French Quality Goes South
Americans are always looking for something new, the next big thing, the undiscovered star, designer, iPhone app or whatever. So it might seem strange to look to France -- the stodgy, hidebound homeland of fine wine, with its rigid classifications and appellation laws -- as a source of innovation in wine. Yet the southern provinces of Languedoc and Roussillon have shown tremendous improvement in quality over the past decade, and they remain a great source of high-value wine at reasonable prices.
Languedoc and Roussillon have a reputation for producing massive quantities of inferior wine. With modern winemaking techniques and capital, these regions still produce boatloads, but the cheap wine is getting better. In part that's because big French wine names from other regions are investing in Languedoc's cheap vineyard land to produce bargain wines that anchor their portfolios. Foreign companies, too, are investing, including Gallo, which markets the Red Bicyclette wines.
You may have enjoyed some other Languedoc wines under cute brand names, such as Arrogant Frog, Petit Bistro or Fat Bastard, among others. There has even been a whiff of scandal, which shows how important this sector of the market has become. French and U.S. authorities are investigating whether pinot noir exported from Languedoc to the United States actually was pinot noir. They haven't determined which brands, if any, were sold as fraudulent pinot, but Languedoc is not exactly known for the grape, so suspicions run high.
The real excitement lies in the various sub-appellations of Languedoc and Roussillon, such as Corbieres, Faugeres, Fitou, Saint-Chinian, Minervois and Cabardes, and the broader Coteaux du Languedoc. Here, the traditional Rhone Valley grapes of grenache, syrah, mourvedre, carignan and cinsault feature in various combinations, often with a splash of cabernet or merlot for added interest.
The French magazine La Revue du Vin de France lavished patronizing praise on Languedoc in its July-August issue. "No other region in France has made as much progress as the wines of Languedoc over the past 10 years," the magazine said. (Presumably no other region had to.) The wonderful 1998 vintage surprised "local vintners" with the potential of their formidable terroirs, and, in the decade since, improvements in blending and aging their wines have enabled a few leading domaines to shake off the inferiority complex that haunts the region. So the magazine says.
La RVF, as it calls itself, listed what its tasters considered the best 100 red wines from Languedoc. Bringing the magazine home with me from a visit to France this summer, I decided to explore Languedoc wines available here. I found a few that were on La RVF's list of favorites and a few others from producers that were on the list.
Some of the wines I would call "modernized traditional": modernized in that the quality is high, traditional in that alcohol levels stay under 14 percent with little or no noticeable new oak. An example of this style is the delightful Ermitage du Pic St. Loup Cuvee Sainte Agnes 2005 from Coteaux du Languedoc ($23), imported by Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant of Berkeley, Calif. It is fresh and herbaceous, with herbal notes of the "garrigue" -- that heady mix of aromas, especially sage and thyme, that conjures southern France -- and an appealing citrusy note of orange peel. The 2006 of this wine ranked 57th on the RVF list.
Other wines I tasted were very modern, almost New World in style, with riper flavors, lower acidity, alcohol pushing 15 percent and sometimes lavish new oak. The Mas Laval 2006 from the Vin de Pays de l'Herault appellation, for example, has a gorgeous perfume of evening, a rich silky texture and new oak that is evident but comfortable in a supporting role. It is imported by Exclusive Wine Imports of Richmond and ranked 20th on the RVF list of 100. It is ambitiously priced at $37, but some of the same magic can be found at $19 with the 2007 "Les Pampres" bottling from the same winery.
The problem for consumers is that it can be difficult to know which style you have until you've tasted it, though the alcohol level on the label can be a clue.
Unfortunately, I also found several wines that were marred by excessive sulfur, most likely sulfur dioxide (a necessary and natural preservative) added at bottling. The characteristic burnt-match-rotten egg smell will sometimes vanish if you decant the wine and let it breathe. Too often, however, it lingers, and no amount of vigorous swirling will liberate the fruit trapped underneath.
On the whole, wines from Languedoc and Roussillon offer a variety of flavors and styles, good value and, increasingly, quality. They offer wine lovers a great opportunity for exploration.