Let’s Hear It for the Strong, Silent Types

You know you’ve done it, fallen for the flash, the brashness, the in-your-face audacity.  Sometimes it works out great.  But other times it leaves you wanting something.  Maybe a bit more balance, some stability, or even a sensation that lasts beyond the initial thrill.

OK, I’m not giving you TMI here.  And I haven’t been channeling your mother!  No, I’m talking about red wine grapes in the Southern Rhône Valley.

Yeah, we've all been there...

You already know about Grenache and Syrah, one earthy, the other spicy and lush with fruits.  They’re the superstars, the big flavor components in the region, either by themselves or combining to make up at least 60% of virtually every red wine produced there.  Oh, they’re good, no doubt about it.  And most of the time, you’re perfectly happy drinking them, either alone or together.

But they’re not always enough.  That’s why many producers in the Southern Rhône Valley blend in small amounts of three other grapes:  Mourvèdre, Carignan, and Cinsault.  Very few wines in France are 100% of any of these three.*  But they add complexity, staying power, and balance to blends of Grenache and Syrah – they’re literally the strong, silent types you might not otherwise notice.  We’ve talked about white blending grapes in previous posts. Here’s a brief introduction to the reds:

Mourvèdre is the strongest and most intensely flavored of the three.  The skin of Mourvèdre grapes contains a lot of tannins, which help give wines structure and longevity.  The flavor of the juice is more spicy than fruity, with hints of clove, cinnamon, pepper, and even a little bit of thyme.  Winemakers blend up to 10% Mourvèdre in their full-bodied wines.  You’ll find Mourvèdre in wines from Gigondas and Vacqueras, for example, the most potent reds of the Southern Rhône.  You’ll also find them in medium- to full-bodied wines to add a hint of spice that might otherwise be missing.  So if a particular vineyard’s Syrah is a little underpowered in spice, blending in some Mourvèdre can add depth of flavor.  It also adds vibrant color to the blends.

Carignan is a fruitier grape, also high in tannins for staying power.  Perhaps because of its lighter fruit flavors, it also has more acidity than you usually find in a red wine grape.  Acidity is key to balance in a wine’s flavor, and wines without enough acidity can taste a bit flat (especially white wines).  Carignan has flavors of cherry, strawberry, and raspberry that Syrah doesn’t.   A 10-20% addition of Carignan will round out the fruit flavors in the wine and gives them a particularly nice aroma.

Cinsault is the most unique grape of the three, with a beautiful strawberry flavor and aroma.  The skin is low in tannins, so it can boost the lighter fruit flavors especially when combined with Carignan, but without giving the harshness of extra tannins.  Blends with Cinsault and Carignan contain up to 20% in total between the two, although the proportion can sometimes go higher to lighten up an otherwise fuller-bodied wine.  Cinsault is frequently a component of rosés as well as red wines – since rosés are made with red wine grapes, Cinsault adds a freshness that you wouldn’t get from a rosé made from just Syrah.

In addition to helping winemakers fine-tune their wines to get the flavors they’re looking for, the three grapes can also help make a more consistent product from year to year.  While AOC regulations specify percentages for the various grapes in wines from particular villages, there is enough leeway to allow for small changes from one year to the next.  Winemakers aren’t looking to eliminate all year-to-year variations, particularly if it’s a really good year.  But you the customer have the right to expect that the 2007 vintage of your favorite wine won’t be completely different than the 2006.


Need we say more?

This week’s recipe is the one I promised a couple of weeks ago – a non-European recipe that pairs with a bunch of different wines, perfect for showing off the versatility of Côtes du Rhônes.  It’s a stir fry of rice noodles and bok choy, to which you can add pan-seared salmon, chicken, pork, or beef.  I adapted it from a recipe I saw on “Everyday Food,” a program I really should like more than I do.  Maybe the problem is that our local PBS station runs it at 11:30 pm, which makes the show’s rather subdued and even tone a little hard to stay awake for on a school night.  Anyway, this recipe somehow caught my attention, and it’s good.

Also amazingly simple:  you start by softening the noodles in warm water, and sear the meat or fish of your choice and set it aside to rest and finish cooking.  Then you stir fry garlic and ginger, add your bok choy and cover to steam.  Then add the drained, softened rice noodles and the sauce mixture, which is a little sweet, sour, spicy, earthy, and salty.  Serve the noodles on the plate topped by the meat, and it’s 15 minutes start to finish.

You’ll need a lighter-bodied red for salmon or chicken, and the Villedieu Cuvée des Templiers ($10) or Chaume-Arnaud’s Le Petit Coquet ($13)  fit the bill perfectly.  Both are Grenache/Syrah blends with added Cinsault and Carignan.  For pork, try a medium-bodied fruitier wine like Les Terrasses du Belvédère Vieilles Vignes ($16), which blends in Carignan and Mourvèdre.  And if you’re using beef, try Domaine Chaume-Arnaud Vinsobres 2005 ($18), which has all three of the blending grapes to lighten the fruit and give greater depth of spice.

So there it is – far from being just another pretty face, these grapes help make wines you’ll appreciate beyond the first sip.  No need to stop hanging out with the bad boys, but remember what your mother always told you:  there might be more waiting for you elsewhere!

Bon Appetit!


*In the U.S., Cline Vineyards makes a Mourvèdre and a Carignan.  They’re a neat experiment, but the California climate and soil make them both much fruitier than you’d find in France.  In spite of this, you can still taste the difference between them, although neither one is as interesting – to me, anyway – as Grenache or Syrah.

Bok Choy Stir Fry

Serves 4

1 package (6 to 8 ounces) rice noodles

3 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

1-1/2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon red-pepper flakes

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

4 salmon fillets, boneless chicken breasts (flattened to a uniform thickness), boneless center-cut pork chops, or beef tenderloin steaks (about 6 ounces each)

Coarse salt and ground pepper

1 large bok choy, (about 2 pounds), bottom part trimmed, cut crosswise into 1-inch strips, and washed (with some water still clinging to leaves)

4 scallions, thinly sliced, white and green parts separated

4 cloves garlic, sliced

1 piece (about 2 inches) fresh ginger, peeled and minced

  1. In a large bowl of hot tap water, soak noodles until soft, 10 to 15 minutes; drain and set aside. Meanwhile, make sauce: In a small bowl, whisk together soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, sesame oil, and red-pepper flakes; set aside.
  2. In a large skillet with a lid, heat oil over medium-high. Season the meat or fish with salt and pepper. Place in skillet, and cook, turning once, until opaque throughout, 3 to 6 minutes per side depending on thickness. For the beef, cook it so that it’s done the way you like it.  Transfer to a plate; loosely cover with aluminum foil, and set aside.
  3. To skillet, add bok choy, scallion whites, garlic, and ginger. Cover and cook, tossing occasionally, until bok choy stems are crisp-tender, 4 to 5 minutes.
  4. Add noodles and sauce from step 1. Cook, tossing gently, until noodles are heated through, 2 to 3 minutes.
  5. Thinly slice the chicken, pork, or beef (it’s better to leave the salmon fillets intact). Serve on top of noodles, and sprinkle with scallion greens.
This entry was posted in Côtes du Rhône Wines, Food, french wine, Musings/Lectures/Rants, recipes, Red wine blending grapes, Tom Natan, wine delivery washington dc. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Let’s Hear It for the Strong, Silent Types

  1. Desiree says:

    Hi there, I just stumbled across your blog and I love this post. At first I thought it was about T-shirts..lol but it was a really good read! I hope you wouldn’t mind having our Foodista readers directed to your post. If that’s okay, just add your choice of widget to this post and you’re all set!

    Cinsault on Foodista

    • firstvine says:

      Hi Desiree — Thanks for seeking us out, and glad you like the post! I didn’t think of adding the t-shirt pictures until I googled those phrases and up came the images.

  2. Adam says:

    Cool review on the “hidden” red grapes out there. I’m very intrigued by the Cinsault varietal… that strawberry note hit a chord with me. I gotta check that out.

    When it comes to red I’m a fruiter taster. Syrah is good stuff, but I’m just a novice wine drinker.

    • firstvine says:

      Hi Adam,

      Thanks for stopping by! Cinsault is a neat grape. You can really tell the difference with it in the mix in reds. And Cinsault-based roses are wonderful. Syrah can be overwhelming but at its best it has a complexity of flavors I don’t find in other grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Just avoid the Shirazes with the kangaroos on the label!

  3. Desiree says:

    Thanks for trying out our widgets! You have an awesome blog. I look forward to more posts. 🙂

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