Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES Aug 16th – Part One
By John Szabo MS with notes from David Lawrason and Sara d’Amato
Southern France in general, and the sprawling crescent-shaped region of the Languedoc-Roussillon in particular, is one of the smartest places to go shopping for character-filled wines at inordinately low prices. That’s the focus of this week’s report, and of the VINTAGES August 16th release. Read on for some terrific values in the robust red category and more.
Southern France: Hot Spot for Value
Southern France, or the Midi as it’s popularly known (because the scorching sun always seems to be right above your head, as at noon), continues on the trajectory towards quality wine started back in the 1990s. The bureaucracy-fraught process of identifying unique terroirs (and getting everybody to agree on where to draw the lines) continues in French wine officialdom, even if the most experienced growers in this millennial wine region have known the sources of the top wines since time immemorial.
The latest area to be granted official AOP status (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) is the Terrasses du Larzac, while La Clape awaits its promotion likely later this year, joining now fifteen table wine appellations and four fortified muscat AOPs in the Languedoc. The Roussillon is home to another three table wine and six fortified wine AOPs. In all, this massive region is incredibly varied at best, and hopelessly bewildering at worst, with terroirs as diverse as the sandy seaside AOPs like Picpoul de Pinet, to the more elevated, inland AOPs where altitude (as in the sparkling wine enclave of Limoux), and myriad soils like schist in St. Chinian, limestone in Minervois-La Livinières or sandstones in the Grès de Montpellier play an important role in wine style. Considering that together the Languedoc and Roussillon contribute nearly 30% of France’s annual wine production, there’s a lot to discover.
Sara d’Amato, who has just returned from her 27th trip to southern France, has this to say:
“I feel like I know it less than ever before; the region is an incredibly complex tapestry that is still being sewn. It’s both steeped in tradition and yet has some of the most progressive producers, and with every visit there are new appellations to discover (one of interest in the August 16th release is Malepère).”
But what’s also important to know is that this corner of France, perhaps because of its sheer size, its complexity and the historic reputation for inferior bulk wine that still seems to dog the region, is an excellent source for value. The Languedoc-Roussillon still has yet to really establish itself as a source of high quality in the way that many other parts of France have, and thus prices run up against the relatively low ceilings of commercial reality. Yet it’s not for lack of effort or even quality in the glass.
The climate, “one of the sunniest and driest on earth”, a bronzed Sara reminds me, lends itself to quasi de facto organic viticulture. Many of the top estates have been farming this way for generations. Large tracks of old vines are the rule rather than the exception, and the myriad of grape varieties and terroirs offer an enticing palette of styles. And most importantly, a large and growing number of vignerons, including of course locals, but also foreigners (especially English) who’ve fallen in love with the region and its climate and have been inspired to make small batches of quality wine, as well as celebrated winegrowers from other parts of France who’ve recognized the confluence of potential quality and relatively low production costs, are taking advantage of the circumstances to make excellent inexpensive wine.
For the southern France-themed VINTAGES release on August 16th, many of the same, larger producers appear again (thanks in part to their active and competent importing agents), and thus as usual many of the smaller boutique producers get pushed out. But there’s nonetheless a decent collection of wines with which to begin, or renew, your discovery. The following are recommended by one of more WineAlign critics.
Buyer’s Guide for VINTAGES August 16th: Southern France
Guillaume Aurèle 2013 Viognier, Pays d’Oc, France ($13.95).
John Szabo – Here’s a delicious little value, full of typical varietal character like candied violets and succulent peach-nectarine orchard fruit. The palate remains remarkably fresh and balanced, with tingling acids and integrated alcohol. A smart buy for summer sipping outdoors, when aromatic amplitude is needed to combat gentle breezes.
David Lawrason – Viognier is always an adventure, its strong personality enchanting some, but turning others off. This one may be extra challenging – it’s savoury, powerful and dry – but I can’t believe the gumption and depth it delivers at $14. For devotees or adventurers only.
Château De Lastours 2008 Grande Réserve Corbières, France ($22.95)
John Szabo – This is an evidently ripe, modern style, but the masses of fruit should be more than enough to see it through to full integration. Although a distant analogy, it should appeal to fans of classy Napa cabernet, especially at the price. Despite six years of age, I’d still tuck this away until 2016, and then pull it out blind for your friends and wait for the superlatives to fly. Best 2016-2020.
Sara d’Amato: Corbières is the largest appellation in Languedoc-Roussillon and one of the largest in all of France. Previously known for producing inexpensive but cheerful reds, it now boasts many an interesting gem. Reds dominate, produced from 50% carignan – a variety that does best in warm, dry climates and produces wines of significant tannin, colour and ever-important acidity. Balanced and elegant but rich and full bodied, this example is immensely compelling and memorable – not to be missed!
Hecht & Bannier 2011 Minervois Ac France ($20.95)
John Szabo – The reliable negociant house of Hecht & Bannier established in 2002 rarely disappoints – this dynamic pair specializes in red wines, visiting hundreds of producers each year to select the most representative wines of each appellation, often from higher elevation sites and very old vines. 600l demi-muids preserve fruit as well as the savoury Mediterranean flavours that make these wines so interesting.
Sara d’Amato – Minervois vineyards benefit from relatively high altitude – up to 350m, near Carcassonne on the foothills of the Montaigne Noire that protects the vines from northern winds. The wines can be a little more racy and nervy than typical Languedoc-Roussillon wines and often boast delicious minerality, like this outstanding example.
David Lawrason – Minervois has always struck me as a more rugged, less refined and rustic wine. Even in the hands of these modernist winemakers, the sense is unchanged. This is solid yet approachable, and it rings true.
Château De Treviac 2011 Corbières Ap, France ($17.95)
John Szabo – A deep, dark, resinous herb (bay leaf, oregano, lavender) and spicy fruit-flavoured Corbières, with no small measure of the attractive savage qualities typical of this corner of southern France, which occasionally finds a new world counterpart in Chile.
Sara d’Amato – Another great value Corbières and this time with unusually complex flavours and surprising length. Although we’ve seen this very vintage grace the LCBO shelves in the past, it remains impressive with a solid framework of tannins and a real depth of flavour.
Hecht & Bannier 2011 St-Chinian AC, France ($25.95)
John Szabo – Of the two excellent Hecht & Bannier wines in the release, the St. Chinian is the more characterful, minerally wine, almost painfully so. It’s by no means easy drinking; attentive tasting is required to fully appreciate, but I love the regionally distinctive scorched earth, schistous stoniness and firm, dusty tannins. Best after 2015 – let it unwind a bit.
David Lawrason – H&B is a relatively new, dynamic negociant that purchases grapes, juice and wine across the south of France – paying the highest prices, they claim. And they turn out intense, bright and savoury reds. I love their objective for St. Chinian: “We first focus on finding the areas where the Syrah presents a floral and licorice bouquet”. They’ve nailed it here.
Gérard Bertrand 2011 Grand Terroir Pic Saint Loup, Coteaux du Languedoc, France ($19.95)
John Szabo – One of my favourite terroirs in the Languedoc, the Pic St. Loup itself is a massive limestone ridge about 20kms from the sea that marks the transition from coastal plains to the inland hilly zone. The savoury character of this example is a direct reflection of the wildly fragrant vegetative scrub (garrigue) that covers the region. This is lovely stuff for the money, with additional capacity to improve over the next 2-3 years. Best 2014-2021.
Château De Cointes Marie-Anne 2011 Malepère Ac, France ($19.95)
John Szabo – Malepère marks the divide between Atlantic and Mediterranean-influenced zones, also reflected in the permitted varietal mix. This blend of 1/3 each of merlot, cabernet franc and grenache, works beautifully; I love the freshness and florality from the Bordeaux components, along with the luscious, generous and ripe side from grenache, resulting in a complete and highly appealing ensemble. Best 2014-2019.
Gérard Bertrand 2009 Saint-Chinian Syrah Mourvèdre, Languedoc-Roussillon, France ($17.95)
Sara d’Amato – Gerard Bertrand produces some authentic feeling wines and this aged example is no exception. Saint-Chinian is known for wines that are tannic and quite muscular but have a lovely freshness and fruit spice about them. They are planted solely on slopes that face the sea, which allows them to benefit from moderating temperatures and breezes.
Château De Gourgazaud 2011 Cuvée Mathilde Minervois, France ($14.95)
David Lawrason – Gourgazaud deserves an endurance medal for holding up the Minervois category – indeed all of the Languedoc – at the LCBO for years on end. The limestone-soil based estate uses only syrah and mourvèdre, providing a lifted, linear, spicy ambiance that I have always loved. Mathilde infuses more fruit presence and richness. This is delicious and ridiculously cheap.
That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.
John Szabo MS
From VINTAGES Aug 16th:
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