It may not have always felt like winter proper this year, but it will still be below freezing this weekend, and has been extremely cold the past few days. I’m well-prepared, however: I’ve got just the red wine to sip during a night spent reading. Something full of poise, big yet graceful fruit, racy herbals, mineral and loam: Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The southernmost appellation in the Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape became a noteworthy wine region in the 1970’s, when a number of producers went the quality route and began making wines that spoke of the region’s essential greatness: gamy, earthy flavors piercing your palate like the essence of le mistral, the wind that shivers down the slopes of the Alps. Even the name of the region, meaning “new castle of the Pope,” hints at its prestige. Pairs well with Northrop Frye and a side of Bakhtin.

But in all seriousness, let’s talk about why this wine is so damn delicious, and why it is still so magnificently in vogue everywhere in the United States. With just over 8000 acres of vineyards, Châteauneuf-du-Pape far outstrips other Rhône appellations in size. The region’s terroir features a quite distinctive characteristic: masses of smooth stones of all sizes, ranging from pebbles to small boulders. These stones help retain heat, a positive factor in the ripening process, and keep the ground from drying out, which is helpful in drier summers. Considering the fact that low yields are critical to creating high-end Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the geography is ideal for its production. Pain in the ass to till, though. This particular bottle also comes from the holdings of André Brunel, something of a celebrity in the region; his family has been making wines in the Rhône valley for more than 90 years.

Ninety percent of all wine made in Châteauneuf-du-Pape is red, and the wine is nearly always a blend, whether red or white. Just as there are thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird, in Châteauneuf-du-Pape there are thirteen (OK, fourteen) grapes permitted by law. To review, these include: grenache (red), syrah (red), mourvèdre (red), cinsaut (red), muscardin (red), counoise (red), vaccarèse (red), terret noir (red); grenache blanc (white), clairette (white), bourboulenc (white), roussanne (white), picpoul (white), and picardan (white). Vinification here tends to eschew small oak barriques that you’d see in Bordeaux – instead the wines are fermented in a mix of large cement vats (for grenache, which oxidizes easily) and foudres, large old barrels that don’t impart any vanilla toasty elements; these would impede the naked fruit and stony flavors that make a lot of Rhône reds so great.

So what is so great about the 2004 André Brunel “Les Cailloux” Châteauneuf-du-Pape? Well, the color, for one thing: a pale cherry red in the glass, which swirls out aromas of herbal garrigue (predominantly sage and lavender), ripe red berry fruit, cinnamon spice and notes of licorice. Finely balanced in the mouth, with that ripe fruit and licorice offset nicely by still-vibrant acidity and a deliciously deep earthy character. Finishes very well, lip-smacking and long. A fantastic value at $35. Ward off the winter with a bottle of this, your favorite book, and some warm, chewy brown bread with herb-infused oil and olive tapenade.

The wine discussed in this post for me represents keeping the love of wine simple. Most of us, most of the time, want wines we don’t need to think too hard about to drink and enjoy. Perhaps too much condescension is leveled against pure enjoyment of a glass of fermented grape juice, whatever its actual quality. I am guilty of cuvée snobbery on occasion, thumbing my nose at perfectly decent wines because… they’re just decent. As if everything in this life needs to be spectacular to satisfy. Too much pretense remains in the wine world. It’s just juice, folks. And with that, I present to you a bottle of fun, fruity simplicity.

Located in California’s Central Coast, Clayhouse Vineyard produces a fine set of delicious reds, but the first wine of theirs I ever tried was the 2005 “Adobe Red.” I was hooked. Fruit-driven but not overly lush, with some tannic backbone giving it a firm feel, and a nice medium finish, my first sip of this blend reminded me why I keep going back to the U.S. and its AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas) – the wines are straightforward and tasty. If you’re really cerebral about your wine, you’ll lay down some handsome dollars to get yours, but folksy wine lovers like myself get by just fine on buying mid-priced American. I like my wines the way I like my trucks: except I don’t like trucks. Simile fail. Anyway, I was hooked on Clayhouse Vineyard from the first sip. And nothing about that has changed from 2005 to 2007.

The 2007 Clayhouse Vineyard “Adobe Red” boasts fruit from their estate Red Cedar vineyard, near Paso Robles (a personal favorite for California AVA’s). As mentioned before, it is a blend of the following grape varietals: 41% Zinfandel, 32% Petit Sirah, 16% Syrah, 5% Malbec, 4% Grenache and 2% Mourvèdre. According to the winemaker, yields were a bit lower in 2007, with small berries, leading to excellent concentration of flavor. All varietals were fermented separately, 15% aged in French and American oak for just over a year, then were blended and bottled in 2009.

What results is a wine that appears vibrant red in the glass. On the nose, I found loads of ripe cherry and plum, a bit jammy but not overwhelmingly so, with some vanilla notes from the oak. The mouthfeel was supple, with good tannic structure, and enough acidity to keep it interesting, showing juicy cherry and blackberry flavors with more vanilla bean and spice. Medium finish; delicious. I would pair the “Adobe Red” with mushroom and cheddar cheeseburgers, strip steaks and scalloped potatoes, or possibly a slice of humble pie. $15.

The 2001 Domaine de la Cote de l’Ange is a Châteauneuf-du-Pape, an appellation located in the southern Rhône Valley. Like all wines of this sort, it is a blend of many varieties, in this case Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, and Syrah. In all, thirteen grape varieties are permitted for use in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. This particular specimen had intense red fruits with smoky notes and mineral on the nose. The palate featured earthy black fruit balanced with nice tannins and a long finish hinting at coffee. An awesome wine, overall. $24. Drink it with lamb, prepared however you like; I’d prefer a roast.

Finca Luzon! From the Jumilla region in Spain, this everyday drinking red is a blend of Monastrell (Mourvèdre) and Syrah. A delicious dark purple in the glass. It’s big, ripe, and round, just loaded with cassis, licorice and truffles, and pretty intense for its price point, with smooth tannins paired to decent acidity. Also organic! $8 a bottle, so buy a case. This would be an excellent match for grilled beef tenderloin, or some braised lamb shoulder.