I first chose to drink a wine from France’s Rhône valley because pronouncing it fell within my radius of linguistic confidence.
I was sitting in a bistro in Paris on Rue Mouffetard, a street whose movements feed the Paris of the imagination so slavishly that the cast—garrulous fishmongers dangling cigarettes and old men nursing espresso at Frisbee-sized cafe tables—could be actors who pick up weekly checks at l’Office du Tourisme. I remember rehearsing my order of a glass of Côtes du Rhône as the bartender approached, then letting it tumble out. The wine itself, I don’t remember so much.
A few years later in Los Angeles, I had a girlfriend whose head-turning beauty and hunger for fame made me feel like my only two choices were to hold on to her more tightly than I should, or risk her disappearing forever. In the wee hours one Saturday, we helped ourselves to a bottle of wine that her spectral roommate had left on top of the fridge. Although her place was just a few blocks away from two bustling boulevards, the street late that night was serene. The misty quiet seemed to wash up to the balcony and infect us for once; it was a rare and welcome evening of calm in a tumultuous affair.
Late the next morning, before walking down the block to get a coffee, I finished the bottle by myself. Only in that sober moment did I realize that I was drinking something extraordinary. I brushed my thumb over the bottle’s embossed insignia. The words in ancient type on the label, inscrutable at the time, stayed with me long after the girl had disappeared forever: Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
These unexpected path-crossings led me to what are now my favorite wines: those of France’s southern Rhône valley and its most regal appellation. While I will never untangle the wines from the circumstances of my introduction to them, those memories are old and require careful unearthing. What has replaced them at the forefront of my mind is a specific fantasy of the Rhône: My wife and I on laden bicycles, mashing up steep hills fueled by coffee and two-euro baguettes. We roll into village after ancient village to be nourished by cassoulet and wine so provincial that a bottle has never made it to the capital, let alone to the States.
The southern Rhône is where the green and lush give way to the dry and stony, where the sun and wind are strong. There, the hardened grenache vines push through the crusty earth, emerging from the blanket of warm stones that insulate their roots and lend a lunar quality to the vineyards. Ripe wines result—a bottle of Côtes du Rhône may be light, but it will seldom want for supple fruitiness. At their most humble, they are uncomplicated but satisfying, good with a meal or diluted and downed as a morning restorative. With luck, they borrow the herbs of Provence, the whiff of humidor and the puissance—the power—of their doyen, Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Jay McInerney calls Châteauneuf-du-Pape the “vinous equivalent of a megadose of vitamin D,” because a glass on a gloomy evening can revivify a pallid body like a grapefruit could a sailor with scurvy. I crave it on the dark and windy afternoons when just arriving home and taking off my shoes feels like something to celebrate. Detractors call it rustic like that’s a bad thing. Fans call it rich. Meaty. Stewy.
Years ago, I listened with saintly patience as a California cabernet chauvinist derided French wines; as he saw it, they lacked fortitude. “They’re like wine-flavored water,” I can still hear him saying, as my blood pressure elevates with the memory. Thinking of the stout, high-alcohol reds, I almost succumbed to my helpful instincts and steered him to Châteauneuf. But then I thought better of it. Châteauneuf may lack the cachet of Champagne and may not spark recognition like Burgundy and Bordeaux, but the wine’s renown inspired zealous protections a century ago, which inspired France’s appellation system, which inspired the whole world to take its wine much more seriously. It is not a wine to be trotted out in a vain attempt to convince some lumpen drinker of France’s worth—it’s better than that. And when the days get short and the nights get cold, it’s better than anything else.