As a teenager, my colorful Francophile cousin did a summer exchange with a family in France’s Rhône valley. In her writing, she has described that time as a gastronomical education, recalling with special fondness the local wines that lubricated her storybook summer — bottles of which filled her carry-on bag upon returning to the US.
Good thing this was the ’80s, because nowadays that carry-on would quickly be confiscated, leaving our young traveler bereft of her prized souvenirs. For today’s Wineaux seeking a taste of the Rhône without risking a tussle with Customs, wines from the Côtes du Rhône — literally, “hills of the Rhône,” indicating the region itself as well as wines from this region — are widely available stateside and offer a good value. Côtes du Rhône reds, made mainly of Grenache and Syrah grapes, are full of fruit and make for easy drinking.
We thought our Favorite Foodie Neighbor would make an excellent guest taster for this go-round, and true to form she arrived at the appointed hour bearing organic dark chocolate and Trader Joe’s prosciutto. She quickly announced her favorite Côtes du Rhône: the 2004 Abel Clément ($5.99), from the vineyards around the village of Sérignan-du-Comtat in the southern Rhône Valley. The color of dark cherries, the Abel Clément had a fruity, earthy aroma and a flavor of blackberry and leather. Foodie Neighbor described this wine as “edgy but balanced” — qualities she also seeks in the company she keeps.
Our token winemaker ranked the Abel Clément third — he found it out of balance, given its combination of thinness and astringency, and complained of a slightly bitter aftertaste. (Note: These flaws are happily absent from the just-released and much-improved 2005 vintage, which smells curiously of baked goods.) He preferred the 2003 offering from E. Guigal ($10.99), describing its color as cherry Jell-O, its taste as Syrah-like — dark and ripe — and its aftertaste as long and just slightly unclean. The northern-Rhône-based E. Guigal is known for producing great wines; some, like the Côtes du Rhône, are affordable, while others, like its esteemed Côte-Rôtie, can sell for as much as $250 for an older vintage. Foodie Neighbor found Guigal’s 2003 Côtes du Rhône to be a veritable feast for the senses — it smelled of sweat socks, compost, grass, and gasoline, she said, and tasted of leather, earth, Play-Doh, and rye, with an aftertaste of hay.
My favorite was the 2004 La Cabotte ($9.50), with its aroma of fruity chewing gum and a strong cranberry flavor. The aftertaste was loamy and smooth — I kept picturing drinking it by the seashore. Foodie Neighbor found La Cabotte a bit thin for her taste, but she did praise its aroma of raisin, black currant, and pepper. “Nice fruit” was our token winemaker’s verdict.