Ordinaire no more
Juicy news from France's wine frontier
Uncorked by David Marglin
The wine world, like fashion and music, goes through phases. Right now, what's
hot are "New World- style" wines, namely, those where the
fruit is very forward
(meaning fruit flavors are the first thing you taste).
In general, fruit-forward wines are approachable at a much younger age than
more traditional wines, often requiring only a year or two in the bottle before
being eminently drinkable. Surprisingly, however, many of the best values in
New World-style wines are being grown in the heart of the Old World -- namely
France, Italy, and
For my money, one of the most surprising regions in France right now is its
southernmost: the Languedoc-Roussillon (pronounced long-uh-dock
rue-see-own), which straddles the Mediterranean just above
Languedoc-Roussillon's reputation for producing plonk has kept it in relative
obscurity -- though it's responsible for almost a third of all the wine
produced in France, it didn't merit a listing in Oz Clarke's wonderful
Encyclopedia of Wine, published in 1994. The wines produced in the
region -- vin de pays d'oc -- were boring table wines, musty-tasting and
often made mainly with obscure varietals such as carignan, cinsaut, grenache,
macabeo, and malvoisie. (Until the 1970s, in fact, winegrowers were prohibited
by law from planting the noble varieties -- cabernet sauvignon,
pinot noir, and the like.)
The region's identification with vin ordinaire is a bit of a historical
accident. Wine has been made in Languedoc-Roussillon for thousands of years;
the region, in fact, included the first Roman capital of Gaul. But because
there were no chateaux, and because of an archaic winemaking system based on
co-ops, there was never a premium put on making good wine. Under the system,
the more grapes a farmer grew (up to about the maximum legal yield of
approximately 18 tons per acre), the more money he made -- and since the wine
wasn't much good to begin with, the goal was, as one winemaker put it, to get
it from vine to wine as cheaply as possible. To make the wine, co-ops used
concrete fermentation tanks, often unclean, rather than oak barrels.
Now, thanks in large part to the efforts of a local wine producer named Robert
Skalli and a Texan named Martin Simkoff, Languedoc-Roussillon growers have
begun to grow the familiar noble varietals and to keep their yields down.
Keeping yields down makes for better fruit. With better fruit available,
winemakers are stepping up to the challenge of making
enjoyable wines for under $10 a pop.
The potential of the region has attracted many high-spirited and creative
winemakers from the New World, including Chris Tietje, who was in Boston
recently for the local launch of his Scaramouche wines, and Jack Jelenko,
another Californian who makes the very upscale Bois du Renard wines. Jelenko
contracts with the growers to buy the total output of entire vineyards,
allowing them to keep their yields low; by law, one of the region's two dozen
co-ops must then crush the fruit into juice, which Jelenko contracts to buy
Because of the area's heritage, Jelenko says, the French government has had to
step in and aggressively start buying back land from the growers so that they
won't continue to overplant the soil. His partner, an Australian grower and
winemaker named Michael Goundrey, has been living in the Languedoc area for
several years now, and in addition to overseeing the grape-growing for Bois du
Renard wines, he has been educating other growers about modern techniques for
hedging, trellising, and pruning. While great fruit and new techniques do not
always lead to great wine (the Chateau Gres Saint Paul 1995 is an example of a
Languedoc-Roussillon wine utterly lacking in subtlety, with a pungent and musky
aftertaste), the potential for this overlooked area to step up and compete with
New World wines on their own terms is enormous.
Given its extraordinary progress over the past few years, Languedoc-Roussillon
likely won't continue to be overlooked. Rumor has it that California giant
Mondavi is investing in land there. So before the world rushes in, check out
France's wine frontier for yourself.
** Scaramouche 1996 Chardonnay ($6.99, Bauer Wines, Marty's Liquors).
Round and bold, with lots of melon. Add a hint of pineapple and some
buttermilk texture, and you have yourself a light and refreshing wine. Rumor
has it the soon-to-be-released 1997 is even better. Also try the syrah
**1/2 Chateau Pech Redon Coteaux Du Languedoc 1994 ($10.95, Merchants
Wine & Spirits). A red with loads of vanilla and cherries and chocolate
-- a sort of fudge-sundae wine (but don't drink it with dessert). Hard to find
the 1994, which has softened considerably compared to the more readily
*** Villa Annes 1995 Caramany (Cotes Du Roussillon) ($14.95,
Merchants). Grown in the foothills of the Pyrenees, this red has plenty of
smoky game flavors, a hint of coffee, and gentle
tannins. A mouthful.
**1/2 Bois Du Renard Syrah ($7.95, Federal Wine & Spirits). A bold,
fruity, plush young wine, with great grip. It's sort of bland on the nose, but
it offers up a big mouth feel with loads of berries, some blue.
***1/2 Mas De Daumas Gaussac 1997 Vins De Pays de L'heurault ($29.95,
available locally by special order). A magnificently round and opulent
white, with luscious hints of peach balanced nicely by a touch of
This is a blend of traditional varieties from the bordering Rhône:
roussanne, which provides good grip and
acidity; viognier for aromatics and
herbs; and a dash of marsanne to provide softness.
David Marglin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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