Cairanne, in France's Rhône Valley, has been elevated to cru status—placing its intense, spicy red wines in the same company as those of Gigondas and Châteauneuf-du-Pape (though they still cost far less).

Credit: © Inter-Rhône

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.")

2014 L'Ameillaud ($16)

Mostly Grenache from 45-year-old vines, this steal of a red comes from an estate owned by an expat Englishman and his wife; think dark cherry fruit with a light anise note.

2013 Domaine Brusset Les Chabriles Vieilles Vignes ($25)

Brusset is a star both in Cairanne and Gigondas, but his wines from the latter, more famous cru sell for quite a bit more. This dense, peppery red from 80-year-old vines ("they look like octopi with their heads in the ground," his U.S. importer notes) is impressive now, and should only get better with age.

2012 Catherine Le Goeuil ($25)

This bottling offers lots of dark raspberry flavor with a savory finish suggestive of garrigue (the Mediterranean herbs that grow wild in the Rhône and Provence), plus it comes from a vineyard that is certified organic.

2012 Domaine Oratoire St. Martin Reserve des Seigneurs ($27)

My notes for this said, "A delight—like raspberries off the vine." That's this wine: immediately appealing, with wonderful purity of fruit and a kind of get-up-and-dance liveliness.

2014 Domaine Alary Vieilles Vignes ($22)

Dark and brooding right now, with ink and underbrush notes, this powerful red needs an hour in a decanter or a couple of years in the cellar, but the ripe blackberry fruit lurking underneath the surface is very compelling.