All roads lead to Rhône

It is not often that I run short of wine, but the cold weather and long dark evenings have caused me to reach for the reds rather too often and so I have a large hole in my wine rack where the flavoursome stuff should be.

While I enjoy wines from around the world, I have a default setting when it comes to cold-weather drinking, and that is the Rhône. Somehow the warm, fruity flavours, layered with spice, chocolate and savoury deliciousness seems to suit the food on my plate, acting as a warming comfort blanket.

This part of France has provided us with good, flavoursome drinking for centuries, but in the last decade, with the rush to identify wine flavours by single grape varieties, the Rhône has been overlooked while the brasher, upfront fruity flavours of Aussie Shiraz dominated the shelves. Now the Rhône has sharpened up its act and there is a new collection of wines which pack flavour and spice with French style and delicious food-friendliness.

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The wine part of the Rhône Valley starts just south of Lyon and stretches, apart from a small gap in the middle, about 200 km to the historic town of Avignon. Syrah is the main attraction in the north while further south it is bolstered by large dollops of Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault and other flavoursome grapes. This is the land of deep plummy flavours, with occasional layers of spice, chocolate and pepper. Depending on quality, a Rhône wine can be a good value winter glugger or it can take its place alongside a grand dinner, adding depth of flavour and complexity to the meal.

Côtes du Rhône is the catch-all name for vast quantities of wine which comes mainly from the southern end of the region. As a generic style there are some wines behind this kind of label that are a complete disappointment, lacking the rich, fruity warmth that should be in the bottle, but at a recent tasting I was impressed by Sainsbury’s House Côtes du Rhône which has enough ripe, fruity flavours to justify its bargain basement £3.99 price tag. This is a great value weekday wine to go with pasta suppers and a chunk of cheese.

Moving up the quality scale to Taste the Difference Côtes du Rhône Villages 2010 (£6.99, Sainsbury’s) which is made by Chapoutier, one of the Rhône’s top producers, the typical robust briary aromas of Grenache start to show with a serious streak of peppery Syrah and deep-flavoured Mourvèdre providing good quality drinking at a modest price. This is much more of a Friday night or weekend wine when there is time to cook a good hearty casserole. At the same price the Co-op has a soft, juicy Côtes du Rhône Reserve 2011 from the respected producer Ogier.

There is one Côtes du Rhône which consistently makes me smile and that is from Guigal (£8.99, Majestic on multibuy until February 4). This used to be the wine that acted as a mixing bowl for wines from Guigal’s young vines in classy northern Rhône vineyards but sadly those days are over. Now it is sourced from dozens of producers across the southern Rhône yet it still manages to achieve another notch of concentration and savoury spice that makes it worthy of a Saturday night supper or a Sunday roast.

While you are at Majestic and need to fill up that six-bottle case which is their minimum purchase requirement, add a bottle or two of Côtes du Rhône 2010 from Vidal Fleury (£6.99, Majestic on multibuy). This company is owned by Guigal and while it operates quite separately there is clearly a shared philosophy when it comes to quality. With an increasing proportion of Grenache going into the blend, year on year, these wines are heading towards wild forest fruit flavours underpinned by leathery, savoury notes. The 2010 vintage is still quite structured and perfect to pour with a steak.

At Waitrose, there is a great value Côtes du Rhône under their Classic label, at a bargain £4.99 but for seriously good flavours head for the bright blue and red label of Les Dauphins Côtes du Rhône Villages 2011 (£7.99). This has all the cherry and plum fruit expected in a good CDR with warmth, spice and finesse.

The Northern Rhône is essentially red wine country and Syrah is the only permitted red grape, which means that the wines have more intensity, structure and dark, black fruit flavours. Sainsbury’s take the lead with their Taste the Difference St Joseph 2010 which comes from Michel Chapoutier. At £13.49 this is not a January bargain but it is the kind of wine you’ll be glad you bought for its rip-roaring, chunky berry fruit, layered with scents from your spice cupboard and backed by tannins that need red meat to bring them into line.

St Joseph used to make tough, unyielding wines that needed years to bring them around but now styles have changed and quality is definitely on the up, without losing the unique character of this western side of the northern Rhône.

Once you get over the usual penny-pinching, calorie-counting aspects of January, don’t forget to make the most of the cold weather by indulging in the rich, structured, dense flavours of Crozes-Hermitage or even Hermitage if the budget permits.

Head to Waitrose for Jean-Luc Colombo’s Les Gravières Crozes Hermitage (£13.99) for dusky, damson fruit and positive peppery spice or try the more complex, concentrated flavours of Petite Ruche 2009 Crozes from Chapoutier (£15.99). Even better, buy several bottles and tuck them away for a year or so. They will develop into a powerhouse of flavour and when next winter arrives you will not be caught with gaps in your wine rack, especially if game is on the menu.