Last week I went up to New York to attend the launch of the first U.S. ad campaign for Côtes du Rhône wines. While I wouldn’t ordinarily go on about advertising, I like this campaign (and no, it’s not just from watching too much “Mad Men.”) It’s simple and the slogan, Côtes du Rhône – Always Right, captures perfectly what we at first vine have been trying to say, with a considerably smaller budget, for the two-and-a-half years of our existence! 🙂
The essence of the message is that no matter where you are or what you’re eating there is a Côtes du Rhône wine that will serve nicely as an accompaniment. Dare and I have blathered on about this for a while now. But in looking back over our old posts and newsletters, I noticed we never tried to explain why it is that these wines are indeed “always right.” (I know, you thought we’d explained everything to death. And more than once, too. But that’s the beauty of wine — there’s always more!)
First, a geographical definition. Côtes du Rhône refers to the valley in southern France created by the Rhône River, which originates in the Swiss Alps and empties into the Mediterranean after traversing a good swath of France. The actual Côtes du Rhône growing and producing region starts south of Lyon and covers large parts of the Drôme and Vaucluse départements practically down to Aix-en-Provence. There are approximately 6,000 grape producers in vineyards that cover an area roughly the size of the five boroughs of New York City. The winemaking area is divided into northern and southern parts, and then further divided into the villages that produce wine.
The finest French wine grapes are almost always grown in soil that won’t easily support other crops, and on terrain that would otherwise be difficult to farm. The vines thrive with the stress of finding nutrients and water, and the roots dig deep, sometimes 50 feet or more, practically becoming part of the soil. The vine fields are surrounded by herbs and other shrubs that grow wild. These same plants carry over to the pastureland and fields that are used for food crops, fruits, and vegetables. It all runs more or less seamlessly together, from wheat, cows, walnuts, and apples in the northern part to goats, sheep, lemons, olives, strawberries, tomatoes, and eggplants in the south. All on land carved out by the river over millions of years.
While we talk a lot about “slow food” these days, this is as close to the real deal as I have experienced (I’m sure there are purists who can name places elsewhere that are more “authentically” slow food). Don’t get me wrong, everyone in France shops at supermarkets, and they’re all busy. But it is possible to buy your goat cheese from the person who makes it, and to get fresh cheese every day and taste how it changes with the weather and the seasons. Down the road from the goat farm you’ll find someone who raises other livestock and makes his own charcuterie. Go a little further to the olive mill and buy olive oil from producers in the village. Visit the village markets and get amazing local strawberries beginning in late March through May and June. And everywhere in between there will be wine.
OK, let the eye-rolling begin! Of course it’s not totally idyllic, and people do have to make a living. (Forget about the old man in a beret riding his bicycle on a country road with a bouquet of sunflowers and a baguette sticking out of the wicker basket in front. He was probably an extra hired by your tour company!) But there really is something to the thought that the wine grapes grow alongside most of the food that we like to eat. While you won’t find all of the world’s cuisines in the Rhône valley, you will still find a Rhône wine that goes with virtually any meal you can think of.
So what do you do to support that claim after writing newsletters for two years and putting over 100 recipes out into the ether? My first thought was to give you a recipe for something non-European that would be quick to make and pair with a bunch of different wines. But I decided to save that for my next post. Instead, in honor of the new ad campaign, here’s a stunning recipe and wine pairing, every bit the equivalent of that tuxedo jacket in the ad. It’s a lamb stew with white beans, adapted from Nick Stellino’s Family Kitchen. I never saw him cook on television and picked up this book in a store discount pile for $3.99. Those of you who have seen Cy’s and my home know that I have piles of cookbooks around, especially next to the bed, and read them like magazines. I’m always happy to have an inexpensive cookbook to look at and have a pretty low threshold for my bedtime reading. I marked the lamb stew recipe and tried it a few months later when Cy’s mother came to visit.
Well, it blew the three of us away. I’m not exactly sure why it’s so achingly delicious, but it has been magnificent every time I’ve made it. Even with store-bought stock, Safeway lamb stew meat, and generic stewed tomatoes. When you channel Ina Garten and use “really good” ingredients, it’s transcendent. Pair the stew with Cave la Vinsobraise Emeraude ($18), made at the co-op in Vinsobres. I have a soft spot for this wine, since Cave la Vinsobraise was one of first vine’s first producers, and their wines were my introduction in France to the joys of the Côtes du Rhône. The Emeraude is 60% Grenache, and 40% Syrah, with grapes from vines that are at least 40 years old and hand-selected from the best vineyards in the co-op. It’s aged in oak to soften the tannin, and the oak really helps the wine match beautifully with lamb in general, and this stew in particular. (Don’t use it in the recipe itself, since you don’t need something this elegant as an ingredient. Of course, we have some tips about that, too).
There – I’ve said everything I can. Go forth, cook, drink, and enjoy! Serve it to anyone you love or want to impress. And while you’re doing all that chopping and browning, you can console yourself with the thought that it’s tough being “always right.” But someone has to do it! 😉
Lamb Stew with White Beans
½ cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 to 3-1/4 pounds lamb stew meat or boneless leg of lamb, cut into 1-2 inch pieces
6-8 tablespoons olive oil
6 garlic cloves, thickly sliced
1 onion, cut in half lengthwise and sliced thinly horizontally
1 heaping tablespoon finely chopped rosemary
¼ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
2 14.5 ounce cans Italian-style stewed tomatoes, drained and chopped into large pieces, juice reserved (you can use regular stewed tomatoes if you can’t find the Italian-style)
1 tablespoon plus ¼ cup chopped fresh mint
1 cup red wine
3 cups beef stock
2 15-ounce cans white small white beans, drained and rinsed
Salt and pepper to taste
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
Combine the flour, salt, and pepper in a bowl. Toss in the lamb, a few pieces at a time, to coat lightly. In a Dutch oven, heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium-high heat. Shake any excess flour off the lamb and brown in the oil. (You’ll have to do this in at least two batches to avoid crowding the pieces). Remove each browned batch and set aside in another bowl. Add a tablespoon of oil and heat well before each batch.
In the same pot, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and then add the garlic, onion, rosemary, and red pepper flakes. Cook until the garlic starts to brown, stirring well to get the brown bits off the bottom of the pot, about 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook until they’re dry, 3-4 minutes. Add the 1 tablespoon of mint and return the lamb to the pot. Toss well to combine.
Add the wine and gently scrape the bottom of the pot to incorporate the brown bits into the liquid. Bring to a boil, lower the heat to medium and cook until the liquid is reduced by half.
Add the reserved tomato juice and stock. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, partially covered, for 1 hour. Stir occasionally and be sure to scrape the bottom of the pot. Uncover and cook for 15 minutes more. Add the beans and cook, uncovered, for about 10 more minutes, until the sauce is reasonably thick and the meat is tender. Add salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the ¼ cup mint and parsley and serve.