WT101: The South of France
During the 3 1/2 years since we began the Wine Tasting 101 program, our monthly topics have almost always featured a specific grape variety or type of wine, from our initial focus on a Cotes-du-Rhone in June 2001 to last month's celebration of dessert wines.
This month, figuring it's time for a change of pace, we're experimenting with a new direction, featuring a wine region for a month of tasting and informal study in the friendly online environment of Wine Tasting 101.
Let's begin with the South of France, one of my personal favorite wine-producing and travel regions, where I'll be leading a French Wine Explorers tour of wine enthusiasts in June.
For purposes of this month's study, we'll focus on three broad Southern French regions: Languedoc, Provence and the Rhone. If you visualize the historic city of Avignon on the Rhone River at the center of a rough triangle with its base along the Mediterranean shore, Provence lies to the east and south, from the mouth of the Rhone past Marseilles and Nice to the Italian border. Languedoc stretches from the Rhone west to France's border with Spain; and the Rhone Valley - where we'll be touring in June - reaches north from Avignon along the east bank of the river, mostly, from Chateauneuf-du-Pape and the Cotes-du-Rhone through Cote-Rotie to Hermitage.
Although each of these regions bosts its particular wine traditions and terroir, you'll find some family kinship among their wines, and many wine-grape varieties are familiar throughout: Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and Carignan among the reds; Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier in the whites. The reds tend to be full-bodied and hearty, featuring peppery, "meaty" and even "gamey" flavors. The whites at best are full, aromatic and rich, and the rosé wines crisp, tart and bone-dry, deliciously fruity and herbally complex. Many of the wines of the region are rustic and quaffable (and generally affordable, even given the rising Euro); but the standout wines take second place to few others in terms of quality, elegance, ageworthiness ... and price.
For the top red wines, look for Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Cote-Rotie and Hermitage in the Rhone; Bandol in Provence, and Coteaux du Languedoc, particularly Pic Saint Loup, in the Languedoc.
Finally, a word about vintage selection: It's worth noting that 2002 ranged from poor to disastrous through much of the region; floods in Chateauneuf-du-Pape literally wiped out much of the crop, and by and large, '02 red Rhones that reached the market have been lackluster. It wasn't quite so bad in the Languedoc, but in general it's a year to avoid. In contrast, 2003 was a heat wave year over much of France, yielding ripe crops that made full, powerful wines, easy to like although tending toward the alcoholic and "New World" in style.
Couple all this with the rising price of the Euro against the dollar, making recent vintages increasingly pricey in the U.S., and you'll find a lot of retailers, depending on availability, still holding on to supplies of the generally good 2000 and 2001 vintages. Buy with care, but in evaluating older wines, consider the environment at your wine shop and avoid bottles that may have been displayed upright or in sunlight or kept at warm temperatures.
In place of the usual "benchmark" wines, you're encouraged to try any wines of the region that interest you, and to post your comments and questions about them on the Wine Tasting 101 Forum.
However, if you wish to look for some of the wines that I'll be tasting and reporting this month, here's my lineup:
Now, let's get the topic off to a flying start with my report on a recent tasting of an exceptionally fine white Rhone from Saint-Joseph, a Northern Rhone appellation on the west side of the river, opposite Hermitage.
E. Guigal 2000 Saint-Joseph Blanc ($24.99)
Clear gold in color, bright and showing no sign of age, this rich white Northern Rhone is probably predominantly Marsanne, although neither the label nor the Website discloses the blend. Its delicious and complex aroma features mixed white fruit with hints of almonds, honey and tobacco leaf. Full-bodied and rich in flavor, there's a pleasant whiff of toasted almonds behind abundant fruit, with plenty of zippy acidity for structure and food-friendliness. U.S. importer: Ex Cellars Wine Agencies Inc., Solvang, Calif. (Dec. 31, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: This rich, food-friendly white would go well with a broad range of poultry or pork dishes and flavorful preparations of seafood and fish. It also made a fetching companion with a vegetarian dish from another part of the Mediterranean: Tuscan-style white beans long-simmered with fresh sage.
VALUE: The price of this older stock remains fair for a wine of its character, but watch for the rising Euro to drive up prices of more recent vintages.
WHEN TO DRINK: Saint-Joseph, like other quality Rhone whites, can age under decent cellar conditions with surprising grace, gaining richness and complexity with time. This one, despite presumably less-than-ideal conditions on a wine-shop shelf, is still youthful even at three years past its release. If you cellar it, though, taste periodically, as the oxidative qualities that lend subtlety in small amounts will eventually turn darkly nutty and Sherry-like as the wine passes its peak.
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE:
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Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2005