Wine has come a long way in overcoming the snob factor to become a popular drink for every day, or at least every week. We expect wine to be consistent in quality — on a basic, ordinary level, anyway. We want each bottle of our favorite brand of cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay to taste as good as the last one, and wine manufacturers are getting better at achieving consistency at affordable prices. We can ignore the vintage on our Yellow Tail or Barefoot chardonnay because we know each will taste alike, just as we have confidence in every bottle of our favorite beer. That is key to the growing popularity of wine in the United States.
But I am here to tell you that vintage matters. Much of wine’s charm, for those of us who spend way too much time drinking it and thinking about it, is its variability from one place to another and one year to the next. By paying attention to vintage characteristics, we know when to snatch up relative bargains in Burgundy or Bordeaux to drink young while waiting for “better” years to mature. And we know when to double down and stock up.
Now is the time for wine lovers to invest in France, which has enjoyed a string of terrific vintages beginning with 2007 and culminating in the universally acclaimed 2010. If you are a collector, you’ve probably been buying already. If you are a novice or simply an explorer, now is the time to procure by the case and see how the wine evolves.
Whether 2010 will surpass the excellent 2009 is a matter best resolved at dinner tables over the next several years. You can reach your own conclusion. But the 2010 red wines from southern France are now entering our market, and they are tremendous in quality and value. Adventurous wine lovers will buy the 2009s still on the shelves to compare with the 2010s as they age.
Focus on Cotes du Rhone. These wines from the Rhone Valley and northern Provence are blends primarily of grenache and syrah, often with other grape varieties included. The most prestigious Rhone reds, from Cornas, Cote Rotie and Chateauneuf-du-Pape, are not yet available, but basic Cotes du Rhone and the various village wines, such as Rasteau, Gigondas, Vacqueyras and others, are in stores. Wines from the Languedoc, a bit farther south and west, are also enjoying a string of strong vintages and offer great value. From here, look for wines from the Corbieres or Minervois appellations.
My favorites from recent tastings include the Coteaux F Rouge from Eric Texier, a darling of the “natural wine” movement for his non-interventionist style of winemaking. That wine, at a modest $16 to $18 a bottle, is electric. It carries an energy that tells you it is alive in a way most wines don’t. That also means its flavors are hard to pin down and best experienced in a glass rather than in a newspaper.
In a more traditional style, the J.L. Chave Selection Mon Coeur and the Alain Jaume Rasteau speak of the earth and the terroir where the wines were grown. The J.L. Chave seemed to draw me through the roots of the vines as they scratched out mineral qualities from the soil. The Rasteau added herbal notes of lavender, rosemary and thyme in a beguiling bouquet that made me wonder whether the wine had somehow transported me to southern France.
Your assignment for the summer: Buy red wines from the Cotes du Rhone and Languedoc regions of France. You will be rewarded as they develop over several years.