Honoring St. Valentine with Wine: Go for a Côtes-du-Rhône!

Do you really want to dork it up on Valentine’s Day? Then I’ve got a wine for you. There’s no better way to pay homage to St. Valentine then to drink a Côtes-du-Rhône. It’s a great wine, affordable, and has a solid tie to the day.

How is that, you may ask? Well, it all goes back to the lovely port town of Roquemaure, in the Southern Rhône near the city of Avignon. This place has a long history of winemaking and it used St. Valentine to save the town!

They’ve been making wine in the Southern Rhône, at least since Roman times (like in the 2nd century), but this area was one of the first to step up the commercial game — Roquemaure and the neighboring towns began stamping their wine barrels with “CDR” for Côtes-du-Rhône as early as 1737 (200 years before the French quality pyramid popped up) to let buyers know that the origin and quality of the wine was solid. With a great location for exporting (the town is right on the Rhône River) they did a brisk trade and got lots of cred from their stamp.

Sadly though, the very thing that allowed Côtes-du-Rhône from this area to spread far and wide was also its undoing, Roquemaure’s location on the Rhône and its imports from New York necessitated an intervention from St. Valentine.

As the story goes, in 1862 a Frenchman received a shipment of American grapevines, which he proudly planted in his garden in the town. Within a year, a strange thing started to happen to neighboring vineyards — they seemed plagued and started to die. Why? Because the Charles Manson of grapevines, a pesky bug that multiplies with alarming speed and poisons the roots of European grapevines (different species from American ones), thus becoming a mass murderer in fairly short order, had arrived in Roquemaure. American vines are immune to this pest, called phylloxera, but the French stock aren’t and died nearly on the spot (this spread all over France and other parts of Europe, BTW. And you wonder why some French hate Americans?).

By 1868 Roquemaure, which relied heavily on wine for economic livelihood, was affected by phylloxera and all the vines lay dead or dying. People grew desperate. So they pulled out the big guns — a rich dude in the town, Maximillen Richard, headed down to Rome to see about acquiring some relics of a patron saint for protection.

After some wheeling and dealing, Richard returned with the relics of St. Valentine. Gradually the vineyards recovered and the folks fell in love (pun intended) with their guardian. Since 1989, on the Saturday and Sunday closest to Valentine’s Day, the town of Roquemaure hosts La Fête des Amoureux (the Festival of Lovers) to celebrate love and lovers alike.

So if you’re at a loss for what to drink today, look no further. And, if I may be so bold, I’ve got a great wine to recommend that’s inexpensive and delicious…and one I’ve reviewed before because I really do love it. This one is from a little north of Roquemaure (if you want something closer you can get a wine from Lirac, which will be delicious but more expensive!), but I think it embodies the spirit of the day very well!

The Wine: 2009 Delas “Saint-Esprit” Côtes du Rhône

The Blend: Côtes-du-Rhône is normally mostly Grenache. This one is unique in that it’s 70% Syrah, and 20% Grenache, 5% Mourvedre, and 5% Carignan.

Alcohol: 13.5%

Color: A dark ruby with a pink rim, it was transparent and looked a little like cherry cough syrup, but less thick and syrupy.

Smell: Since Syrah dominates this blend, I think this wine has a lot more going on than most Côtes-du-Rhônes. Smells like licorice, decaying leaves, and black pepper were subtle but super interesting. There was a black cherry smell but all-in-all the aroma was mellow, so don’t expect it to jump out of the glass.

Taste: The wine was earthy and kind of like licking rocks (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, try it sometime. I promise you’ll get it!). It had black cherry and cola flavors and was spicy. I loved that it was like baking spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice), but also like black pepper — it had a bite and a warmth to it. There was a black licorice flavor too that was fabulous. Mouthdrying tannin was there, but it wasn’t overpowering and the alcohol was moderate and didn’t burn. Great balance of all the flavors that stick around in your mouth for a while after you swallow.

Drink or sink?: Drink. For around $10 this an amazing wine. I have yet to find a basic Cotes-du-Rhone that outdoes this one. Perfect for a more mellow Valentine’s Day!

Have a great day and celebrate those you love!

Source for history: Tourist Office of Roquemaure
  • I just discovered your site and I am enthralled. What a fantastic idea, and you are certainly a great writer and passionate about wine. For the record, I found it on reddit.com on /r/wine.

    Question about the Côtes-du-Rhône wines. Your post mentions that Côtes-du-Rhône wines are mostly Grenache, however I always thought and have read that Southern Rhône wines are primarily GSM (Grenache-Syrah-Mouvedre)blends (such as the wine you reviewed), however the more difficult to find and smaller batch Nothern Rhône reds are almost all exclusively Syrah. In fact, I’ve heard the Northern Rhône refered to as the “spiritual birhtplace” of Syrah. I can recall a couple of bottles I had from Jean-Luc Colombo from a vineyard in Cornas that were spectacular.

    Just curious to hear your thoughts on this.

    Keep up the great work!

  • Michael,

    Thank you so much for your comment and for telling me where you found the blog! I never know how people find me — that’s so cool!

    You seem to know lots about the Rhone! As you say, it’s divided into two parts…that may as well be completely different regions. The Northern Rhone isn’t just the spiritual birthplace of Syrah, it’s the actual one too — after recent DNA testing, scientists found that the grape is native to this area (despite the stories propagated by Persians, it wasn’t brought from Shiraz in the Middle East!).

    From Cote Rotie in the North through Hermitage and St-Joseph and Cornas further south, Syrah is the one and only red (although sometimes blended with the whites Viognier, Marsanne, and Rousanne, which is heavenly!). I love Northern Rhone wines and although I’m sad that most of the wine loving population is “off” Syrah right now, I’m grateful for it because it means it’s affordable! It’s a favorite for sure!

    The Southern Rhone is great for GSM blends — Chateauneuf-du-Pape being the most prestigious. They can include up to 25 different grapes in a red, so the mix can vary, but you’re totally spot on that most are GSMs. Quality is all over the map. The one thing that’s for sure — it’s a lot hotter in the Southern Rhone and the Mediterranean has more of an effect on the vines, so the grapes are riper and fruitier (versus earthier in the north!).

    That’s my take. It sounds similar to your! Snatch up all the Northern Rhone you can get now…Syrah is bound to come back in fashion and then we won’t be able to get the deals we can now!!!

    Take care and thanks for writing!