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Cote of Many Colors - The Various Meanings of Cote
Copyright 2004 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed October 26, 2004. For more information go to

Let's open our wine dictionaries and devote today's discussion to one of the most common terms we find among French wine names: "Cote," in a variety of related forms that all mean "hillside" or "slope," quietly speaks to the importance of geography in general, and terrain in particular, in the business of growing grapevines.

Somewhat confusingly to English speakers who may be most familiar with the word in the Riviera's "Cote d'Azur" ("blue coast"), "Cote" can also mean "coast," and just to make matters worse, it also means "rib." Lose the circumflex accent (the little pointed roof over the "o," which does in fact disappear in our text edition), or add an acute accent over the "e," and things will get even more confusing. Let's not go there today.

Keeping this relatively simple, "Cote," its plural "Cotes" and the more-or-less synonymous "Coteaux" and "Costieres," appear in scores of French wine-region names (appellations), invariably reflecting the zone's hillside status. Look at a map of Burgundy's Cote d'Or - which you'll recall is made up of the Cote de Beaune and the Cote de Nuits - and you'll find the most respected vineyards - the Grand Crus - forming a neat belt that runs along the the middle of the Burgundian slope, geographically lording it over the generic Burgundy vineyards on the flatland below and nudging the second-tier Premier Cru vineyards toward the top and bottom of the hill.

With a few noteworthy exceptions around the world - the vineyards in much of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Bordeaux in France, Napa's Rutherford Bench and Australia's Coonawarra, for example, lie as flat as cornfields - many of the most favored vineyards enjoy hillside locations, on well-drained soils of minerally character, basking in the afternoon sun.

It's the same in the broad Rhone Valley; on the left bank, the huge Cotes-du-Rhone, which extends over much of the region, draws its name from the hillsides capped by Les Dentelles de Montmirail ("Montmirail's Lace"), a craggy row of limestone peaks that rise beyond Gigondas. Across the river to the west of Avignon, where we're technically no longer in the Rhone wine region but Languedoc, the Costieres de Nimes wine region rises south of the city of Nimes to a rocky hilltop called Les Cassagnes.


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