Grilling season is officially here, and with it comes an endless array of grilling possibilities. Those culinary selections are accompanied by an intriguing range of wine pairing choices, and matching wine with grilled and smoked dishes is among my favorite hobbies.
Few wine regions offer more compatibility with those food preparations than France’s Rhone Valley. Recently, I weighed in on some white wine options from the Rhone. Today, I turn my attention to what some of my wine-loving friends call “real” wine, which is to say red wine.
Although there are dozens of grapes grown and vinified in the Rhone, when it comes to the vast majority of red Rhone wines, you really only need to concern yourself with five: syrah, grenache, mourvedre, and to a lesser extent, carignan and cinsault.
In the northern Rhone, syrah is the only red grape allowed in the wines, though in some appellations a small percentage of the white grape viognier is blended with it to add aromatics and “lift the palate.”
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In the southern Rhone, many of the red wines are blends consisting of grenache, syrah, and mourvedre. Grenache almost always takes the leading role. In fact, grenache is the most widely grown red grape variety in the Rhone. Its gregarious, fruity, soft and plush nature is also perfect for many items we love to smoke and grill.
Let’s start with Cotes du Rhone, which accounts for the majority of wine (both red and white) produced in the Rhone Valley.
There are three levels of Cotes du Rhone wine production: Cotes du Rhone, which any wine produced within the appellation can use as a designation for its wines; Cotes du Rhone villages, specific areas of production within the Cotes du Rhone appellation; and crus of the Cotes du Rhone, the highest level. The crus include Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Rasteau, Gigondas, Tavel, and Beaumes de Venise, among others.
The crus are known for producing uniquely styled, high-quality wines, and in some cases — most notably in that of Chateauneuf-du-Pape — they are some of the finest red wines on the planet.
The most affordable and widely available offerings are the Cotes du Rhone. In general terms, Cotes du Rhone reds are straightforward, easy-drinking wines that provide immediate pleasure and great food pairing options.
I love a young Cotes du Rhone red with a smoked chicken pizza hot off the grill or a pulled pork sandwich topped with some Firebug Grilling Sauce!
There are many to recommend, but some of my go-to favorites are bottlings from E. Guigal, Louis Bernard, Famille Perrin and M. Chapoutier. You can’t go wrong with a Cotes du Rhone from any of these producers.
Stepping up to the Cotes du Rhone villages, which cost a little more but also offer more complexity, a great new find for me is the Puymeras Rouge from Les Dauphins. A blend of 70 percent grenache, 20 percent syrah, and five percent carignan, this wine from a village I’d neither heard of nor seen on a label is a lip-smacking bargain!
I plan on trying it with an herb-and-garlic-marinated flank steak served with a chimichurri sauce, and I’m guessing it’s going to be great.
As for the crus of the Cotes du Rhone, I’ve long been a fan of the wines of Gigondas and Rasteau, which are often excellent but have gotten a little pricy for my pocketbook. Looking elsewhere, I had two excellent wines from Lirac recently from Chateau D’Aqueria and Alain Jaume.
Lirac, just north of the famed rosé-producing cru of Tavel, is the southernmost cru in the Cotes du Rhone and the least known. If these two wines are any indication of the quality Lirac can produce, its anonymity won’t last long.
Both Liracs were elegant and balanced. I’d recommend pairing them with a grilled rack of lamb, perhaps our favorite recipe which calls for charred red pepper strips over the chops!
Vacqueyras is another undervalued Rhone cru, in my opinion. I’ve had several terrific examples over the last few months, most recently the Domaine La Garrique Vacqueryras La Canterelle.
Composed of 80 percent grenache and 20 percent syrah from vines up to 100 years old, this is a special wine that delivers beyond its appellation and its $30 retail price point.
Moving into the northern Rhone, where syrah is the only red grape allowed, the wines are often bigger, bolder and more tannic. From Cornas in the south to Cote-Rotie in the north, the northern Rhone reds are a tapestry of silky deliciousness.
I had two bottles in the last month that absolutely knocked my socks off — the Domaine Courbis St. Joseph Les Royes and the Monier de la Sizeranne Hermitage from M. Chapoutier.
The Les Royes was a lush, pepper-and-earth-laced syrah — delicious wine after about an hour in a decanter. As for the Hermitage, I’ve been lucky enough to taste all of Chapoutier’s single vineyard Hermitage offerings with Michel Chapoutier himself, and they are all terrific.
This wine, loaded with deep, dark fruit and aromas of pepper, took a couple hours to open up, but when it did, it was stellar!
Unfortunately, with these two great northern Rhone wine experiences come elevated prices, so I won’t be repeating them anytime soon. That’s OK. There are plenty of great Cotes du Rhone wines and Cotes du Rhone villages to drink at prices I can afford by the case.
Happy grilling 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.