Reds from the Côtes du Rhône are wines for right now.

“With full-bodied dishes, stews, cassoulet, these wines just rock,” said Randy Wautlet, owner of Steve’s on McKee Road in Fitchburg. “It’s got that winter weight.”

Wautlet has been a fan of wines from the southern Rhône in France for “forever” in part because they’re consistent performers, reliable and easy to pair with food.

“Côtes du Rhône are affordable, well-made, drinkable wines made to drink over the next three years,” he said. “I used to run a French restaurant in my young days. Rhône wines and food go well together for most applications.”

Wautlet loves to talk cabernet and pinot noir drinkers into grenache-based Rhône reds, which can have similar weight and flavor elements but more nuance and interest. Côtes du Rhône wines rarely see oak, Wautlet said, and they’re usually less jammy than their Spanish garnacha counterparts.

The highest-end wines, from Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the Southern Rhône, can improve in a cellar for decades.

Wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the Southern Rhône Valley of France are embossed with a papal crest. 

“I tell people that for Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 10 years from vintage is when I open them personally,” Wautlet said. “I have a cellar full of these things, CdPs going back to ’89. Are they age-worthy? Absolutely. From great producers in a great vintage, the wines are fab.”

If you don’t want to wait until 2025, there’s plenty to drink now. At a recent tasting of 10 Rhône reds, my tasting group found a range of highly enjoyable options, nearly all costing less than $20 and easily found in Madison wine shops.

We started with the 2015 Pierre Amadieu Côtes du Rhône ($10 at Woodman’s East), from a vintage that Wautlet called “incredibly great.” It was a little hot (unbalanced with alcohol) and a little thin, but tart red cherry fruit from 75 percent grenache in the blend made it a decent bargain.

The 2016 Chemin des Papes Côtes du Rhône ($10 at Steve’s on Junction Road) also brought mostly grenache fruit — 65 percent — but had darker berry flavors. This one was also out of balance, showing heat on the front.

A tasting of 10 Côtes du Rhône wines focused mostly on the Southern part of the region, with one exception from St. Joseph (second from right). 

The back story of the 2016 Anne-Sophie Pic and Michel Chapoutier Côtes du Rhône ($16 at Table Wine) fascinated me. A chef (Pic) and winemaker (Chapoutier) teamed up to make a series of wines, offering recipes that would pair with each.

Apparently, this grenache/syrah blend with its savory flavors of rosemary and earth would make an “authentic and joyous food pairing” with a game terrine. Pic's recipe includes in its ingredient list pork bard (back fat), some kind of game meat (wild board, pheasant, roe deer) and cooked foie gras. I did not attempt this, but did feel a bit sheepish about the buttermilk-brined chicken thighs I was about to serve.

Wautlet spent half an hour with the taster who brought the 2015 Domaine Cros de Romet ($18.99 at Steve’s on McKee), a Côtes du Rhône Villages-Cairanne from winemaker Alain Boisson. 2015 was the first year that Cairanne, a village in the Southern Rhône, was designated as its own cru, or standalone appellation.

At 80 percent grenache and 20 percent syrah, the Cros de Romet had a deeper purple hue than the more ruby previous wines, with more concentrated flavors. Tasters liked the fruit forward nose, the assertive tannins and lovely spices. For it’s worth, this one was great with the chicken.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the most famous, and often the most expensive, wine from the Rhône Valley in France.

Darker with blackberry flavors but with smoother tannins, the 2016 Domaine les Apillanthes “Galets Plan de Dieu” ($17.50 at Steve’s on University) was an appealing blend of grenache (60 percent), syrah and mourvedre (20 percent each).

We loved the herbal notes in this one, notes of rosemary and sage along with black pepper. Even better, it’s farmed biodynamically, which is like organic-plus — good for the planet, too.

The 2014 Le Charmel (about $12 at Metcalfe’s Sentry), a blend of 70 percent syrah and 30 percent grenache from the Costieres de Nimes, was categorized by one taster as “a red for someone who doesn’t know if they like red yet.” Smooth, with dark fruit, very light tannins and a little vegetal quality on the nose (one friend called it “tomato leaf”), it finished with flavors of tobacco and very little acidity.

We picked up the 2014 Michel Gassier “Nostre Païs” ($19.99) at Table Wine, another Costieres de Nimes blend that combined five grapes, mostly grenache (35 percent), carignane (25 percent) and syrah (20 percent). Tasters picked up similar herbal qualities in this rich, aromatic wine, finding it softer and lighter than the Le Charmel with more nuance.

Gigondas is an appellation I often seek out within the Rhône, thinking of it like a more accessible Châteauneuf-du-Pape since the two are only about 14 miles apart. The 2015 Bertrand Stehlin Gigondas ($27 at Steve’s on University) was a favorite in the tasting, with smooth, lush fruit, raspberry and thyme flavors and a more complex structure than many of the previous wines.

This Gigondas from Bertrand Stehelin was a tasters' favorite, with lush raspberry flavors.

Only one wine represented the northern Rhône at this tasting: a 2014 Domaine Vincent Paris “Les Côtes” ($23 at Steve’s on University) from the St. Joseph appellation. We decanted this wine, made from 100 percent syrah, which brought out flavors of “olives and wet wool” for some and “salty, briny” flavors for others. Still, rich flavors of plums, chocolate and cherries made this a deeply satisfying syrah.

The last two wines in our tasting came out of the cellar, both Châteauneuf-du-Pape: a 2003 from Andre Brunel’s Les Callioux, which was drinking beautifully with good structure, and a 2009 “Clos du Calvaire” from Vignobles Mayard, a tasters’ favorite with notes of oregano and thyme.

Even beyond the highest end wines, Wautlet said he likes Rhône reds for their freshness, and because they “very seldom disappoint me,” Wautlet said. “What they are is what they are.

“I don’t expect to see God, but I’m hardly ever disappointed either. They’re food friendly, but most you can certainly drink on their own. They’re very versatile.”

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