the rhone age

Perrin Réserve Cotes du Rhone ($10)

            If most French wine confuses consumers — is Bordeaux a kind of grape? — then wines from the Rhone are perhaps the most confusing. The area receives less ink than either Bordeaux and Burgundy, and Rhone wine can be made from about a dozen grapes, as opposed to four in Bordeaux and two in Burgundy.

            So is Rhone wine worth the extra trouble? Most certainly.

            For one thing, the Rhone area is the birthplace of winemaking for everyone who likes syrah or shiraz, whether from the Old World or the New. For another, Rhone wines, though not necessarily inexpensive, remain a value compared to their cousins in Burgundy and Bordeaux. A quality Chateauneuf-de-Pape from the southern Rhone might cost as little as one-half as much as a similar vintage from Bordeaux. The key to buying Rhone is to look for value-oriented producers and negociants such as E. Guigal, Jaboulet and Chapoutier.

            Usually, red wines from the northern Rhone are made with syrah. The best known are Hermitage and Cote-Rotie, regions that produce wines made to age, often for decades. Youthful power and big dark fruit give way to subtlety and finesse. I tasted a 1967 Cote-Rotie from Guigal last month, and it was amazing — a wine in which the fruit, acid and tannins were still in balance after 40 years. More readily available is Louis Bernard Crozes-Hermitage 2003 ($17), from the less pricey Croze-Hermitage region next to Hermitage.

            Chateauneuf is the most famous red in the southern Rhone, usually made from the classic Rhone blend of syrah, Grenache, and mourvedre (a combination that Texas winemakers are experimenting with, to good results). Chateauneuf, like Hermitage and Cote-Rotie, is a red meat and barbecue wine, though it’s sneaky enough to work with some vegetable dishes. One wine to try: E. Guigal Chateauneuf-de-Pape 2003 ($37).

The Rhone’s white wines, made from viognier, rousanne and marsanne, are less well known. They’re also decidedly different from what most Americans think of as white wines, full-bodied with an herb-like aroma and almost oily. This doesn’t mean they’re worse, just different. Pair something like Perrin Réserve Cotes du Rhone 2005 ($10) with strong cheeses or seafood in sauces. —Jeff Siegel

 

Ask the Wine Guy:

Dry red wine is too bitter for me. Are there sweet red wines?

Yes, they exist, mostly in , where the dornfelder grape offers an interesting perspective on sweet wine. But in this country, it’s extremely difficult to find sweet red wine that isn’t ordinary red wine with sugar added (or, in the case of some Kosher wines, bad red wine with sugar added). The catch is that adding sugar upsets the wine’s balance, and it’s not wine anymore, but a grape juice cocktail. The best bet for anyone who wants a sweeter red wine is to try any of the $10 California merlots (often with livestock on the label) that inundate store shelves. These wines aren’t sweet (most are as dry as any cabernet sauvignon), but are so fruity and have such a cola-like aroma that they seem sweet.

 

WITH YOUR WINE

Almost cassoulet

            There may be as many variations of cassoulet, the classic white bean stew from southwestern , as there are French. Traditionally, it contains a variety of pork and fowl cooked for as long as three days. This is quite tasty, but not all that practical. Our version, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Cajun-style white beans, should take no more than a short afternoon. And don’t be afraid to serve a Rhone red with it, even though the Rhone is in southeastern .

 

Servings: 6-8

Time: 3-4 hours, including prep

 

16 ounces dried white beans

8 ounces pork neck bones (you can substitute a chicken or duck carcass or use it in addition to the neck bones)

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon thyme

2 to 3 tablespoons chopped garlic

2 onions, peeled and chopped

3 carrots, peeled and chopped

8 cups cold water

Salt and pepper to taste

3 to 4 pieces best-quality pork sausage, like a bratwurst

 

1. Combine all ingredients except the sausage in a large stock pot, bring to a boil, cover and cook gently until the beans are almost done. This depends on how old they are; check after an hour or so.

2. Remove the bones or carcass. Slice each piece of sausage in half, and add to the pot. Cook until the beans are done, another 30 to 60 minutes. The mixture should be soupy.

3. Pick the meat from the bones or carcass and add to the pot. Serve in bowls with crusty French bread, hot sauce and a green salad.


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