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Young Rh�ne reds are definitely not for the timid. The climate in the Rh�ne Valley is warmer than in neighboring Burgundy, and the wines are naturally riper and more alcoholic. A heady 14 percent alcohol is the norm, and the resulting wine is often a very potent mixture indeed. A short decade ago, most bottles labeled “C�tes du Rh�ne” were made by small growers (whose wines tasted of old and dirty casks) or by cooperatives (whose wines tended to be low on fruit). Either way, the wine was likely to be dry — and raspingly alcoholic. In the decade since, there’s been a virtual revolution in wine-making. As wine prices have escalated, much of the profit has been poured back into fixing up cellars throughout the area. Meanwhile, a new generation of oenology school-trained winegrowers have come to the fore. Today there are a host of little-known village wines that offer great value and relatively early drinking pleasure. The best of these can be shockingly good — and inexpensive. Happily, too, it’s been a long time since the Rh�ne Valley has had a bad vintage. While 1998, with its fleshy and seductive wines, may be the greatest year in the Southern Rh�ne for a decade or more, 1997 also has a lot to offer. The three greatest names in the Rh�ne Valley — Jaboulet, Guigal, and Perrin — all make splendid wines at this level. And their prices border on being dirt cheap. The Perrin brothers, owners of Chateau Beaucastel in Chateauneuf du Pape, make the strawberry-scented “La Vieille Ferme” rouge from the C�tes du Ventoux ($6-$7), while Jaboulet makes a fine C�tes du Rh�ne Villages wine, and Guigal produces the best-known Gigondas. In the medium price range, both Jaboulet and Guigal offer good examples of St. Joseph ($16). Better still are the second wine of Beaucastel, “Coudoulet” ($25), and the Domaine de Thalabert from Jaboulet’s own property in Crozes-Hermitage. For an unusual treat, try the C�tes du Rh�ne Villages “Valreas.” It’s succulent and oh-so-seductive. As for food, think red meat. The wine of “La Vieille Ferme,” being somewhat light in texture, is remarkably versatile: You could also try it with grilled salmon. The others are better suited for steak, game, or mutton. Did I hear the magic words “lamb chops”? GREAT-VALUE SUMMER REDS 1998 “La Vieille Ferme” C�tes du Ventoux, $6 1998 C�tes du Rh�ne Villages “Parallele 45″ (Jaboulet), $9 1998 C�tes du Rh�ne Villages (Guigal), $8 1998 C�tes du Rh�ne “Enclave des Papes” (P.-H. Bouchard), $12 1998 Crozes-Hermitage “Les Jalets” (Jaboulet), $11 1998 C�tes du Rh�ne Villages “Valreas” (P.-H. Bouchard), $15 1999 C�tes du Rh�ne Villages “Rasteau Cuvee Prestige” (Dom. des Coteaux des Travers), $18 1998 St. Joseph (Guigal), $16 1998 St. Joseph (Jaboulet), $16 1998 Gigondas (Guigal), $16 1998 C�tes du Rh�ne Villages “Coudoulet,” $25 1998 Crozes-Hermitage “Thalabert” (Jaboulet), $25

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