The Côtes du Rhône Méridionales starts to the south of Montélimar. The wine-producing area fans out in an easterly direction over the departments Drôme and Vaucluse; to the west it covers parts of the Ardèche and the Gard. In the South Rhône, the grenache noir plays the leading role, sometimes in combination with syrah and mourvèdre (this blend is also referred to as GSM). In addition, carignan and cinsault (the latter is used mostly for rosé wine) and, in declining order, marselan, counoise, vaccarèse are the grape varieties approved for blending. The white wines are generally a blend of grenache blanc, clairette and/or bourboulenc, whether or not in combination with one or more of the grape varieties that are also grown in the North Rhône region – viognier, marsanne and roussane. Further to the south, muscat, rolle (also known as vermentino), picpoul and ugni blanc are also used.
The most famous of these wines is Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which is, along with the generic Côtes du Rhône, the Rhône wine you’re most likely to encounter on a wine menu or in a shop. The renewed interest in and demand for them generated by wine writers such as Robert Parker is one reason why the prices of Châteauneuf wines have risen substantially in recent decades. Good alternatives include Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Rasteau. Just beyond the Châteauneuf-du-Pape region, on the right bank, are the Tavel vineyards (which owes its reputation to the robust rosé produced here and Lirac (the only appellation where all three ‘colours’ have cru status and the AOC requirements are the strictest of all). In my view, the white Lirac in particular is distinctive and interesting. The other southern crus (9 in total) include the Vinsobres, the northern location of which produces a more sophisticated wine, and Cairanne, which was recently awarded the highest qualification.
Interesting vins doux naturel (VDN) are produced in Beaumes-de-Venise and Rasteau; the still wines from both areas now have Cru status. However, the biggest volume is classified as Côtes du Rhône and/or Côtes du Rhône Villages. The list of Côtes du Rhône Villages municipalities that aspire to Cru status (such as Cairanne, in 2016) is growing, but not every municipality produces wines that are distinctive enough. That said, the average quality of the Côtes du Rhône Villages wines is excellent and very reliable, even though price increases here remain modest.