May is National Barbecue Month, which means different things to different people.
To barbecue purists, that might mean cooking “low and slow” over an indirect source of heat using wood. To others, it’s simply hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill. I’m not here to take sides. I love to grill as much as I love to smoke.
Like most “grillaholics,” I believe you can cook just about anything on the grill, and in doing so, make it better. The wide range of grilling options needs an equally wide range of beverage choices, which, in my parlance, is simply code for wine.
In my opinion, no one region offers more diversity and flexibility of wine options for grilled food than France’s Rhone Valley. Over two articles, the wines of The Rhone Valley will be my focus. First, whites. Then, the amazing reds of the southern and northern Rhone Valley appellations.
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The Rhone Valley is historic, both in terms of its geology and its winemaking history.
Since the fourth century BC, grapes have been grown and wines have been made in the Rhone Valley.
The Greeks, the Romans, French kings, and Roman Catholic popes have all influenced the grape varieties grown, names used, and wines made in the Rhone Valley. Perhaps the most famous example of that is the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation, named for the papacy, which was moved from Rome to Avignon for a period of time in the 14th century.
Nearly 30 grape varieties are approved for cultivation in the Rhone Valley. For white wines, there are four main varieties: marsanne, roussanne, viognier, and grenache blanc.
The most commonly found white Rhone wine is Cotes du Rhone blanc. Almost always a blend that includes several of the primary grape varieties and often some lesser used grapes, Cotes du Rhone blancs are affordable and accessible entrees into the white wines of the Rhone Valley.
I’ve had dozens of white Cotes du Rhones that I’ve enjoyed through the years, but a good “go to” bottling for me is the Cotes du Rhone Reserve Blanc from Les Dauphins. Made from a blend of grenache blanc, marsanne, clairette, and viognier, the wine is light to medium-bodied, loaded with fruit, and balanced with great palate-cleansing acidity. I’d suggest pairing Les Dauphine’s Cotes du Rhone Blanc with grilled fish, chicken, or pork.
There are few white wines in the world I adore more than a white Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Unfortunately, they are both scarce and expensive, a combination that limits my enjoyment of these world-class wines.
I’ve been fortunate enough to drink CDP blancs from such esteemed producers as Chateau Beaucastel, Vieux Telegraph, and most recently, M. Chapoutier. Chapoutier’s La Bernadine Blanc Chateauneuf-du-Pape is a stunner. Made with 100 percent grenache blanc, the wine envelopes you with aromas of white flowers and notes of honey and citrus in its mouthfeel. I’d serve this with a grilled salmon glazed with honey and lemon. It’s a treat for your senses you won’t soon forget.
Moving into the northern Rhone Valley, the white wine grape options narrow, and the wines, in general, get bigger, more viscous and even more elusive.
White wines make up just 5 percent of the production in the northern Rhone. White wines from the Crozes Hermitage, Hermitage, Saint-Joseph and Saint-Péray appellations use Marsanne as the primary, sometimes exclusive, grape in their white wines.
I especially enjoy the white wines from Hermitage, which are extremely rare and even pricier than Blanc Chateauneuf-du-Papes! These are also some of the oldest white wines in the world! Not to keep banging the Chapoutier drum, but its white Hermitage, Chante-Alouette, made with 100 percent marsanne, is just about as good as a white wine gets — powerful, balanced, complex and just plain delicious. As for a possible food pairing, I’d suggest thick cut pork chops stuffed with goat cheese and herbs.
In the appellations of Condrieu (the northernmost grape growing region in the Rhone Valley), Viognier is the singular star in white wine production. Tiny amounts of these honeysuckle and peach dominated gems make it out of the region, let alone the country, but trust me, they are worth seeking out.
Sitting on a wall discussing and drinking a Condrieu with legendary producer Georges Vernay for an episode of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” was one of the highlights of my TV show. One word of advice, if you buy a Condrieu or Chateau Grillet, make sure you get a recent vintage as they at their fruity-floral best when young.
That should get you going on white wines from the Rhone Valley. I’ll be back with some thoughts on the red wines soon. Happy National Barbecue Month everyone!
Dave Eckert is a partner with Flavor Trade, a Kansas City-based gourmet food incubator and co-packer. Before that, Eckert was the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS and AWE for 12 seasons.