I have never been colder than I was during one February I spent in France’s Rhône. There was a frigid, constant wind whipping down the river—the mistral—and a general lack of robust indoor heating. There were nights I spent in a cold-water flat with a straw-filled mattress and a single, bare lightbulb that didn’t work. But there were also the most inviting, warming reds I’d ever tasted.
Certainly the situation heightened their attributes—who wouldn’t have wanted a drink?—but my fondness for Rhône reds has never faded. The ones from north of Tain l’Hermitage (where there’s a bridge arching over the Rhône River, a giant hill revered for the reds grown on it, and the Valrhona chocolate factory) are mostly all made from Syrah grapes, which yield plummy, deeply flavored reds with black pepper and licorice notes.
Move south from Tain, and as the river widens out and the banks become flatter, the climate turns from continental to Mediterranean—a difference I appreciated that February. Syrah gives way to a bunch of other red wine grapes in these parts, most notably Grenache but also Mourvèdre, Carignan, Cinsault, and some even lesser known varieties.
These reds also tend to be rich and spicy, but trade in the purple fruit flavors for sunnier, more reddish tones (Grenache in particular tends to taste like cherries), and their tannins loosen their grip. While the northern end of the Rhône boasts the most vaunted appellations (Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage, Cornas), the southern has its own coveted sites (Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras).
More importantly for those of us with limited budgets and a thirst for warming reds, the south also serves the very important function of filling most Côtes du Rhône bottles. These are some of the friendliest, well-priced reds around: fruity but not over the top; tannic enough to appreciate a piece of red meat or a dense cheese but not demanding of one; rich but not heavy, with spicy notes and bright acidity that keep them mouthwatering rather than palate coating.
Some append the word “Villages,” or even the name of a specific village, to their name, denoting that the grapes that went into them come from land deemed better for grape growing than other parcels around it and that they were subject to stricter controls in growing and winemaking. But even at the basic level, a good Côtes du Rhône is a terrific glass of red, the sort you might wish for in a bistro to go with your steak frites, lardon-laden salad, or pig’s trotters, breaded and fried to crisp, golden perfection.
Unfortunately, fried pig’s trotters are in short supply on this side of the Atlantic. But I’ve found a grilled cheese sandwich does the trick. Think about it: The dishes share core values (thrift and a strong belief in the magic of butter and heat) and make similar demands in the wine department (something that can cut through the richness yet match the robust flavor). Both are one part sophisticated, golden, and sumptuous; the other, basic country food, simple and pretension-free.
I’ve found Rhônes to do the job well with everything from a creamy, tangy goat cheese to a pungent Scharfe Maxx sandwich. But my favorite remains straight-up cheddar or an aged, sweet-edged cow like Consider Bardwell’s Rupert, eaten in a thick bathrobe on a cold night with a generous glass of this red. That’s how to enjoy winter.
Written by Tara Q. Thomas
Photography by Arthur Cohen