THE RED RIVER RUNNING THROUGH THE RHONE

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The Independent Culture
The only thing better than eating in Lyons is drinking there. Rhone reds rank with Bordeaux and Burgundy as France's greatest. They are also, despite some nasty price rises in recent years, far better value. And Lyons makes a good starting point for oenological sight-seeing.

The tour has two natural stages, following the strict demarcation between the Rhone's two principal wine-making areas. Head south from Lyons on the main road and you'll soon find yourself in the steeply angled terrain that produces the valley's greatest wines: Hermitage, Cornas and Cote-Rotie. The latter name conveys the idea of how nature treats grapes here. It burns the hills on which they grow, producing (at best) some of the densest, darkest wines anywhere on earth.

Because of the size of the area and the nature of the terrain, there's a limit to how much wine can come out of the northern Rhone. As a result, prices are now nearly as steep as the hills. You have to pay at least pounds 15 for a good Hermitage, and some Cote-Rotie, such as the desperately fashionable trio from Guigal (La Turque, La Landonne, La Mouline), sells for wild prices. Bibendum's Fine Wine list has the 1991 La Landonne at pounds 135 a bottle. The lesser appellations are less frightening. Good St Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage can be bought in the UK at prices between pounds 6 and pounds 10.

There are also white wines, the most famous being Condrieu and Chateau Grillet, France's smallest AOC.

The southern vineyards are larger and more productive. When people say that Rhone is still cheap, this is what they're talking about. Chateauneuf- du-Pape is the most famous appellation and the most expensive; a good one cannot be had for less than a tenner or so, and the best can double that. I'd skip them and buy Cotes-du-Rhone and the single-area wines labelled as Cotes-du-Rhone-Villages. Basic Cotes-du-Rhone accounts for most of production, and when good, they are very good. Better still are the 16 village wines, all made in and around the ruggedly beautiful Dentelles de Montmirail. The best, for my money, are Cairanne, Seguret, Valreas and Sablet. There are also two villages with their own AOC, Gigondas and Vacqueyras, which produce some incredibly good wines.

Just a quick mention of three near-Rhone appellations. Cotes du Ventoux and Coteaux du Tricastin both produce solid, potentially excellent wines at some of the lowest prices in the valley. And finally: the one Rhone white I really like, a sparkler called Clairette de Die "Tradition" made from a combination of the clairette grape and muscat. Honeyed fragrance; deliciously quaffable; good with pud or as an aperitif.

When you're travelling south from Lyons, you can buy your wines from the producer. In the UK the independents, such as Rhone specialist Yapp Brothers (01747 860423), are the best places to find them. Yapp has a summer offer running now which includes some good bin ends and a sampler case from the excellent 1995 vintage. Give `em a call. It's partial consolation if you're not driving south from Lyons.

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