Eating well in France? A forgone conclusion one might think, but that country's culinary reputation has slid a lot in recent years. What with the tired, starched formality of grand restaurants with Michelin stars to local bistros serving frozen frites and bottled salad dressings, French dining isn't always what it used to be. But on a recent wine tour of the Rhône Valley I found myself eating exceptionally well at unpretentious boîtes all the way from Avignon to Lyon, and the best of the many exceptional meals I experienced was at Le Quai in Tain L'Hermitage. It is right on the Rhône river and overlooks a picturesque 19th century suspension footbridge. The view from the terrace in summer must be even more transporting than it was from inside on a chilly day in October. But putting location aside, the plat that really wowed me was a piece of monkfish wrapped in bacon and served over rice with a butter sauce that included baby mussels, shrimp, and cherry tomatoes. It was a lot lighter than it sounds yet rich and deeply satisfying. And exactly the same compliments can, and were, paid to the wine that accompanied it. Lost in the ShuffleIt was a modest Côtes du Rhône Blanc, Belleruche 2008 ($15, the U.S. retail price) from Tain's own M. Chapoutier, and the fish and the wine played off each other, sip after delicious mouthful, mouthful after delicious sip, in a dance of pure gastronomic harmony. As the reds of the Rhône, from Côte-Rôtie in the north to Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the south, have attracted much attention over the past decade, the whites have largely become lost in the excitement, a situation not helped by the fact that they account for only 5% of the region's production. But the Belleruche shows just how super, and what super value, they can be. It's untouched by oak, so it retains a delightful, lively freshness, but at the same time it manages a surprisingly full-bodied richness, thanks to the intensity of the lush, ripe-fruit flavors. And that's how it transformed the creamy monkfish from the merely delicious to the sublime. When to Drink: Now Breathing/Decanting: Not necessary Food Pairing: Richer fish and chicken dishes, especially those with cream and butter sauces Grapes: Grenache Blanc, Clairette, and Bourboulenc Appellation: Côtes du Rhône Region: Rhône Valley Country: France Price: $15 Availability: Moderate Web Site: www.chapoutier.com See more wines at www.nickonwine.com

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