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The approaching holidays can strike fear of wine inadequacy in the hearts of partygoers and party-throwers alike. What wine can you bring to a party that won’t break the bank but that also makes you look more like Santa than the Grinch? What wine works for a party attended by wine snobs, wine novices, and simply the wine-thirsty? Just in time for the holidays, our friends from France have given us a gift to solve these problems: the 2005 Cotes du Rhone. Cotes du Rhone, as their name implies, hail from the Rhone Valley in France. While the Rhone Valley is famous for wines from specific appellations, such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Condrieu, and Hermitage, oceans of wine are made from grapes grown outside of these swanky locales. Wines from those so-called “lesser areas” go by the general moniker of Cotes du Rhone. Because these wines sport a less prestigious name, they cost significantly less than their more famous neighbors. In general, the wines are priced at a party-friendly $10 to $15. Most wine stores currently carry the 2005 vintage — which was one of the best Rhone Valley vintages in many years. While the region is best known for its reds, its whites (made from obscure varieties like Grenache Blanc and Ugni Blanc) are also worth seeking out. The E. Guigal Cotes du Rhone ($12) and Chateau du Trignon Cotes du Rhone Villages Sablet ($16) stand as prime examples. The Guigal is pure sweet citrus. Aromas of lemon rind and orange blossom give way to mellow flavors of lemon and lime with a clean finish. The Chateau du Trignon displays a zip and tang, reminiscent of a complex sauvignon blanc. Smelling of chalk, green apple, and green twigs, the wine offers crisp notes of green apple, Pez candy, and freshly mowed grass. Both would be welcomed behind a holiday party bar. Red Cotes du Rhone are usually blends of many different grape varieties, the most common being grenache, syrah, and mourvedre. The single best wine I tasted for this report was also the most expensive. The Domaine de la Janasse Cotes du Rhone Village Terre d’Argile is well worth its $20 price tag. A complex nose of coffee, black pepper, chocolate, and eucalyptus is matched by a palate of blackberry, black raspberries, and vanilla. This medium to full-bodied wine finishes clean with a fair dose of acidity and tannin. Nearly as good, at two-thirds of the price, is Janasse’s standard Cotes du Rhone ($14). Aromas of burnt caramel, blackberries, and overly ripe blueberries give way to flavors of plums, prunes, coffee, and sage. Softer and smoother than the Terre d’Argile, it may appeal to those looking for a wine to pair with less assertive foods. Equal in quality, but very different in focus, is the Cotes du Rhone Mon Coeur from J.L. Chave ($18). The Mon Coeur smells of chocolate-covered strawberries and cloves and tastes of strawberries, tarragon, and chives. Medium-bodied, it retains a freshness often lacking in similar wines. All three of these wines should not be hard to track down. A trio of wines, all priced around $10, trailed my favorites by just a bit. The Perrin Reserve Cotes du Rhone was one of the lighter wines I tasted. Boasting aromas of roasted plums and cherry pie and flavors of smoke, pepper, sage, and eucalyptus, it is an interesting and flavorful sipper. Bigger in body, the Domaine d’Andezon Cotes du Rhone smells of sweet coffee, roasted strawberries, and, strangely enough, a briny ocean breeze. That slightly salty element continues on the palate, where the wine tastes of blackberries, sage, and ripe tomatoes. It would pair very well with a pizza or pasta in red sauce. So would the Domaine Chapoton Cotes du Rhone Village Rochegude, with its herby nose of basil, fennel, and roasted fruit. The ensuing flavors of dried rosemary, dried sage, and strawberry jam finish cleanly and beg to be paired with food. Of the wines tasted, I only found two not worth recommending. Unfortunately, they are two of the most widely available Cotes du Rhone. The smell of the Jaboulet “Parallele 45″ reminded me of wet mulch or a barnyard. While a touch of that earthiness can add complexity, the amount in the “Parallele 45″ is overwhelming. Even worse, the M. Chapoutier Belleruche just didn’t have any aspects that recommended it. It smelled and tasted more of alcohol than anything else. With these two exceptions in mind, you can’t go wrong with the 2005 Cotes du Rhone. Whether you are bringing a wine for a party or stocking your bar in preparation for one, you will get a great bang for your buck on holiday cheer.
Phillip Dub� is a freelance writer in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and an attorney at Becker & Poliakoff.

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