After many years of struggle (or of arguing with the INAO, France's committee in charge of such things), the Rhône village of Cairanne has finally gained cru status. To the American wine drinker, this development may not seem like such a big deal: Wines from the area will now be labeled simply as "Cairanne" rather than "Cairanne - Côtes du Rhône Villages." But for winemakers in the region it's an affirmation that their wines are distinctive enough, and of high enough quality, that they belong in the same league as other famed Rhône crus such as Gigondas and, of course, Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
The cru designation doesn't change the character of the wines. Cairanne reds (the region makes primarily red) must be 50 percent Grenache and at least 20 percent Syrah and/or Mouvèdre; other approved varieties such as Counoise, Cinsault and Carignan can't make up more than 20 percent of the blend. They tend to be powerful, deeply colored wines, with herb and spice notes, not as sleek and polished as many Châteauneufs, for instance, but not as superripe as some of the more flamboyant ones, either (and definitely not as expensive).
In fact, for Rhône red lovers, good Cairanne is a steal. I tasted a number recently that are currently on the market, and the following were my top picks. (Note that as these are wines currently in the market, they will still be labeled as "Cairanne - Côtes du Rhône Villages.")