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August 28, 2011

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Good budget wines

BUYING budget wines is inherently risky as many inexpensive wines are simply awful. This is less true in wine producing countries where low-priced, drinkable wines are more readily available, but especially true in countries like China with sizable import taxes. When shopping for good value wines the region and producer become the most important factors in successfully picking a good wine. One region I'm happy to introduce is the southern Rhone, home to Cotes du Rhone wines.

Short history

Wines have been made in the southern Rhone since pre-Roman times and became especially popular during the schism when the Catholic Church was headquartered in Avignon. Several of the Avignon Popes were active in promoting as well as consuming local wines. The acronym CDR was introduced in 1737 as an official brand to be protected by the government. A century later these letters were expanded into the modern name Cotes du Rhone. In English the name Cotes du Rhone means "slopes of the Rhone" and the wines account for about 80 percent of the region's production. Most CDR wines come from a large area north of Avignon in the Southern Rhone and because of the large production there's plenty of good, but also bad Cotes du Rhone wines available in Shanghai. Here are three factors to consider when choosing a good bottle of Cotes du Rhone red wines.


An important factor that gives Cotes du Rhone wines their distinctive character is the numerous grapes that can be used in the blend. Unlike their neighbors in the northern Rhone, where many of the great reds are single variety Syrah wines, Cotes du Rhone wines can have up to 23 different varieties. The four most important are Grenache, which, depending what region of the Rhone the wine comes, can be about 40 percent of the blend, Syrah, Mourvedre and Carignan. In the blend Grenache contributes alcohol, fruitiness, spices and a round texture, while the noble variety Syrah adds deep color, aromas and flavors of raspberry, black current, pepper and floral notes. Mourvedre provides intensity, tannins and spices and Carignan typically adds color, tannins, alcohol and often an earthy quality to the wines. The best Cotes du Rhone wines are all about the art of the blend and each sub-region and wine maker has their own ideal blend that makes these wines a never ending discovery of diversity.


When deciding on what Cotes du Rhone red to buy, picking the right producer is critical. Readers of this column have certainly heard this before, but the huge number of producers and varying quality of these wines makes this statement especially valid with Cotes du Rhone wines. There are 10,000 growers, 1,500 wineries and about 250 million bottles annually of Cotes du Rhone. Most are not available in Shanghai but some of the best large producers who have wines widely available in local shops and restaurants are Guigal, Jaboulet and Chapoutier. Some smaller producers with very good Cotes du Rhone red wines are Chateau Rayas, Saint Cosme, Ferraton and Chateau Gigognan. Another key in selecting a Cotes du Rhone wine is the alcohol content. The legal minimum alcohol content is 11 percent but I strongly suggest avoiding all wines below 12 percent alcohol as the ripeness of the fruit is insufficient.


Cotes du Rhone red wines are not brash or ostentatious and don't dominate a meal, rather they subtly enhance a wide range of dishes. In the West we commonly pair the wines with all types of meats as well as grilled fish. Cotes du Rhone reds are also ideal companions to informal foods like pizza and pastas. The fruity and spicy nature of these wines also make them good matches with a variety of Asian dishes that feature sauces and spices that may overwhelm more subtle wines. I suggest trying Cotes du Rhone red with Sichuan style chopped chicken with spicy sauce, Thai roasted duck in red curry sauce with fresh seasonal fruits and herbs. Also, always chill your Cotes du Rhone reds slightly before serving.


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