Itry to be respectful of other people's views, and to avoid mistaking questions of opinion for matters of fact. However, some issues are so weighty and some answers so clearly correct that I feel obliged to take an unwavering stand: The ultimate winter meal is cassoulet, and the perfect wine to go with it is Gigondas.

For the record, cassoulet is a classic dish served in bistros across France that consists of white beans simmered slowly with various combinations of pork, sausages and confit of duck or goose. Preparations vary by region and restaurant, but the results are almost always robust and supremely satisfying, with a marvelous richness and warmth.

Ditto for Gigondas. Many casual consumers here remain unaware of these wonderful reds from France's southern Rhone valley, which can get lost between the hundreds of Cotes du Rhones that form the region's foundation and the famous capstone wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. However, the vineyards around the charming little village of Gigondas may well make the most endearing and purely pleasurable of all French reds -- which is certainly saying something.

Gigondas is rarely a fancy wine, though I find that no more significant than the fact that cassoulet isn't a fancy food. Gigondas generally isn't as complex or challenging as the reds of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, which may be made from 13 grapes as opposed to four for Gigondas (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsaut). Fewer wines from Gigondas see time in fancy new barrels, and in many cases the wines mature earlier than their counterparts from Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Nevertheless, Gigondas is often the softer and more pleasant of the two upon release. Moreover, whereas Chateauneuf may be more "complex and challenging," there are many winter nights when I find "simple and straightforward" a more appealing option.

If these considerations are warming you up to the idea of Gigondas, you should also know that there is an adjacent stop on the continuum running between Chateauneuf- du-Pape and simple Cotes du Rhone: Vacqueyras. Like Gigondas, the vineyards of Vacqueyras have distinguished themselves sufficiently to earn the village its own appellation (unlike, say, Cairanne or Rasteau, which may only append their names to the Cotes du Rhone-Villages appellation). Vacqueyras earned this AOC status in 1990, and when you consider that Gigondas made the grade in 1971 and Chateauneuf way back in 1935, you get a pretty clear idea of the pecking order. Yet top producers in Vacqueyras routinely outperform their less conscientious (or fortunately placed) competitors in Gigondas, just as a top Gigondas is indisputably superior to a mediocre Chateauneuf. And since prices generally rise as one heads from Vacqueyras to Gigondas to Chateauneuf, savvy shoppers keep an eye on all three villages.

We'll take a closer look at Chateauneuf in the column in two weeks, but today's focus is on the best current releases from Gigondas, with a concluding glance at three winners from Vacqueyras. Recommended wines appear in order of preference within categories, with approximate prices and D.C. wholesalers indicated in parentheses:


* Delas Freres "Les Reinages" 1999 ($27, National): Very good things must be happening at Delas, which has been in the doldrums for years but has made a stunning wine. Packed with fruit that is pure in flavor but still pleasantly rustic in character, it's totally satisfying from the opening aromas to the texture of the fine, long finish.

* Domaine du Gour de Chaule "Cuvee Tradition" ($25, Potomac): A gorgeous wine and a definitive Gigondas, this features expressive dark berry aromas and just the right little whiff of wood. Ripe and soft in feel, with nice fine-grained tannins firming, this is very impressive.

* Domaine Raspail-Ay 1999 and 2000 ($27, Bacchus): We've got two typically strong performances here from a very consistent producer. I'd go for the 1999 if both were available, but don't go out of your way, as the 2000 is effectively as rich, soft and complete when its relative youth is accounted for.

* Domaine des Espiers "Cuvee Tradition" 2000 ($24, Country Vintner): Only moderately concentrated, but it more than compensates for any lack of size with very impressive balance and integration of flavor components. Stylish and well suited to pasta, lighter meats or roast chicken.

* Domaine de Cassan 2000 ($22, Country Vintner): Meaty and muscular, with very ripe character and assertive flavors. The blend here follows an increasingly common formula of 80 percent Grenache, 15 percent Syrah and 5 percent Mourvedre.

* Perrin 2000 ($22, Country Vintner): Lightly fizzy when first opened and notably earthy, this bottling shows the down-on-the-farm side of Gigondas from decades past. Many devotees bemoan the fact that fewer wines are made in this style each year, so give this a try before the breed passes entirely into memory.

* Montirius (Christine and Eric Saurel) 1999 ($28, Country Vintner): This was clearly the most structured (i.e., acidic and tannic) of all the wines tasted, making it less forthcoming than the stereotypical Gigondas. Partnering with food is therefore a necessity in this case rather than an option, but with food the wine shows very impressive balance and penetrating flavors that will suit almost any moderately robust meat dish.

* Domaine Brusset Les Hauts de Montmirail 2000 ($44, Henry): This famously oaky wine lives up or down to its reputation, depending on your preferences. Too tight for my taste at the moment, but clearly well made and destined for excellence once the fruit has soaked up the wood, this is recommended for those who can hold it for three or four years.

* Guigal 2000 ($20, Touton): Very, very pretty stuff, with the freshest, purest, most overt fruit of all these wines. With only modest weight and intensity, this is more appealing than impressive, which is just fine.

Also Recommended: Domaine Saint Gayan 1999 ($18, Bacchus); Domaine le Clos des Cazaux "Cuvee de la Tour Sarrazine" 2000 ($14, Kysela); Domaine du Pesquier 2000 ($28, Henry); Domaine de Piaugier 1999 ($22, Vina Mediterranean); Domaine Brusset 2001 ($30, Henry).


* Montirius (Christine and Eric Saurel) 1999 ($19.50, Country Vintner): This marvelous wine seems overly taut, tart and tannic when first opened, but unfolds over time to reveal notes of dark fruit, spices and roasted meat. Very serious stuff.

* Perrin 2000 ($19, Country Vintner): Unlike the Perrin Gigondas, you won't need to tell this to wipe its feet at the front door. Less rustic but also less generous in terms of fruit and sheer volume, this is a clear success overall and a fine introduction to Vacqueyras.

* Domaine La Fourmone (Roger Combe) "Selection Maitre de Chais" 1999 ($18, Bacchus): Funky, feral, ripe and exotic, this is loads of fun if not quite a model of hygiene.

What Should I Eat With It?

Aside from the obvious choice of cassoulet (or any stew, for that matter), Gigondas and Vacqueyras pair beautifully with almost anything on the upper end of the robustness meter. They are wonderful with duck, pork or veal, and nothing is better with game birds or venison.

Michael Franz will offer additional recommendations and answer questions live today at noon on