Meet Côte-Rôtie: The Silver Fox of Thanksgiving Wines

The alchemy of blending white wine into red is every bit as intricate and obscure a practice as it likely sounds.
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2014-11-09-CoteRotieasayoungmannotetheperfecthalfwindosor.jpg Côte-Rôtie as a younger man. Note how the half-Windsor knot remains perfectly tied throughout the routine. Courtesy of the National Archives of Sweden.

You know that retired guy at the bar who although seventy never seems to lose a single silver hair, or leave behind a single drop of overproof rum, or even so much as crease his double-breasted 44L as he shows off the uppercut he employed to knock out Norman Mailer when their DiMaggio v. Mantle debate went bareknuckle back in '64--and yet still manages to pull the double-kiss hello from women who could be his granddaughter as you stand by and listen to them playfully coo about how he always smells so good?

That is Côte-Rôtie.

A passionately respected, inimitable wine from the upper reaches of the Rhône Valley. Made from some of the very best Syrah grapes in the world, it is at heart a strong, sturdy, rakish wine that (perhaps you've met someone like this) in its younger days tends to be little too brash to stomach, but after twenty, or thirty, or even forty years mellows into a kind of silver fox gentility. But what really distinguishes Côte-Rôtie--the gardenia in its lapel, and the answer to how it always manages to smell so good--is that within its very particular AOC designation it is allowed to blend (red) Syrah with up to 20% (white) Viognier.

Now, the alchemy of blending white wine into red is every bit as intricate and obscure a practice as it likely sounds. (Meaning: Do not try blending Syrah and Viognier at home. The mind shudders to think what you will end up with, but it will not be Côte-Rôtie.) However, in the hands of some very talented vintners what this alchemy produces is more or less your wine equivalent of the World's Greatest Father-in-Law. Which is to say that you get that characteristic Syrah handshake of cashmere sweater smoothness beneath the herringbone jacket warmth, along with a sturdy please don't dare grandpa to do one-arm pushups (again) solidity only really found in the N. Rhône--and an unexpected kiss of floral Viognier eau de toilette.

A November kind of wine, it is that rare Man's-Man/Ladies-Man combination that works particularly well in the context of the large family gathering. Say, the Thanksgiving. Where it is almost impossible to please everyone. Yet this is exactly the kind of social and culinary situation at which Côte-Rôtie is at its finest. A wine that is able to move with sociable ease from the prissy younger sister on a strict vegan diet, to the foul-mouthed grandfather who has never met a dish that cannot be improved by gravy. A duality every bit as rare, every bit as charismatic, and every bit as welcome around the Thanksgiving table as the octegenarian who asks you to hold his coat while he arm-wrestles your dad, and then asks you to hold his drink while he teaches your fiancee to waltz.

Côte-Rôtie Tends to Pair Rather Nicely With:

Tying your own flies, building a one-match fire, and holding hotly defended positions on both local middleweights and international mezzo-sopranos; cellar dust, recreational wine trivia (What fine red wine allows up to...?), and Viennese beef Tafelspitz with roasted potatoes and apple-horseradish sauce; most middays in late-autumn, drinking surfaces that need to be cleared of dried leaves prior to use, and drinking out of doors in November, in general; Livard, Affidelice, any unfortunate life situation requiring your father-in-law's assistance that you'd just as soon your mother-in-law not know about, and Pié d'angloys with preserved figs.

A Small Selection of Excellent Côte-Rôties (Or, What to Bring if You Happen to be Sharing Thanksgiving Dinner with Knoefel)

2010 Domaine Georges Vernay, Blonde du Seigneur ($65)
Rich yet relaxed. Confident yet confidential. A great wine to have around any fireplace where cigars are not only welcome but encouraged. Think Clooney, twenty years on.

2010 Maison Chapoutier, Les Bécasses ($60)
The highly refined outdoorsman. Autumnal hunting notes without a speck of dirt under expensively manicured fingernails. A Ralph Laurenian vision of roughing it.

2009 Domaine René Rostaing, La Landonne ($80)
Tall and slim. A bit on the quiet side, yet with that inexplicable Old Man Strength that silently reminds you it has got plenty more where that came from. If you could bottle Clint Eastwood's voice, this is what it would taste like.

Knoefel Longest writes for Eater Boston, where he interviews sommeliers who know far more about wine than he ever will for his column, The Cellar. He can be reached with comments, questions, seasonal wine suggestions and invitations to champagne and/or bourbon tastings at