Prior to the Civil War, one of the biggest wine-producing regions in America was — wait for it — Missouri. The grape was Norton. Prohibition wiped the slate clean, so American wine-making, in a modern sense, is less than 100 years old and only seriously got started about the time the Beatles released Revolver.
On the other hand, the first wines to come out of France's Rhône Valley pre-date the Romans. While the French take wine production very seriously, drinking the stuff is so ingrained in the culture that they've stopped being in awe of it. Sort of like with American tweens and the magic of Instagram.
Despite this, though, many Americans shy away from French wine. It may be a simple matter of taste: Most Old World wines don't tend to hit the senses with a full frontal assault like the New World ones do. Part of the problem is, I suspect, simple translation: Everything sounds so damn existential in French. They are always going about the terroir of their wine — its sense of place. Actually, it just means dirt plus weather. To demystify the concept, just drive down Hwy 61 through Clarksdale — which is a three-hour round trip of weapons-grade dirt, plus weather, plus sense of place.
The other problem is more down to terroir, as it were. New World wines are labeled by grape varietals (merlot, pinot noir, malbec), while French wines are nearly all blended styles sold by region. Americans like to know exactly what we are getting, and we like it spoken in 'Mericun. In practice, though, French regions stick to certain styles that have been governed by tradition and environment and, since 1932, the Appellation Contrôlée (AC). Under that umbrella is a fair bit of variation, but that's where it gets fun.
You could do a lot worse than begin this adventure with the Rhône valley's Côtes du Rhônes. This is what the French drink when they don't want to talk about wine, thus freeing them up to go on about sex, food, and American foreign policy. I gather they disapprove of the latter.
If you live near Buster's liquors, go there and stand before their wall of French wine. If the prices shock you, turn your head down slightly and start there. It's a solid collection of Côtes du Rhône for under $20. As Mrs. Murff has pointed out, I am, in fact, the cheapest man currently living (she's got me there). I picked out three at $14.99 each.
A Parallèle 45 is made in Tain l'Hermitage — which again sounds grander than it really is — it's just a small town near a big hill. Because this is France, said hill has a very old story about a Frankish knight returning from the Crusades a gravely wounded war hero. As a reward for his service, the queen of France allowed him to live there to mend his wounds. He never left. The villagers knew he was up there by himself and called him, sensibly, the Hermit. Hence the name of the hill. When Craig Brewer does a movie about an off-the-grid lunatic, it's not nearly so romantic. At any rate, Parallèle 45 is fruit-forward and with some spice to make it interesting. There is a touch of alcohol heat from the grenache, but the syrah gives it a bit of lightness. Saint Cosme comes in at the same price point, but the beauty here is that they don't taste exactly alike. My favorite of the three was Famille Perrin, a Côtes du Rhône Villages, which is a slightly higher classification for the same price. There is less heat and some spice that doesn't make itself quite so obvious. It's a full flavor without being heavy.
In short, quit being a slave to the varietals, and take a trip with some blended French beauties. Sure, it's a bit mysterious, but in the words of the Good Doctor Hunter Thompson, "Buy the ticket, take the ride."
Saint Cosme, Côtes du Rhône, $14.99
Famille Perrin, Côtes du Rhône Villages, $14.99
Parallèle 45, Train L'Hermitage, $14.99