They might not have Bordeaux or Burgundy's reputation for complexity or elegance, but the
approachable red wines of
Côtes du Rhône are increasingly finding favour with UK shoppers.
" The Rhône is the most consistent and reliable region in France, with a style that's robust and hearty, " says Mike Rogers, owner of London wine merchant Philglas & Swiggot. Thierry's French buying director Dominique Vrigneau agrees: "If a consumer doesn't know what they're looking for, the Rhône's always a very safe bet due to its ability to produce consistent, and ripe wines."
Rogers singles out the Rhône's Mediterranean climate and "great varietals" as chiefly responsible for creating "user-friendly wines" that offer better value for money than France's other
Sainsbury's buyer Melissa Draycott echoes
this, praising the region's "approachable, easy-drinking wines that customers really go for".
The official statistics back up the positive picture, with Côtes du Rhône maintaining its position as France's number one red wine AOC in the UK off-trade, increasing its market share from 37.7% in 2006 to 41.3% in 2007, according to Inter Rhône. Sales of red Côtes du Rhône grew 13% in the year to March, and overall Côtes du Rhône sales
availability helps : "There's a huge amount of Rhône reds available, and there are quality suppliers and producers
delivering wine at a reasonable price, whereas Bordeaux is so much more expensive and it's not accessible to a lot of customers. It's a virtuous circle
- the price is right and volumes are plentiful."
A resurgence in classics such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape is
Thierry's Caves St Pierre brand -
from the medieval village of Châteauneuf - grew sales
by 63% in the year to June 14 (Nielsen). "The Rh ône is an easy region to understand , it's a well-defined brand in the UK
and consumers understand
that the Côtes-du-Rhône villages sit below the top crus," Vrigneau says.
Such high visibility is down to Inter Rhône's ongoing commitment to
says Draycott - who hails the generic body as a "proactive" organisation that effectively raises the profile of the region's wines in the UK market.
Inter Rhône will continue its trade and consumer PR programme this year, including its Think Red, Think Côtes du Rhône Wines advertising. In October, Côtes du Rhône will sponsor the Rhône Zone chill-out area at The Wine Show, where wines will be available for sampling and visitors can win prizes in an interactive Wii competition.
A major biennial wine exhibition - Découvertes en Vallée du Rhône - will also take place from March 16-20
next year. In 2007, the festival featured 900 exhibitors and 19 organised tastings, "making it an invaluable overview of the region's wines and winemakers", says PR manager Kirsty Brinsley.
Sainsbury's tastes success
Sainsbury's is enjoying strong sales of Rhône wine and is looking to increase its representation of the region's prestigious crus, according to Draycott.
"There's more potential to build on the crus - there are some that consumers have never even heard of. People are moving away from Châteauneuf, especially as it becomes even more expensive ," she says.
The retailer recently added a wine from Vinsobres AOC, a Southern Rhône cru created in 2005. Retailing for £8.99, it "looks the business, tastes great" and
matches the quality of Châteauneuf, Draycott
says. She also highlights Gigondas as an attractive alternative to the increasingly expensive top crus: "It's delivering nice wines that can support a price point
lower than £10."
Vrigneau believes that Vacqueyras has
potential, but warns that producers from such small and lesser-known appellations must think hard about who they distribute to in the UK. "Vacqueyras and Gigondas are less than half the size of Châteauneuf. If one of the major retailers put it on promotion, then it would push prices up, so they have got to be careful. The main problem with the Rhône is limiting volume," he says.
Rather than targeting the UK's major multiples, Rogers believes
the Rhône's smaller producers are better placed to offer independent retailers exclusive deals on smaller parcels. "At the moment we're selling a lot of wine from small producers in the Côtes du Rhône, and we ship a lot ourselves," he says.
But sourcing direct from producers
has its pitfalls, he warns. "One of the producers we deal with is very French and very local, if you knocked on his door and said 'Hi we're from London' in a loud voice, he wouldn't give you the time of day. We have a French-speaking lady working for us
can break down those barriers."
The Rhône's ability to supply independents
with small parcels of wine that have real depth and fruit intensity, alongside meeting the major multiples' high volume demands , demonstrates why it is leader of the French red wine segment in the UK. And as prices for France's leading appellations creep ever higher, Rhône wines look set to maintain that rank for
years to come.
Whites gain a cool following
Since the introduction of cool fermentation techniques, the Rhône's aromatic whites have begun to garner respect in the
Increased plantings of Marsanne - the dominant partner which lends colour, body and weight to the blend - and Roussanne, which contributes bouquet, delicacy and finesse, have helped the category grow a massive
329% in the year to March, according to Inter Rhône.
Melissa Draycott, of Sainsbury's, says the Rhône's whites have got "definite potential" . Last month the retailer added a white La Châsse du Pape from the Côtes du Rhône Villages AOC.
Draycott describes the style as "rich and welcoming", adding that in an effort to persuade shoppers to branch out and experiment , Sainsbury's merchandises
the whites alongside Rhône reds.
From an initial selection of just a handful of whites when Leon Stolarski first began in early 2004, the online wine merchant has extended its portfolio to include some "excellent" whites from
the Rhône. Among these are Domaine Saint Etienne Les Albizzias 2006, a Clairette/Grenache Blanc/Bourboulenc blend, which retails for £6.50.
Despite admitting that Rhône whites are "certainly a niche", Rogers has a core of customers who will choose them over other, more mainstream,
varietals. "It's such a distinctive style, very rich and oily, and it tends to be low in acidity."