To get the most wine for the money, I have long advocated reading the label from the bottom up. One would do well to memorize names such as Robert Kacher Selections, Kysela Pere et Fils, Terry Thiese Selections, Winebow, Vinifrance, Kermit Lynch, Weygandt-Metzler, Vintex, Wine Traditions, Class Wines, William-Harrison and others, whose strip labels adorn the bottoms or backs of the wines they import. While no one bats a thousand, choosing wines from such quality-oriented houses is one of the best ways of cutting through the retail wine fog.
Recently, this select group has been joined by former sommelier Jocelyn Cambier. The French-born Cambier will be a familiar figure to devotees of the late, lamented Le Pavillon, Provence and Yannick's restaurants, where he worked as a captain/sommelier for master chef (and wine taster extraordinaire) Yannick Cam. In his new import venture, called J. Cambier Imports, Cambier hopes to reach out to discerning wine lovers in all price ranges. My recent tasting shows that he has succeeded admirably.
Cambier follows strict guidelines for choosing the wines he imports. "I base my wine selections purely on my palate, the history and [my] knowledge of a wine region, an appellation, or a producer, and whether the quality/price ratio is a good one," he said. "I prefer wines that are true to type, made from grapes that have a long history, and are typical of the region or the appellation." For example, the wines he imports from Provence are made out of grapes native to Provence, such as Rolle, Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault and Carignan, even though these grapes are hardly household names to many Americans. "I believe that with the ocean of wines available today, the only way I can be successful, and make a difference, is to 'bring the real stuff,' " he said. "Basically, I import true French wines."
However, while Cambier sings a nice "La Marseillaise," in reality he is not a French zealot, especially when it comes to the ticklish issue of indulging the American taste for oak aging. "Personally, I like wines that are fruit driven and vibrant," he said, "but barrel-fermented or oak-aged ones are not out of the question, if the wines are actually richer, better balanced, better structured, and if the wood is there to support and enhance the fruit, rather than overwhelm or cover the faults of a wine."
This strikes me as a sensible philosophy. Two of Cambier's best bargains, the Mas Brunet Rouge and the Domaine Saint-Hilaire Chardonnay "Hommage", both exhibited plenty of oak and clearly benefited from it. In fact, I would not discourage Cambier from conveying his American sensibilities a bit more assertively from time to time. The only sub-par wines among the 24 wines I tasted--a weak, watery Corbieres Rouge from Boutignane ($6) and an insipid Cotes-du-Rhone rouge from Chateau Carcone ($9)--could have benefited from American-style maceration on the skins and perhaps some oak to give them more color and tannic extraction. Cambier's wines are distributed by Franklin Selections (call 410-880-4790; e-mail email@example.com). The following are but four of the delights I discovered:
Mas Brunet Coteaux du Languedoc Rouge 1996 ($10.50); Mas Brunet Coteaux de Languedoc Blanc 1998 ($10.50 ): Aged in oak for 12 months, the vin rouge, a dark purple blend of 65 percent Syrah, 25 percent Grenache and 10 percent Cinsault, exhibits gobs of smoky blackberry fruit. With only 2,000 cases produced, this is the kind of wine that big importers can't be bothered with, which is exactly why small importers like Cambier are so worthy of attention. The white is almost as impressive as the red, and is also a bargain. A blend of 40 percent Roussane, 20 percent Viognier and 40 percent Vermentino, it is partially aged in oak, yielding a full-flavored wine with exotic notes of peach, apricot and a touch of honeyed melon.
Domaine Saint Hilaire 1997 Chardonnay "Hommage" ($13.50): This state of the art winery, located just north of the village of Bouzigues, makes three Chardonnays, ranging from a simple, un-oaked version perfect for the oysters for which the town is famous, to this top of the line, barrel-fermented, oak-aged cuvee, which is similar to Pouilly-Fuisse's but costs only half as much. Round and mouth-filling, but still retaining sufficient acidity, this would pair with grilled poultry or fish, or try it by itself. Superb.
Prieure Saint-Hippolyte 1998 Rose Coteaux du Languedoc ($9): I've had many more expensive roses from Tavel and Provence, but few that I have enjoyed more than this undiscovered gem from the Languedoc. Made from an equal blend of Grenache and Syrah, this is a quintessential dry French rose. It has a luminous pink color, vibrant flavors of fresh, wild red berries with a hint of thyme and rosemary on the nose. Irresistibly sippable by itself, this is also a great match with spicy Asian dishes, cold poached salmon or light pasta salads.