John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for March 30, 2013: Southern France and Top Ten Smart Buys
This week’s report takes a look at the south of France and some of its key appellations, linked to recommended releases hitting the shelves of the LCBO on March 30th. If you’re planning to have lamb for Easter, the best of these savoury, sturdy French reds are a perfect fit. In fact, from bubbly to crisp whites and full-bodied reds, you could spend your entire Easter dinner in the south of France. The Top Ten Smart Buys this week include the release of Versado, Ann Sperling and Peter Gamble’s elegant interpretation of Argentine malbec, as well as a pair of volcanic and a pair of limestone-derived wines to taste and compare, among others. See them all below.
Touring in the Languedoc Roussillon
The focus of the LCBO’s March 30th release is southern France, and more specifically, the Languedoc-Roussillon. I’ve written much in the past on this swath of the Mediterranean that runs from the western side of the Rhône Valley all the way to the Pyrenees and the Spanish border, south of the Massif Central. It’s an area I know pretty well, having stayed for a summer just outside of Béziers while working in the kitchen of a Michelin-starred restaurant called Chez Léonce in the tiny village of Florensac. It was the year France won the World Cup – 1998 – and I remember watching Zidane’s Cup winning goals against Brazil in the final on a tiny television we had installed in the kitchen. The restaurant, of course, was empty, save for a German couple on holiday who obviously had no reason to watch the game. The rest of France was glued to the TV – even the French took the night off from fine dining.
Throughout the summer, during the staff meals after lunch service, Laurent, the sommelier at Chez Léonce, would bring out a handful of local wines for me to taste, tell me the stories behind the labels, and explain the differences between the various appellations. That’s how I was first introduced to AOCs like Corbières, Saint-Chinian and Picpoul de Pinet, which were little known even in France at the time, let alone in Canada. I thought then that the wines of the region were extraordinary values. Fifteen years later, picpoul has yet to become a household name, and the wines are still great values.
It’s curious that the wines of the neighboring Rhône Valley, which are very similar in style and use largely the same grapes as the Languedoc for whites, reds and rosés, have achieved so much more international recognition. It obviously helps to have a high-profile appellation like Châteauneuf-du-Pape drive the fortunes of an entire region. And Rhône wines also benefit no doubt from the legions of holidaymakers that pass through the region on their way down to the pastel shaded light and lavender perfume of Provence.
The wines of the Languedoc and Roussillon can be every bit as compelling as anything from the Rhône, but without an immediately recognizable appellation, and being generally off the beaten path of tourists, they’ve languished in the shadow of their neighbor in the south. Maybe there’s even some lingering suspicion that the Languedoc is still overrun with heretic Cathares, a Christian sect that was eradicated from Occitania in the Crusades of the 12th century. The name of the region, the Languedoc, after all, is derived from lingua d’Oc, “the country of the Occitan language”.
Heretic or crusader, if you’re seeking good value wines with distinct regional character and strong personality, the Languedoc is a smart place to be. Here are a few appellations to look for on shelves, along with recommended examples from the March 30th LCBO-Vintages release.
The Limoux appellation lies about 25 km south of the walled medieval city of Carcassonne, nestled in the upper valley of the Aude department. The region is sheltered by the Pyrenees from the extremes of maritime influence, and enjoys a benevolent Mediterranean climate. Yet since vineyards sit at higher elevations than most of the rest of the Languedoc, cooler climate varieties thrive here. Chardonnay, pinot noir, riesling and chenin blanc, for example, do better here on the clay-limestone plateaus than virtually anywhere else in the hot south of France.
Limoux’s most famous wine is sparkling, both in the ancestral and traditional methods. Blanquette de Limoux is reputed to be France’s first intentionally effervescent wine, produced a couple hundred years before Dom Pérignon did his pioneering work on how to stop the bubbles from forming in his wine. Sparkling from Limoux comes in three types: Crémant, a traditional method wine from chardonnay and chenin blanc, Blanquette, also a traditional method from at least 90% mauzac, and Blanquette Methode Ancestrale, a 100% mauzac bottled before the primary fermentation has finished, thus the wine retains some bubbles, though it’s less effervescent than the traditional method. It’s also often a little cloudy, slightly sweet and low in alcohol.
One to try: Domaine J. Laurens Le Moulin Brut Blanquette De Limoux ($16.95). An enjoyable bubbly with the typically appley flavours of the mauzac grape used and pleasant toasty-yeasty notes. Good length; nice value.
AOC/AOP Languedoc Picpoul de Pinet
Picpoul de Pinet refers to the picpoul grape, an ancient Mediterranean variety whose name means literally “tongue stinger” thanks to its high natural acid, which grows around the town of Pinet and surrounding communes, a stone’s throw from the sea. It’s considered a cru of the greater AOP Languedoc. Picpoul is the wine we served at Chez Léonce with the raw seafood and shellfish platter, harvested from the nearby Thau basin. It’s a lemony, zesty, crisp and fresh white that many consider the Muscadet of the south.
One to try: 2011 Ormarine Picpoul De Pinet ($12.95)
Corbières is the Languedoc’s largest appellation, with 13,500ha under vine. It stretches from the gates of Carcassonne to the sea, and from the foothills of the Pyrenees to the base of the Montagne Noire. It’s not surprising that no fewer than eleven distinct terroirs have been identified. The area is wild and sparsely populated, and most of the land is covered either by vines or the highly perfumed Mediterranean scrub brush known as garrigue. Often dominated by carignan, the best of the Corbières reds have an attractively savage and savoury profile, full of garrigue aromas and spicy black fruit. Grenache, syrah, mourvèdre and cinsault make of the rest of the blend.
One to try: 2010 Château De Treviac Ap Corbières ($15.95)
This is smoky and savoury with lots of fresh-turned earth and garrigue spice, dense and full on the palate, reminiscent of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and as such, a nice little value. Drink lightly chilled to tone down the alcohol.
The Minervois is another large region that forms an amphitheatre bordered by the Canal du Midi to the south, the Montagne Noire to the north, and bounded to the east and west by the cities of Narbonne Carcassonne. Four rivers, the Clamoux, Argent Double, Ognon and the Cesse all tumble down from the Montagne Noire to join the Aude and, over time, have carved out a series of terraces. Terroirs vary between stones, clays, schist, limestone and clay marls. One ‘cru’ has been officially identified: Minervois La Livinière, but more could soon follow.
I find the wines of the Minervois to be among the more polished of the Languedoc – there’s a critical mass of modern-leaning producers, relying heavily of the ‘cépages améliorateurs’ the grapes such as syrah and mourvèdre, introduced into the Languedoc in order to improve the quality of local wine relative to the product of some of the lesser varieties left over from the days of mass bulk wine production. Rosé, white and sweet wines are produced, but the highlights are most often red.
One to try: 2009 Château Agnel Cuvée Philippe Minervois ($15.95)
This is a delicious, spiced cherry-flavoured, zesty, firm red, reminiscent of Italian/Piedmontese dolcetto with its chunky tannins and saliva-inducing acidity. Try with rustic grilled merguez sausages.
AOC/AOP Saint Chinian
Saint Chinian is northwest of Béziers in the Hérault department, at the foot of the Massif du Caroux. It is in reality at least two separate terroirs divided by the Rivers Orb and the Varnazobres. Limestone is the story in the south, producing, fine, perfumed reds from Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, Carignan and Cinsault. In the north, it’s practically all schist and sandstone with little water retention, stressing the vines and yielding much firmer, more structured and minerally reds. For my money, Saint Chinian from the northern zone, along with neighboring AOP Faugères, are among the south of France’s most terroir-driven and identifiable reds.
One to try: 2010 Cave De Roquebrun La Grange Des Combes ($17.95)
The village of Roquebrun, perched on a small plateau in the foothills of the Massif du Caroux, gives its name to an official sub-appellation in the northern zone of St. Chinian. High elevation vineyards with a big diurnal temperature shift yield balanced, finely etched wines with abundant minerality. This example is a syrah-led blend with mourvèdre and Grenache. It’s highly perfumed and smoky-savoury, with marked floral components, zinc oxide, black pepper and other intriguing mineral notes, while the palate is fullish, balanced, with fresh acidity, integrated (14%) alcohol, and firm, fine, sandy tannins. This has style, class and regional character in spades – a terrific value.
For more information on wines from Southern France, visit http://www.sud-de-france.com. If you’re still up for more exploring see my full list of recommended southern French reds from the March 30th release.
Top Ten Smart Buys
Well worth pointing out is the long-awaited release of Versado, the Argentine project of Canadians Ann Sperling (Southbrook, Sperling Family Vineyards), her highly respected consulting husband Peter Gamble, and local guru Roberto de la Mota. Their 2010 Versado Malbec ($24.95) delivers on the promise of refinement and class from high elevation vineyards in the Luján de Cuyo sub-region of Mendoza. This is finely structured, with light wood spice, fine-grained but grippy tannins, lively acids and moderate alcohol (13.8%) and very good length. But more importantly, infinitely drinkable.
A definite step up in both price and quality is their 2009 Versado Reserva Malbec ($59.95). It’s a rare Argentine ‘reserve’ malbec that doesn’t sacrifice drinkability for raw power and excessive ripeness/wood flavour. This is certainly dense, rich and compact, and still some ways from prime drinking, yet it retains a sense of proportion and balance, with sufficient fruit intensity to match the tannic structure, and fresh, natural and integrated acids. It’ll be best after 2015 I’d suspect.
Elsewhere, there’s a fine range of values arriving on March 30th. In the spirit of terroir, here are two smart buys from volcanic soils:
Compare the volcanic wines with this pair of sauvignons from limestone soils: 2010 Domaine Fouassier Les Grands Groux Sancerre ($24.95) and 2011 Chavet & Fils La Dame De Jacques Coeur Menetou-Salon Blanc ($19.95). What speaks louder: soil, grape, or winemaker?
Also in the top ten smart buys you’ll find an excellent 2009 Bordeaux for the cellar, a pair of Spanish reds that neatly define the old and new schools, a superb value chardonnay from New Zealand, perhaps that country’s most underrated variety, and an old vines local Riesling that consistently over-delivers vintage after vintage. See them all with the links below.
John Szabo, Master Sommelier
From the March 30, 2013 Vintages release: