Wine from the villages
For many people in the New World, the word "village" suggests the opposite of "urban" or "urbane." A wide spot in the road, picturesque during the height of autumn color, perhaps; but isolated, even inbred. A nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there, not if you enjoy quick access to the finer things in life - upscale eateries, a glass of wine, a steaming caffe macchiato.
In the world of wine, though - specifically, the fine wines of France - "Villages" means something else entirely. Remember, in the complex hierarchy of the AOC, the French system of controlled wine appellations, the place where the grapes were grown is the most important thing to know about a wine. As a general rule, the narrower and more exact the appellation, the more desirable the wine.
A generic appellation like Beaujolais, Beaune or the Rhône, for example, covers broad ground. But when a wine is made from grapes grown in vineyards within a specific community that has earned the right to recognition on the basis of its track record for quality, it may add the word "Villages" to the label - and in some cases, append the name of the specific village. This informs the consumer that the wine is a step above its generic competition (and, in most cases, is held to somewhat higher standards of vineyard production and wine-making).
Today, since we're studying the South of France this month in Wine Tasting 101, since I'll be leading a French Wine Explorers tour there in June, and especially since I happened to have a bottle handy, let's focus on how this system works in the Côtes-du-Rhône, the large, hilly and scenic wine region that covers more than 100,000 acres on both sides of the Rhône Valley north of Avignon.
Red wines from throughout this region must consist of at least 40 percent Grenache. The rest may be just about any of the usual Rhône suspects, although Syrah and Mourvèdre are most common. Generic Côtes-du-Rhône is a workhorse wine, a tasty and usually affordable red (although "affordable" is becoming a relative term in the U.S. as the Euro continues to gain strength against the dollar). At its best it can be a "baby Chateauneuf-du-Pape," a hearty, somewhat rustic red, showing ripe raspberry characteristics from Grenache, fragrant black pepper from Syrah and a hint of pleasant earthiness from Mourvèdre. At worst, when a producer's greed or poor weather comes into play, it can be thin and harsh. Usually, though, it's good for quaffing or enjoying with aromatic Provençal fare, best drunk up young and fresh and rarely thought of as a wine for cellaring.
Add the "Villages," though, and you've got a wine worth closer attention. Nearly 40 years ago, French regulatory authorities created the Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages appellation to recognize the consistent quality of grapes grown in some 95 specific villages, all of them in the Southern Rhone. Fewer than 20 of those, considered the best of the best, won the right to place the name of the village on the label, coupled with the duty to reduce vineyard yields (to a maximum of 2.4 tons per acre) and attain at least 12.5 percent alcohol in the finished wine.
Later, two of the Rhône villages - Gigondas and Vacqueyras - earned further promotion, becoming appellations in their own right and thus entitled to proudly bear the village name alone.
For the many lovers of wine trivia among us, let's list them alphabetically: Beaumes-de-Venise, Cairanne, Chuselan, Laudun, Rasteau, Roaix, Rochegude, Rousset-les-Vignes, Sablet, Seguret, St-Gervais, St.-Pantaléon-les-Vignes, St. Maurice-sur-Eygues, Valréas, Vinsobres and Visan.
In practice, many of these village names are rarely seen on export wine, but a few have gained considerable notoriety. Rasteau, Sablet and the home of today's wine, Cairanne, are fairly widely available outside France. Beaumes-de-Venise, although it produces good red wines in the standard Côtes-du-Rhône blend, is best known for its outstanding Muscat-based sweet whites.
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Domaine de l'Oratoire St. Martin 2000 Côtes-du-Rhône Villages Cairanne "Cuvée Prestige" ($14.99)
This is a very dark, blackish-purple wine; its clear garnet edge shows no hint of the bronze or brown color that betrays age. Earthy, mineral scents, more akin to clay and tree bark than the barnyard, blend nicely with still-vibrant black-cherry and raspberry fruit. Full-bodied, ripe fruit is balanced by mouth-watering acidity; ample but smooth and palatable tannins add to its texture, with snappy cherry-berry fruit persisting in a long finish. U.S. importer: USA Wine Imports, NYC, for Vineyard Expressions Fine Wine Selections, Ithaca, N.Y. (Jan. 17, 2005)
FOOD MATCH: You couldn't ask for a finer match with a crisp-skinned, roast free-range chicken.
VALUE: An exceptional value at this price, but note that this 2000 was purchased a couple of years ago, and more recent vintages may have risen with the Euro.
WHEN TO DRINK: Although it was likely more forward in its fruit two years ago, it is holding up well, illustrating the premise that first-rate Côtes-du-Rhônes from fine villages like Cairanne are significantly more ageworthy than their generic brethren.
Importer Louis/Dressner has a page about the Alarys here:
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Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2005