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Côtes of many colors
Let's open our wine dictionaries and devote today's discussion to one of the most common terms we find among French wine names: "Côte," in a variety of related forms that all mean "hillside" or "slope," quietly speaks to the importance of geography in general, and terrain in particular, in the business of growing grapevines.
Somewhat confusingly to English speakers who may be most familiar with the word in the Riviera's "Côte d'Azur" ("blue coast"), "Côte" can also mean "coast," and just to make matters worse, it also means "rib." Lose the circumflex accent (the little pointed roof over the "o," which does in fact disappear in our text edition), or add an acute accent over the "e," and things will get even more confusing. Let's not go there today.
Keeping this relatively simple, "Côte," its plural "Côtes" and the more-or-less synonymous "Côteaux" and "Costières," appear in scores of French wine-region names (appellations), invariably reflecting the zone's hillside status. Look at a map of Burgundy's Côte d'Or - which you'll recall is made up of the Côte de Beaune and the Côte de Nuits - and you'll find the most respected vineyards - the Grand Crus - forming a neat belt that runs along the the middle of the Burgundian slope, geographically lording it over the generic-Burgundy vineyards on the flatland below and nudging the second-tier Premier Cru vineyards toward the top and bottom of the hill.
With a few noteworthy exceptions around the world - the vineyards in much of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Bordeaux in France, Napa's Rutherford Bench and Australia's Coonawarra, for example, lie as flat as cornfields - many of the most favored vineyards enjoy hillside locations, on well-drained soils of minerally character, basking in the afternoon sun.
It's the same in the broad Rhône Valley, source of the two wines featured in my tasting today. On the left bank, the huge Côtes-du-Rhône, which extends over much of the region, draws its name from the hillsides capped by Les Dentelles de Montmirail ("Montmirail's Lace"), a craggy row of limestone peaks that rise beyond Gigondas. Across the river to the west of Avignon, where we're technically no longer in the Rhône wine region but Languedoc, the Costières de Nîmes wine region rises south of the city of Nîmes to a rocky hilltop called Les Cassagnes.
Both these wines, from opposite sides of the river, share similar blends of grapes and, despite a three-year difference in bottle age, a kinship in style: Bright and appropriately fruity, structured with firm acidity and perceptible tannins that make them excellent companions at the dinner table if a bit on the tart side for casual sipping.
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E. Guigal 2000 Côtes du Rhône ($13.99)
This is an inky dark-garnet wine showing no visual signs of age; black at the core, still clear at the edge. Complex aromas show anise, herbal and floral notes over red-berry fruit that's present but not forward. On the palate it's bright, juicy and tart, cherry-berry fruit and lemon-squirt acidity with distinct tannic astringency. A blend of 50% Grenache, 25% Mourvédre and 25% Syrah that spends a year in oak, it's bone-dry, tart and tannic, somewhat austere, the kind of almost sour dry red that I remember fondly from anonymous pitchers in Paris bistros. U.S. importer: Ex Cellars Wine Agencies Inc., Solvang, Calif. (Oct. 23, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: Fine with a simple dinner of leftover Italian braised beef, chopped with its tomato-based braising sauce over penne pasta.
VALUE: The price I paid locally was quite high for this simple Côtes du Rhône from a mass-market producer, not a good value. Both the 2000 and 2001 are widely available in the range of $8 to $10, at which level it is an appropriate value.
WHEN TO DRINK: This one was probably more fruit-forward a year or two ago; shedding some of its fruit now, still fine with food, but I would look for younger vintages.
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French Wine Explorers:
Book our Rhône tour early, save $200
Tasting Rhône wines is particularly exciting for me these days because I'm already looking forward to our tour of the region with French Wine Explorers next June 6-12. This seven-day, six-night tour will take us to both the Northern and Southern Rhône Valley for an in-depth exploration of the region's beautiful scenery, delicious Provençal cuisine, and rich, expressive wines.
We'll be enjoying luxury accommodations and meals at some of the Rhône's top tables, plus tastings at top estates in Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Tavel and more. Visits to Roman ruins, gourmet meals on outdoor patios, and a gala dinner dance with the winemakers of Chateauneuf-du-Pape will make this a vacation you'll always remember.
As an incentive to early booking, a $200 discount is available for those who sign up before Dec. 1. Participation will be limited to the first 14 wine lovers who register, so if you've been thinking about joining us this year, I hope you'll make your decision soon. Please feel free to get in touch with me personally at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions about this trip.
For more information, visit French Wine Exporers' Northern and Southern Rhône tour page,
Chateau Grande Cassagne 2003 Costières de Nîmes "G.S." ($10.99)
Very dark garnet in color, this fresh young Languedoc red breathes plums, pepper and a distinct note of spice. Ripe and juicy fruit flavors show more evidence of the luscious raspberry character of Grenache than was evident on the nose. Zippy acidity and a gentle fuzz of tannins provide a firm structure that makes it a good food match. An unfiltered blend of 44% old-vines Grenache (44%) and 56% Syrah, whose initials explain the mysterious "G.S." on the label. U.S. importer: Robert Kacher Selections, Washington, D.C. (Oct. 24, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: It made an excellent match with a Franco-Italian treatment of fresh veal liver, quickly sauteed with onions, capers and a dash of red-wine vinegar.
VALUE: Appropriate value in the $10 range.
WHEN TO DRINK: Like its neighbors on the hillsides on the other side of the Rhône, it's not meant for aging but should hold up OK for a few years before its fruit starts to fade.
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California Wine Club:
No billing and no shipping until December 1, 2004!
The holiday season is quickly approaching, and The California Wine Club has something to make your gift giving easier! Place your holiday gifts now and receive no billing and no shipping until Dec. 1, 2004.
The California Wine Club has gift packages to suit all tastes and all budgets. Each month includes two bottles of award-winning wine, hand-selected from California's best boutique wineries. Just $32.95 per month plus shipping. Each shipment also includes our beautiful, 12-page, full color magazine, Uncorked. Send as many months as you wish. Special discounts on gifts of 3, 6, 9 and 12 months.
This week on WineLoversPage.com
Here are links to some of our recently published articles that I think you'll enjoy:
Wine Lovers' Discussion Group: Thanksgiving Food/Wine pairing
Last Week's Wine Advisor Index
The Wine Advisor's daily edition is usually distributed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (and, for those who subscribe, the FoodLetter on Thursdays). Here's the index to last week's columns:
Case study: Red Bike (Oct. 22, 2004)
Malbec and earth (Oct. 20, 2004)
Immigrant Primitivo (Oct. 18, 2004)
Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:
Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Salad days (Oct. 21, 2004)
Wine Advisor Foodletter archive:
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Monday, Oct. 25, 2004