For many of us, this winter is proving to be a seriously cold one. But instead of dwelling on the icy temperatures and the slush-filled streets, let's look at the bright side of all this arctic air: Frigid nights are the ideal time to break out what we affectionately refer to as Big Ass Reds – rich, lusty red wines that offer warmth as well as pleasure. Thanks in no small part to the influence of celebrated critic Robert Parker, who has a well-known fondness for zaftig, baby-got-back wines ("hedonistic fruit bombs," as he calls them), there is no shortage of Big Ass Reds on the market. California pumps out lots of dense, high-alcohol cabernets, merlots, and syrahs. Australia, too, is a prime source for brawny wines. But the problem with many of these wines is that they often lack the acidity and tannins needed to parry all the fruit and alcohol. They tend to be soft and flabby – all paunch, little punch.
But the better Big Ass Reds have good structure in addition to those gobs (another Parkerism) of ultra-ripe fruit. The finest Big Ass Reds, in our judgment, come from the southern Rhône Valley of France. Here, grenache is the predominate grape and tends to yield (in combination with varieties such as syrah and mourvèdre) exuberantly fruity wines that also possess a firm spine of acidity and minerality. The most sought-after red wines from the southern Rhone are Châteauneuf-du-Papes, which are famously voluptuous.
But the region also produces plenty of other wines made in a full-throttle style and that generally sell for a fraction of what the better Chateauneufs fetch. One we enjoyed on a recent wool-sweater night was the 2011 Domaine Aphillanthes Rasteau Cuvée 1921. From a parcel in the Rasteau appellation that was planted in 1921, the wine is a blend of 90 percent grenache, 7 percent mourvèdre, and 3 percent carignan, and it boasts a classic southern Rhône flavor profile: dark, slightly jammy fruit, black pepper, and licorice are the dominant notes on the palate. It is a deeply colored, strapping red – it clocks in at 14.5 percent alcohol, and you will most definitely feel the heat – but there's sufficient acidity, along with a pleasing stony mineral note, to keep the wine from descending into burlesque. We think this is a superb Big Ass Red and an ideal wine for a bracingly cold winter. [$25; empirewines.com]