bouquet and flavor. A turnoff and a failure.

NOT RECOMMENDED

2003 Cotes du Rhone Villages, Feraud-Brunel $15
Gamey, rank, with smells of raw chicken. I wouldn't even taste it. Not spoiled but something is very wrong here. 65

2003 Gigondas, Perrin & Fils, La Gille $23.50
Toasty, lightweight, oaky "charred" fruit. Ripe and vegetal. Lean, astringent flavors. Not totally uninteresting but very flawed. 78

2004 Cotes de Ventoux, La Vieille Ferme $8.50
Light, simple, edgy citric nose. Short flavor that disappears as soon as it arrives. Modest in every way. As recently as 2001 this wine surprised and pleased as a fine value. This newest version trades on an earlier reputation. A washout. 79

2002 Cotes de Ventoux, Les Terraces, Chateau Pesquier $12
Sweet bacon, clean but lean fruit sensation. Very dry and a bit "taxing" on the palate. Tough and lacking fruit. 81

2003 Cotes du Rhone, Parallele 45, Paul Jaboulet Aine $12
Unexpressive, peat moss infused fruit. Odd. It seems to be inhaling any fruit that might be there. Doesn't excite nor turn off. Wishy-washy, drinkable but a nonentity. This wine used to be as dependable as azaleas in April. Another shadow of its former good value status. 82

2004 Cotes du Rhone, Cairanne, Reserve des Seigneurs, F. Alary $15
Grapey, strong, warm climate nose. Solid, one dimensional with lingering off-putting aromas. Ponderous, rough edged and biting flavors. Interesting but perplexing. 83

RECOMMENDED

2004 Cotes du Rhone, Domaine La Montagnette $13
Well constructed with ample, supple berry fruitiness. A brisk refreshing mouthful. Under-stuffed and a bit thin as a drink. Still, quite pleasant. 84

2004 Gigondas, Domaine des Espiers, Cuvee Tradition $29
Subtle, intense with tobacco notes, dark plum and pleasant herb component. Sappy yet not terribly substantial. Comes and quickly goes. Should have more to say. Bottle age may help. 85

2004 Cotes du Rhone,Chusclan, La Ferme de Gicon $8.50
Rounded pretty fruit that coats the sinuses with a veil of pleasure. Grenache shines through a palate with a sweet sense of underlying, chunky fruit. Medium bodied, with just enough complexity. Easy to love, drink and enjoy. 85 BEST BUY

2002 Cotes du Rhone, Domaine d'Andezon, "A" $12
Elusive but direct, focused fruit. Emerges nicely. Roundness in the mouth, rich, accessible and improves well in the glass. A fine grittiness clears the palate. A success in rainy 2002--100 percent syrah. 85

2002 Chateauneuf du Pape, Domaine de la Janasse $35
Strong, minerally nose replete with terroir and subdued fruit. Sticks to your palate with slate, rawhide and tallowy components. Lean but not thin. Good follow-through but ultimately a tough drink. The vintage certainly didn't help. 85

2003 Chateauneuf du Pape, Chateau Mont Thabor $35
Overripe, fat, "greasy" nose. A touch of acetic acid. Earthy and obvious. Delivers rich mouth texture and sturdy flavors. To me a clumsy wine; others might relish the fatness of it all. Better to drink than smell. Controversial. 86

2004 Cotes de Ventoux, Domaine de Cassan, Les Echausels $10.50
Vigorous circle of fine fruit that bursts forth. Solid direct flavors lacking complexity but genuine, soul-satisfying flavors. 86/87 GREAT VALUE

2003 Cotes du Rhone, Chateau D'Aigueville $11.25
Orange rim and a light, ripe color. More like a northern Italian red from Valtellina. Smooth, delicate, subtle and, frankly, un-Rhone like. But good! 87 FINE VALUE

2003 Chateauneuf du Pape, Domaine Chante-Perdrix $33
Forthcoming fruitiness, generous but not terribly deep or complex. Violet-tinged nose, engaging and attractive. Dense and strongly flavored. Ready to drink but a bit drying and tough on the finish. Time will mellow. Drink 2007-10. 87

2003 Cotes du Rhone, M. Chapoutier, Belleruche $16.75
Spicy, piquant, saucy and invigorating nose. Orange, licorice and leathery overtones. Good weight and a balanced mouthful with fine-grained tannins promising improvement. A textbook wine. Drink now-2008. 87

2004 Cotes du Rhone, Domaine Paul Autard $10
Pretty "sweet" impressions. Soft with its fruity core penetrating the sinuses. Fine amalgam that really satisfies. Flavors leave a cleansing, softly sweet impression and a long aftertaste that lingers and finishes dry. Aims to please, not impress. 87 BEST VALUE

2004 Terre de Bussiere,Domaine de la Janasse $14.50
Shy but concentrated bouquet that spurs interest. Firm flavors are not glamorous (now) but decidedly positive in a tightly defined profile (a merlot/syrah blend). "Serious" wine that grows in the glass and on you. No pretty edges, no punches pulled. Buy and cellar. Drink 2008-11. 88

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

2001 Cotes du Rhone Villages, Rasteau, Domaine la Soumade, Cuvee Confiance $35
Delectable but subtle nose. Lavender dominates the varied herbs and spices throughout; a complex, brilliant bouquet. Still compressed and not showing a flowing style at all. Angular, like some Italian Ticino reds. Much complexity, no voluptuousness. Still, a delicious wine that will surely improve and probably deserve a 90+ score. Drink now-2011. 89

2003 Vacqueras, Clos Montirius $24
Attractive, somewhat reticent nose. A baked cherry pie component, herbal and fresh mushroom component (a good thing). Bright, brisk flavors with a warm fruit-filled core. Exciting, eccentric and successful. 89

2003 Cotes du Rhone, Saint Cosme, Les Deux Albion $21
Hugely dark, concentrated color. Roasted, very spicy, wild cherry bark nose. Exotic, "beefy" with a limited earthiness I enjoy thoroughly but may not please everyone. Mouth filling, dramatic and a bit one-dimensional; tremendously solid rather than thrilling. A big boy that will improve further. Best from 2008-10. 90

2003 Cotes du Rhone Villages, Beaumes de Venise, Paul Jaboulet Aine $16.75
Vibrant, fresh grenache fruit bolting out. Totally inviting, resplendent in its generosity. Spice, chocolate, cedar and silky caramel all there to discover. Warm rich mouth feel with long flavors and an energetic fruit finish. Drink now-2009. 90 ALWAYS REMARKABLE

2002 Vacqueras, Perrin & Fils, Les Christins $22
Perhaps the biggest positive surprise of the tasting. From a very weak vintage, Perrin has crafted a superior wine eliminating all but the best fruit and, perhaps, diverting some fruit normally headed for more expensive bottlings into this. A melodious, abundant assembly with fabulous depth and weight. Dark plum, pure and direct--really knocks at the door. Juicy mouth-filling flavor that melts in your mouth. A generous, no holds barred flavor treat. 91 FINE VALUE

1998 Gigondas, J. Vidal Fleury $29
Heavenly overt perfume. Almost Bordeaux-like in its sleek, beguiling and elegant nose, showing its all. Extremely complex with dozens of components adding up to an engulfing bouquet that takes you deeply inside. (I know this sounds totally sexual, but the best wines do that!) Beautiful flavors with grace yet underlying power and terrific length. Goes on and on. A triumph from a great vintage. This shows what cellaring can do--changing a bottle from well constructed into a drink that makes you forget grapes are involved. 93 BEST WINE OF TASTING

The GREAT GRAPES! WINE, ARTS AND FOOD FESTIVAL occurs Saturday, April 22 at the Koka Booth Amphitheatre at Regency Park in Cary. Hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Taste wines from more than 20 of North Carolina's established vineyards. Tickets are $20 at the gate or $17 beforehand. Go to uncorkthefun.com or call 1-800-830-3976 extension 108. This is a very good event, and you get a complimentary wine glass to boot!

Arturo's column appears the second Wednesday of the month. He can be reached at deal5@earthlink.net.

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