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Promised land pays dividends in flavour.

Byline: By Helen Savage

The vast vineyards of the south of France are the future of French wine ( and its Achilles heel.

Languedoc-Roussillon is the world's biggest vineyard. It makes as much wine as the whole of Australia and New Zealand together ( and still some more (a lot more, in fact).

The big success of recent years has been what the wine trade calls varietal wines, wines labelled with the name of a grape variety: Chardonnay, Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon.

These compete for space on the shelves with Aussie and New Zealand wine and that of Chile and South Africa ( and do very well.

A lot of New World wine-makers have cast envious eyes at southern France ( and a number of high-profile companies, including California's Gallo Brothers have invested heavily there over the past couple of decades. In many ways, Languedoc-Roussillon is the vine's Promised Land, with fabulous climate, fantastic vineyard sites ( just the right soils and slopes and a large, skilled workforce. It's very nearly perfect. So where's the problem?

A large part of it is the bureaucratic nightmare that prevents over half the wine made there from being labelled in the clear easy way that has made varietal wines so popular. Under present European rules simple vin de table can't be sold with the name of the grape variety on the label or even the vintage date.

There's a lot of vin de table in Languedoc. Nobody wants it. Much of it ends up being distilled into industrial alcohol.

The European Union recognises that things must change. Either these vineyards must go, or the rules must change to allow this wine to be labelled differently so that it can compete on a more level playing field with the ever-increasing number of cheaper imports from the southern hemisphere.

The proposals recently put forward by the European Commission may help ( but won't be adopted until next year at the earliest.

The muddle over labelling even holds back the wineries that are doing well. Ask most people where Vin de Pays d'Oc comes from and they don't have the faintest idea: but that's the name under which the popular varietal wines must be sold, according to the present laws. Many growers would love to put South of France on the bottle instead (or something similar) ( and they're prevented from doing so. Again the European Commission and the French Government both accept that the rules are a nonsense. They must be scrapped soon.

In the meantime, it's a tribute to the quality and value for money of the wines now sold under the Vin de Pays d'Oc banner that they're doing so well. Last year brought especially favourable growing conditions, as CAdric Jenin, chief winemaker of the Domaines Virgine explains. "We had exactly the kind of weather needed for quality wine production. Despite a lack of rainfall, there was plenty of sunshine and the conditions prior to harvesting were ideal."

CAdric's wines sell in the UK exclusively at Oddbins at a competitive pounds 4.99. I especially like his Syrah 2005 which has plenty of chewy black fruit ( blackcurrant and black cherry and his tangy Chardonnay 2005 is good too with a smell and taste of hazelnuts, melon and fresh pineapple.

Classic wines from specific places or regions within Languedoc-Roussillon are also doing well and represent some of the most exciting flavours in France ( or anywhere else for that matter. The big vineyards of CorbiAres and Minervois are particularly happy hunting grounds, as is the ever-improving St Chinian.

Lesser-known areas such as CabardAs often harbour some real gems at a budget price (like my wine of the week). CabardAs really shows that it's not just the names of grape varieties that sell a wine.

It's an utterly successful blend of Mediterranean and Bordeaux-like flavours.

Wine of the Week

Cheteau de Pennautier, CabardAs, 2004, pounds 5.49 (Majestic).

Deep plummy red from southern France with smell and dry taste a bit like summer pudding ( a medley of brambles, blackcurrant, raspberry and black cherry. Not at all heavy, but with just enough tannic bite to accompany roast pork or lamb wonderfully well.
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Aug 25, 2006
Words:688
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