Autumn reds for autumn foods – Rhone always delivers!

As weather turns chilly and leaves turn colors, much of what we eat turns toward warm, savory autumn meals and wine-enthusiasts’ thoughts often turn to warm and approachable Rhone style red wines.   Paired with hearty stews, and game night chili, the so-called “Rhone Varietals” are a solid red wine choice for the season’s cuisine.   Indeed anyone who has enjoyed a slow-cooked cassoulet paired with a Chateaunuef du Pape knows how wonderful this seasonal dish can be!

Grapes used in France’s Southern Rhone, or Rhone Varietals as they are often called (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Carignan and several more which are produced in smaller quantities, 13 in total) are so-named because they are the primary components of the world famous wines of the Rhone Region.   By contrast, the Northern Rhone wine region features red wines produced principally from the single varietal Syrah mostly, yielding completely different personality which warrants a separate discussion.  Regarding the Southern Rhone, even if the grapes themselves are unfamiliar to many of us, many people have heard of wines from famous Southern Rhone sub-regions like Chateauneuf du Pape and Gigondas, not to mention the high-value and popular regional wines called “Cotes du Rhone”.

When blended, Southern Rhone grapes lend different character to their wines, Grenache brings spice and red berry fruit characteristics, Syrah contributes structure and smooth savory pepper and smoke qualities, while Mourvedre adds deep color and leathery dark fruit flavors.   When combined into a blend – Rhone wines from different makers and regions can range from round, deep sophisticated classic Chateauneuf du Pape to herbal, raw-meat-game flavors of top Gigondas, to rustic, fruit driven and affordable regional wines called Cotes du Rhone.

In a restaurant setting, an easy technique to locate these wines is to keep it simple and remember three letters: G, S and M (for Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre).   Many winemakers around the world use the acronym “GSM” when naming wines that contain Rhone varietals and blends of them.   So with a quick reference to these three letters, or mention of Rhone Varietals, a knowledgeable restaurant sommelier will lead you to these wines.   Important to remember, is that these varietals are used in blends and on their own, in wines all over the world.   Differences between the old-world French and new-world versions fall along typical old/new-world lines with the French exhibiting slightly more herbal and complex savory fruit flavors while new-world versions are more dense and fruit driven.   But all over the wine world, Rhone varietals are produced with great success – so one needn’t focus purely on actual French Rhone wines (although you wouldn’t be disappointed!).

Australia has a celebrated wine history driven in a large party by Rhone varietals (Syrah, or Shiraz as the Aussies call it, and many containing traditional GSM blends).   South America and South Africa both are making waves for their Rhone varietal wines.   And in California there is even a group of wine-makers called ‘the Rhone-Rangers’ because of their steadfast commitment to making top quality Rhone blends, and several actual French Rhone winemakers are producing wines in California.   An added bonus: wines blended of these grapes from anywhere in the world are regularly food-friendly, so you cannot go wrong!

After some experimenting, you can identify different styles that appeal to you and can then seek them out in restaurants and at PLCB State Stores.   Here are some I recommend: 

Widely available Rhones/Rhone Styles at Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board Stores:

Cotes du Rhone – regional wine meant to be consumed within a few years of release, these are fruity approachable wines with rustic Rhone characteristics.

PLCB Code: 8132 E Guigal Red Wine Cotes du Rhone 2010 $14.99 Sale Price: $12.99

PLCB Code: 6794 Perrin et Fils Cotes du Rhone Villages $12.99 Sale Price: $11.99

PLCB Code: 6557 M Chapoutier Belleruche Rouge Cotes du Rhone $14.99

PLCB Code: 45213 JL Chave Mon Coeur Cotes du Rhone Rouge 2012 $21.99

Gigondas – meaty and rustic, often accessible when young, but can last many years.

PLCB Code: 33532 Domaine de la Tete Noir Gigondas 2012 $29.99

PLCB Code: 48191 Domaine du Cayron Gigondas 2011 $34.99

PLCB Code: 45033 Domaine du Cayron Gigondas 2012 $39.99

Chateauneuf du Pape – round, smooth and classic, Chateauneuf wines may last a long time, but don’t be afraid to try them when only a few years old.

PLCB Code: 7278 Domaine De Mont Redon Chateauneuf du Pape $41.99

PLCB Code: 6790  Clos de l’Oratoire Chateauneuf du Pape $44.99 Sale Price: $39.99

PLCB Code: 48462 Vieux Telegraphe Chateauneuf du Pape La Crau 2011 $84.99

New World – generally more fruit driven but highly satisfying

Australia: PLCB Code: 46194 D’Arenberg Stump Jump GSM 2011 $9.99

Australia: PLCB Code: 38883 Schild Estate Grenache Mourvedre Shiraz Barossa Valley 2012 $14.99

USA: PLCB Code: 45523 Tablas Creek Patelin de Tablas Rouge Paso Robles 2011 $17.99

Pittsburgh Restaurants (subject to change of course):

Open Bottle Bistro in Shadyside (5884 Ellsworth Avenue) serves the J.L. Chave Selections’ “Mon Coeur” Cotes du Rhone for $9 per glass, and will sell a recent vintage of Domaine de la Solitude Chateauneuf du Pape from the 500+ year old producer for $95 per bottle.

Dinette in Shadyside (5996 Centre Avenue) serves a Cotes du Rhone, Domaine du Joncier 2012, for $11 per glass and $42 per bottle.

Lawrenceville’s Allegheny Wine Mixer currently features a Rhone blend from Corbieres (Southern France) for $9 per glass and $36 per bottle.  (Chateau Spencer La Pujade Corbieres – Carignan/ Mourvèdre/Syrah/Grenache – Languedoc, France 2012)

ROOT174 features Le Garrigon, Cotes du Rhone for $10 per glass

Downtown, The Carleton’s Wine List contains a Rhone section with 15 Rhone wines by the bottle, ranging in price from $32 to $220.  This list also features several Australian GSM blends and another section dedicated to American Syrahs and Rhone-style blends.

Stagioni serves TWO Rhone blends by the bottle, one from Vacqueras (Domaine du Terme, Vacqueyras, Rhone, 2010 $50) and a Cotes du Rhone (J.L. Chave Selections’ “Mon Coeur” 2012)

Eleven features several Rhone wines in the bottle list, ranging from $45 to $210.  None by the glass.

Legume features a French Rhone-blend (Corbieres) and an American (Qupe, Santa Ynez Valley), none by the glass.

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Happy Grenache Day to you all !!!

Some people complain that ‘there is a holiday for everything’ nowadays – but I think a holiday and a celebration is a wonderful thing – any time at all.    In this case, a group called the Grenache Symposium (their mission: promote grenache-based wines) has declared September 24 to be “International Grenache Day”.   My response: Let’s Celebrate!

The Grenache grape has Spanish origins and is commonly referred to as Alicante, Cannonau, Garnacha, and Grenache noir.   It is traditionally found in regions like Rioja, Priorat, Rhône, Sardinia, and in modern times some very successful Grenache wines have come from Australia and California.   Grenache is a popular blending grape because of its big fruit and relatively low tannins – just grab a bottle of Chateaufeuf du Pape and you will no doubt enjoy the high Grenache content blended with smaller amounts of the other 12 legal grape varieties of that famous Southern Rhone region in France.

Tonight I hope to open a bottle of a Chateauneuf du Pape, or maybe a South Australian new world Grenache blend – when I do, I will toast all those who make these wonderful wines, and I will think of all the other people enjoying a Grenache at the same moment!  Good Fun!

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June Tuesday Tastings – great European Variety!

Braddock’s American Brasserie at the Pittsburgh Renaissance Hotel has agreed to carry these wines just for our tastings each Tuesday of June from 530pm-730pm – check out the great and interesting variety of European Wines!

Tuesday June 7 – These two wines were just featured in the wine spectator as “Best Values” in the Wine Spectator, and one blogger described the red as “Dangerously Drinkable”)   White – Esporao Monte Velho Branco    Red – Esporao Monte Velho

Tuesday June 14 – The 2009 Bordeaux Vintage is a classic vintage and the whites are becoming available – we will complement a fresh young Bordeaux Blanc with a classic Rioja red blend.   White – Chateau Merlet Bordeaux Blanc 2009     Red – Banda Azul Rioja 2006 

Tuesday June 21 – The West Loire Valley produces fresh and fantastic Muscadet whites – we will taste the fresh muscadet along side a Cabernet-based, Left-Bank Bordeaux.   White – Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine 2009   Red – Chateau Andron Medoc Bordeaux 2009  

Tuesday June 28 – A rich and exotic tasting Portuguese white will counter the dark and serious Solitude Cotes du Rhone.   White – Dona Ermelinda Branco 2009   Red – Domaine de la Solitude, Cotes du Rhone 2009

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Wines for French Happy Hour this Wednesday 16Mar11

In anticipation of great attendance for this Wednesday’s 5-7pm French Happy Hour at Brasserie 33 – we have chosen four high quality wines to go with the authentic French Happy Hour Menu – here they are:

White Chateau Richard Bergerac
White Domaine Philemon Gaillac
Red Domaine Guicharde Cotes du Rhone
Red Chateau Gobert Bordeaux

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Special wine for Tuesday Tasting at Braddock’s 22Feb11

This week at Braddock’s ( we are fortunate to have made another deep dive into their wine cellar to fine the 2005 Coudoulet de Beaucastel Côtes du Rhône.   This will be available by the glass (very unusual!) so that we may all taste the results of this historically significant vintage.   Robert Parker rated the Southern Rhone 2005 Vintage 95pts and ageworthy – so this Cotes du Rhone wine should be right and ready to drink with good balance.   The wine is made from grapes grown very close to the uber-famous Châteauneuf du Pape region, so it stands to reason that the soil and weather and grapes of this area must be very similar to the ‘big brother’ Châteauneuf du Pape wines – please join us if you can!

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French wines and cheeses on the river…

Due to high interest in French wine (and my recent travels in France!), along with the permanent recognition that France produces some of the best and most diverse cheeses in the world, we decided to produce an all France themed wine and cheese cruise.  We were honored to have such an enthusiastic audience and highly qualified team of helpers…  As usual the cheese notes are provided by my good friend and cheese-expert, David Bennett.   (Note: due to a small delivery hiccup, we had to substitute the opening cremant but I will provide the notes below since it follows the theme).

Cremant de Bourgogne NV – Made with same process as Champagne, but in region a few miles to the south of Champagne, this Cremant is fresh and crisp with tightly focused flavors – a great starter.    Bûche du Poitou – Goat’s milk cheese made in the Loire Valley. The bloomy rind is slightly tangy but the center gets progressively creamier and rich.  The finish is slightly lemony.  Aged 2 months.

Jongieux Vin de Savoie – Clean and refreshing sense of citrus. It is a wine of notably high acidity yet not at all lean or over-light. The wine is fermented in stainless and there is no malolactic fermentation.    Mimolette – a Gouda style cow’s milk cheese made in Lille, on France’s border with Belgium. It was originally made by the request of Louis XIV, who wanted a French cheese to resemble Edam.

Château Barraud La Montagne Saint-Emilion Bordeaux 2005 – Medium bodied Bordeaux with red fruit notes and creamy elements, along with hints of vanilla and fleshy red berries.  The finish shows a little bit of spice that cleans the palate… a Merlot dominant wine with cabernet second.    Morbier – aromatic cow’s milk cheese from Franche-Comté with a  dark vein of vegetable ash streaking through the middle. Remarkable flavor and a wonderful, nutty aftertaste.

Domaine Paul Autard Cotes du Rhone 2009 – This wine is a blend of 70% Grenache – 15% Syrah – 15% Counoise.  This Rhone presents itself as bright and vibrant – which nicely expresses the exceptionally hot 2009.  The wine has bright fruit flavors that burst with blackberry and plum fruits, then finish with well balanced grip.    Fourme D’Ambert –  traditional blue cheese from the Auvergne region that dates back to Roman times.  Inoculated with Penicillium roqueforti spores and aged in caves for at least 28 days. At weekly intervals, the cheese is injected with a sweet white wine.

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Domaine Paul Autard Cotes-du-Rhone 2009

Jean-Paul Autard is not an old man, but he has a wealth of wine-making experience since taking over the family wine operation at age 17.   This domaine produces a range of wines including many award winning, highly sought after wines (Autard’s 1998 Chateauneuf du Pape “Cote Ronde” scored an impressive 97 pts from the Wine Spectator).    On a recent visit, Jean-Paul Autard took a few minutes away from his very busy time to speak with us.  Early October is at the end of the exhausting harvest and during the middle of the wine-making process that lasts several weeks, and we could tell that Jean-Paul and his wine-makers were visibly tired, despite their weariness, they were still very gracious toward us Americans.   While Autard’s Chateauneuf wines are the most impressive and famous, Autard’s Cotes-du-Rhone is far less expensive, more accessible and more widely available in the USA, so for the moment we will focus on the Cotes-du-Rhone.   I’ve been impressed with this wine in past vintages and the just-released 2009 vintage continues the trend.   The 2009 Domaine Paul Autard Cotes du Rhone blends 70% Grenache – 15% Syrah – 15% Counoise (the latter is a relatively rare grape, used mainly for blending in small amounts… it adds a slight pepperiness to the wine), and presents itself as bright and vibrant – which nicely expresses the exceptionally hot 2009 vintage – not as hot as the record breaking levels of 2003, but despite the 2009 growing season starting rather wet, by mid-summer 2009 featured 24 days above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.   One can virtually taste the hot weather in the wine as the bright fruit flavors burst with blackberry and plum fruits and finish with well balanced grip.  Overall this 2009 Domaine Paul Autard Cotes du Rhone punches above its weight, making the roughly $15 price tag a big bargain for a fine Rhone Wine.   If you can find it, buy some and drink them over the next 1-3 years.

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Domaine de la Solitude Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2007 – Big Wine!

This wine is not at all small.   The 2007 Southern Rhone vintage was a big one across the board and this wine is no exception.   The exceptional aspect of this wine is the value to the consumer at this price point.  For people with a taste for a truly big wine at an affordable price (compared to other Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines which commonly sell for more than $50), this Domaine de la Solitude (at approximately $45) will not disappoint.   As a note about Domaine de la Solitude – while much has been made of the overall 2007 vintages for Châteauneuf wines, I have tasted the less expensive Cotes du Rhone wines from this maker and feel comfortable purchasing them as an everyday wine for myself no matter the reports on the overall vintages – sometimes the vineyard and winemaker are more important than the vineyard (at least to me!).   The Lancon family has been in the Southern Rhone for over 700 years, with the earliest relations having moved to Avignon in 1264 to serve the Pope.   The wine label shows family history elements including three bees (said to be a medieval family weapon), the hats of two bishops and a pope, and a medal, said to be from service to Napoleon at Waterloo.   Current generations of the Lancon family, Jean and Michel Lancon carry on the wine making traditions with great care, and Michel’s son Florent Lancon is taking some responsibility as well.

This wine, like many Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines, is dark purple and nearly opaque, indicating a very dense wine to come.  The blend of this vintage is reported to be 55% Grenache, 30% Syrah, and 15% Mourvedre, a typical Southern Rhone blend.   If not decanted and allowed to breathe a while, there is alcohol on the nose, mixed with more pleasant berry and herb notes.  After some breathing however, the wine opens up – flavors are dense and virtually explode on the palate with broad layers of spicy fig, plum and raspberry, even hints of herby, savory meat.   The mouth feel is intense yet very smooth, savory and luscious with a finish that stays a long time.  It is always a treat to find a wine of this much power but with finesse as well – if you can find it, I am sure you will enjoy it.

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