Fun French Red Wines Catch Fire!
Côtes-du-Rhône & Beaujolais on a Record Clip
Well, it's beginning to feel a little different at The Wine Country. Sixty bottles of rosé wine went out the door this past Saturday, signaling spring is really here, and we're on a fast track toward the soothing, warmth of summer and beyond.
And that's not all. Lighter red wines have begun disappearing at a faster clip, particularly what we call "French Bistro" reds like Côtes du Rhône and especially the classic all-purpose Beaujolais.
The Ups, Downs and Ups of Côtes du Rhône
Côtes du Rhône, the ubiquitous Grenache-dominant blend of the southern Rhone Valley, had a huge run after wine writer Robert Parker began to champion Rhone wines in the late 80s. Côte du Rhône was affordable, and functioned as a kind of baby Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the noblest of southern Rhones. When California Zinfandels became too powerful for al fresco dining, the spicy, briary Côte du Rhône eagerly took its place at patio tables and picnics, sometimes with a light chill when it got too hot outside.
Sales of Côtes du Rhône sagged a bit when the Italian wine and food boom began seducing customers with dreams of Tuscan vacations and cruising Venice canals. And truthfully, there was simply a lot of mediocre wine marked "Cotes du Rhone" flooding the market all at once, usually with a mega-brand label that was easier to market in chains than the artisan wines we carefully select.
After years of languishing, something changed in recent months. Walking down our French wine aisles, I noticed that there were holes where bottles of Côtes du Rhône had once filled. I don't know why, but Côtes du Rhône reds are hot again. Most are fun, juicy quaffers, and a select few are deep, complex wines that hold their own alongside many prestige bottlings. Every one we carry is worth seeking out in order to get a feel for the region and its wines. After that it's on to Vacqueyras, Gigondas and Chateauneuf-du-Pape, all wines with similar grape blends, but more power.
With outdoor barbecues already fired up, garlic chopped in the kitchen with olive oil at the ready, Côtes du Rhône reds are rested and ready to charm you as if it were the first time you drank them.
Here are a few to start with:
2014 Idée Fixe Côtes du Rhône $14.99 per bottle
2015 Domaine des Gravennes Côtes du Rhône $12.99 per bottle
In recent years, importer Kermit Lynch's Côtes du Rhône has been our top selling red wine in its appellation. Bottle unfiltered.
Beaujolais on Fire!
Perhaps there is no more maligned great red wine in the world than the wine of Beaujolais. Once as necessary a resident on wine lists as Pinot Noir is today, Beaujolais is the wine you drank when you didn't know what to drink with your food. Also a victim of mass-market mediocrity, the friendly, fruity and characterful wines of Beaujolais have too often been insipid and lifeless when marketed to the chains. The Nouveau Beaujolais craze, while a fun celebration associated with the end of the harvest and the beginning of the holiday season, did nothing to enhance the desirability of the wine.
For centuries, the wines of Beaujolais, a region tucked between Burgundy to its north and the northern Rhone's Côte-Rôtie to its south, have been the local staples of nearby Lyon and its sausage makers and restaurants. The granite soils of Beaujolais are ideal for Gamay Noir, as opposed to the clay and limestone of Burgundy, where Pinot Noir and Chardonnay reach their highest expression.
Besides varying in character from earthy to moderately suave, the best of them are softer and easier to drink than most red wines, and their unabashed fruitiness allows them to complement more foods than any other wine. A vinaigrette salad is no challenge for Beaujolais, nor is a roast chicken, duck breast, hamburger, meatloaf, steak or stick of salami. Lower in alcohol than many wine list wines, and usually made without any oak flavoring, it is a wine you can drink a lot of without suffering too many ill effects.
Beaujolais is the home of the modern natural wine movement, and many of its top producers use non-interventionist winemaking. In theory, this sounds great, but in practice, there have been some flawed wines entering the marketplace, especially among the prestige Cru Beaujolais producers. We try to avoid selecting those wines, in spite of their hype. Stinky wine is bad wine. I, for one, want my Beaujolais to be floral rather than feral.
There is a hierarchy of Beaujolais, just as there is in most French wine regions, and they all have to do with where its grapes are grown. The broadest designation is "Beaujolais", which can encompass the entire region. "Beaujolais-Villages" is a narrower geographic area surrounding the 10 Beaujolais Crus, the top villages. Cru Beaujolais wines are listed by their village names, Julienas, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Regnié, Brouilly, Côtes de Brouilly, Saint-Amour, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent and the statuesque Morgon. Because of their hillsides, Cru Beaujolais are theoretically the deepest and most complex of the region's wines. Experience has taught us that doesn't always equate to the most enjoyable. Some Crus are better with bolder dishes, while sometimes a simple Beaujolais seems like the best wine on the planet for a particular dish. I recommend getting a feel for Beaujolais--live with it for awhile, drink different wines often, they aren't expensive, before branching out into the more expensive (yet still affordable) Cru Beaujolais.
At The Wine Country, we've also seen increased enthusiasm for the wines of Beaujolais, which can also be served lightly chilled on hot summer days. A recent trade tasting in San Francisco introduced us to several impressive and impossibly affordable wines. While our French wine manager Samantha Dugan was bouncing around vineyards in the Loire, Jura, Champagne and Burgundy, I quietly ordered in a few stacks of wines I'm confident you'll find charming and useful in spring, summer and beyond.
Most Beaujolais is grown in gravelly soils, which are ideal for Gamay. This earthy, light-bodied red is a terrific value from the Moulin à Vent producer. Grown on 50 year old vines at over 1,000 feet elevation in sandy, clay-rich soils, this solidly structured Beaujolais is just the thing for grilled chicken, pork loin and hard cheeses. Simple, easy-to-drink and unchallenging.
$11.99 per bottle
Harvested from 60 year old vines and fermented with natural yeasts, there is not a stick of oak in this fruity red wine. A cousin of popular producer Paul Durdilly, Guillaume has produced a delicious, easy to drink Beaujolais that demands you keep several bottles on hand. A bit plusher than the Domaine Les Gryphées. Roast up a chicken, or serve it with a few slices of salami to bring out its best.
$11.99 per bottle
This wine has continually sold out since bringing it in as a recent Wine of the Month selection. Soft, dark and fairly deep, it has friendly written all over it.
$11.99 per bottle
It's good to have Domaine des Braves floral, juicy, rambunctious Cru Beaujolais back in stock. This 1903 estate produces elegant, fruity Gamay from 45 old vines, and one sip will convince you that good wine need not be expensive to be joyful. The aroma alone will captivate you. As perfect an all-food wine as it gets.
$16.99 per bottle