There's a lack of awareness that these are fine wines, partly because there's no chateau phenomenon in the Rhone as there is with Bordeaux Illustration by Paul Brown
Thoughts of Provence, especially in mid-March, are of yachts bobbing on a shimmering blue sea and char-grilled Mediterranean fish washed down with copious draughts of local rose. But venture away from the Cote d'Azur into what the locals like to call "la Provence intelligente", and you'll find yourself in one of France's more picturesque wine regions: the southern Rhone Valley, home to triumphal Roman arches, papal fortifications and the region's most famous wine, Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

Between Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and its everyday counterpart, Cotes du Rhone, there are 77 small villages in the southern Rhone entitled to the Cotes du Rhone Villages appellation. These are what Philippe Verdier of the Rhone wine board calls "the-in-between-guys". "There's a lack of awareness that they are fine wines, partly because there's no chateau phenomenon in the Rhone as there is with Bordeaux," says Verdier. But with Chateauneuf- du-Pape prices escalating, these wines deserve to be better known.

The area is Mediterranean in climate and feel. Climbing up the hills towards the towering Mont Ventoux, its best vineyards nestle in the shadow of the jagged rocky outline of the Dentelles de Montmirail: Seguret, Sablet and Beaumes de Venise, with Gigondas and Vacqueyras appellations in their own right. Further west, in the direction of the Rhone, Cairanne and Rasteau lie on the right bank of the Ouveze River.

Wines here are based on the Grenache grape, with up to 12 other grape varieties, mainly Syrah and Mourvedre, making up the blend. The baking heat of the pebbled plains produces warming, alcoholic wines from Grenache, with the cooler, higher-altitude village vineyards adding finesse, concentration and intensity. "Grenache can give the worst and the best wine," says Marcel Richaud, one of the region's most dynamic growers. "At 80 hectolitres per hectare, it's vulgar, but, at 40, it produces an excellent wine."

Modernisation is a slow process in such a tranquil spot. Since the mid- 1950s, the introduction of the Syrah and Mourvedre grapes has spiced up the blends with much-needed colour and staying power. But not everyone has been won over by the introduction of so-called improving grape varieties and new-fangled techniques. Tradition, or inertia, is a powerful force. When a grower says, I like to do things the way my father did them, as often as not, his father is hovering nearby.

According to the ultra-traditionally-minded Michel Faraud of Domaine du Cayron: "The Syrah is not for here. It was 'imposed' as an improving variety by the technocrats. I don't really approve of it. Gigondas after all is a vin de garde, a wine to be laid down. The fruit and aromas open out as the wine ages, and I'm looking for improvement with ageing. Increasingly, young people appreciate the vin de garde style. Improving varieties have changed the style, but they haven't necessarily improved the ageing potential."

Winemaking in the region varies from Beaujolais-style carbonic maceration, designed to produce a soft, early-drinking style, to a long fermentation aimed at creating a wine with staying power. The former method is much employed in the production of basic Cotes du Rhone, but once again there is contention. According to the redoubtable director of the Gigondas co- operative, Mme Gleize, "Everyone wants fruity wines today, so there's a temptation to use carbonic maceration. But resistance to change can be a positive thing. From our research, we've noticed young people in the past two years enjoying the more mature products."

Another area of debate is whether or not to remove the stalks before the grapes go into the fermentation vat. Marc Francais at Chateau Saint Esteve d'Uchaux believes de-stalking has improved his wines. By contrast, one of the region's best-known modernists, Yves Gras of Domaine Santa Duc, is not worried about stalks "because the grapes and stalks are very ripe when picked, and leaving the grapes to ripen for as long as possible is the most important thing for a good wine". Nevertheless, he intends to give de-stalking a try.

A number of growers are also against the gradual introduction of new oak. "It's not in the Gigondas tradition," says Dominique Ay of Domaine Raspail- Ay. "There's no need to treat it like Bordeaux or Burgundy, where they need the extra fat. I think new oak is a trend which will pass." Although he's a modernist, Marcel Richaud doesn't have so much as a single stave in his cellar either. "The quality is there in the grapes - or not," says Richaud. "By the eve of the harvest, the die is cast." The secret of his supple, fleshy wines is care in the vineyard followed by a short vinification in the inert medium of stainless steel.

Other growers, notably Yves Gras, Andre Romero at Domaine de la Soumade in Rasteau and Louis Barruol of Chateau St Cosme, are getting results with new oak. The new style has also inspired a new breed of wine merchant. Michel Tardieu and Dominique Laurent are prepared to pay up to twice the going rate for wines which they take back to their own cellars for blending. While they deny that they're setting out to create an international style, using large quantities of flattering new oak seems to be working for them. For the southern Rhone, it's another weapon in an expanding armoury of styles Cotes du Rhone Villages: five to try

1996 Valreas, Domaine de la Grande Bellane, pounds 5.99, Fuller's, Sainsbury's. Unusually top-heavy with Syrah (75 per cent) with the balance made up of Grenache, this well-priced, organic southern Rhone is attractively peppery.

1994 La Ramillade, Rasteau, pounds 7.79. Bottoms Up, Wine Rack. Ripe strawberry fruit is complemented by winter-warmingly robust alcohol and a backbone of tannin.

1996 Cairanne, Domaine Richaud, pounds 6.99. Hoults, Huddersfield, limited quantities (01484 510700). Plummy richness and smoothly seductive, spicy fruit typical of the modern Richaud style. Look out for the impressive 1997.

1995 Cairanne, Domaine de l'Oratoire St Martin, Cuvee Prestige, pounds 7.70 Lay & Wheeler, Colchester (01206 764446). Angostura bitters aroma and raspberryish fruit in supple-textured mould with powerful alcohol and a rustic twist.

1995 Gigondas, Santa Duc, pounds 10.70. Avery's, Bristol (01275 811100). This fragrant Grenache-based red from Yves Gras has a rich, almost tarry fruitiness to it with a structure that demands five years' ageing.

Limited quantities of Tardieu-Laurent's Rhone reds are available from La Vigneronne, London SW7 (0171-589 6113)