Tasting wine: Spicy reds from the Rhône Valley

Sometimes I feel like I’m delivering the weather report when I write this column. Often, what I drink is dictated by how I am physically feeling. Hot weather equals riesling. Cool, crisp fall weather makes me want pinot noir.

This cold, damp weather brings a whole host ofwine to mind, but more than anything else I’ve been craving spicy red wines from the Rhône Valley.

The level of alcohol often found in these wines is enough to make even the coldest fish heat up. However, the deep fruity, earthy flavors with a peppery kick suggest an almost comforting feeling of warmth even without the ethanol.

Syrah is the only grape allowed in the northern Rhône as it is generally too cold there for grenache and the others that populate the southern Rhône. Most, though not all, wines from the southern Rhône are blends. Sometimes white grapes are used to make the red wines in both the northern and southern Rhône.

To narrow down the field today, I’m sticking to wines from the southern Rhône, Côtes du Rhône, the largest and most amorphous appellation.

Feraud-Brunel Côtes du Rhône, 2005: This is a partnership between two of Châteauneuf du Pape’s greatest producers, Laurence Feraud of Domaine Pegau and André Brunel of Les Cailloux. It has been 10 years since they first teamed up, creating wines from purchased fruit made in several southern Rhône appellations. This Côtes du Rhône has good intensity, though not as much as Gramenon’s wines, with white pepper, a hint of tobacco and floral aromatics.

Suggested retail: $16.99

Domaine Gramenon Côtes du Rhône, “La Segasse,” 2006: Philippe Laurent purchased vineyards in the southern end of the Rhône Valley in 1979, and until 1990 sold all of his fruit to other producers. Perhaps it was the great vintage that changed his mind, but in this year he made his first wine — at least, commercially. Philippe died in 1999, but his widow, Michelle, has carried on, taking Côtes du Rhône to new heights. All the Gramenon wines are pretty high end, at least for the Côtes du Rhône appellation, but there is no doubt that they are worth it. Made entirely from grenache, “La Segasse” is full-bodied yet has velvety tannins filled out by profound berry fruit, a conglomerate of spice and earthy underpinnings.

Suggested retail: $29.99

Joseph Swan “Côtes du Rosa,” 2005: OK, I’m, throwing in a curve ball here. I tasted this wine the other day and was absolutely amazed at how much it reminded me of Vacqueras, a grenache-dominated southern Rhône appellation. Joseph Swan, in the Russian River, is best known for zinfandel and pinot noir but works with other varietals as well. Although the exact blend in this wine is a highly guarded secret, it is similar to the blend found in many southern Rhône wines of grenache, syrah, etc. Medium-bodied with red berries, rose petals and white pepper, this is a charmer.

Suggested retail: $20

Pamela S. Busch is the wine director and proprietor of CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen

in San Francisco.

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