French Wines II: Burgundy, Rhone, Provence, Languedoc

beaujolais countryside.jpg

For Part II of our little jaunt through some of the wine regions of France we are going to start in Burgundy, with stops in the Maconnais and Beaujolais, then south through the Rhone Valley, making a side trip to the east into Provence and another to the west into Languedoc-Rousillon. There’s lots of good wine to sample along the way, so let’s get started
Burgundy
Burgundy is one of the most legendary wine regions in the world. This is another of those places, like Bordeaux, where wine aficionados make a life’s work of savoring the subtle differences among vineyard sites, vintage years, and vignerons (winemakers). For our purposes, I’m going to stick with the, certainly oversimplified, distinction that is easiest to learn and is most useful to the beginner: In Burgundy, the red wines are Pinot Noir (with the exception of Beaujolais - see below) and the whites are Chardonnay.
I’ve never had the privilege of drinking great grand cru from the Côte D’Or of Burgundy. Maybe some day. But I have had a number of simpler AOC Bourgogne reds that give a good hint to what the phrase “Burgundian” means when applied to a Pinot Noir. The wines have an earthiness and depth that make them astounding food companions. I’m sorry to report, though, that after tasting through half a dozen of the 2008 red Burgundy wines we can get our hands on (and that we can sell for under $30), we found none that made the cut. They were all “OK” but not good enough for us to offer to you as either a good representation of the type or a good value for the price. But we’ll keep looking. I hope we’ll find a great red Burgundy for our “Wines for Holiday Feasts” feature.
We do have a red from Burgundy, but it’s not Pinot Noir. It’s from the Beaujolais appellation, and the grape is Gamay. There’s an interesting historical note here. In 1395, Philip the Bold, believing the then predominant Gamay grape produced inferior wines, drove the grape out of most of Burgundy, to be replaced by the “more noble” Pinot Noir. That was lucky for drinkers of both grapes, as the Gamay gets riper in its Beaujolais corner of Burgundy, giving us some great wines...like this one:
Domaine Boissieu Beaujolais-Villages 2007 Regular Price $18.80/ Feature Price $15.04
I reviewed the 2006 vintage of this wine a year ago in “More wines for beautiful feasts.” There I wrote:

“The 2006 is the last vintage made by Bertrand de Boissieu and his wife, Anke (she’s Dutch) and bottled under the Boissieu label. Bertrand and Anke were the first in the Beaujolais region to farm according to the ecological principles of lutte raisonnée, or “reasoned fight,” a pragmatic approach to organic farming that was, in their younger days, a radical thing. Beginning in 2006, their son Xavier, with his wife Kerrie (an American woman Xavier met while he was serving a winemaking apprenticeship in California) is taking this one step further by converting the château’s 28 acres of vineyards to biodynamic farming. Certification is expected in 2010. The new wines will be bottled as Château de Lavernette, the original name of the property.”

Uh, maybe the plan didn’t work out. Because here we are, a year later, offering the Domaine Boissieu Beaujolais-Villages 2007. And lucky we are that we’ve got another year of this stunning wine. This is not the fun & fruity Beaujolais nouveau that will be so hyped in American stores in a few weeks. This is a wine of elegance and finesse that is dry but soft and light. Its notes of dried cherries and slightly peppery finish will make the wine a great companion to foods with deep, rich flavors...soups and stews, grilled lamb chops, stuffed pork tenderloin, perfectly roasted turkey with sausage and chestnut stuffing. Oh, my; I’m making myself hungry. You’ll just have to try the wine. Try it with food. You won’t miss the Pinot Noir.
 
Normand Macon La Roche Vineuse 2008 Regular $21.00/ Feature $16.80
I first reviewed the 2007 vintage of this wine in May, 2009 as “Another Great White Burgundy.” Then we included this 2008 vintage in our “Two Chards, Two Zins” feature last May. You can link over to those two reviews for the background information. When I wanted to be sure to include a classy white Burgundy in this French tour, I knew I would need to look no further than this lovely wine that continues to be my “go to” wine for grace and refinement at a very affordable price. And this is the wine that instantly teaches the lesson that there’s a lot more to Chardonnay than Kendall-Jackson. Try it with dishes that are light and subtle, or serve it with a mess of peel and eat shrimp (locally caught, of course). If I had to choose only one white wine that I’d be “stuck” with, I’d gladly be imprisoned with this one.
 
Rhone
The Rhone valley wine region runs approximately 125 miles from just below the town of Vienne in the north to south of the city of Avignon. The region is usually characterized as Northern Rhone and Southern Rhone. Northern Rhone is mostly a steep narrow valley where the predominant grape is Syrah. Here you find the famous appellations of Côte Rotie, Condrieu (noted for its Viognier), Saint-Joseph and Hermitage. The Southern Rhone (mostly around the cities of Orange and Avignon) is a broad, flat valley.In the south  the principal grape is Grenache. 80% of the wine from this southern region is designated Côtes du Rhône (“slopes of the Rhone”).
One of the famous appellations of the Southern Rhone is Gigondas, from vineyards surrounding the city of the same name. When this was a Roman city it was called “Jaconditas” or “happy town.” Seems the delicious wine was making a joyful noise even back then. Though our featured wine doesn't carry the Gigondas name, its grapes are from right in the neighborhood.
 
Château de Saint Cosme Les Deux Albion 2008 Côtes du Rhône
Regular Price $25.50/ Feature Price $20.40
Here’s another “re-run.” We featured the 2007 vintage of this wine a year ago as a wine to go with holiday feasts. I wanted to try something different this year. We tasted through several Côtes du Rhônes, some good, some not so good. We tried this one last because we had high expectations from our experience with the 2007 vintage of the same wine. We were not disappointed. “Oh, yeah...that’s the one!”
Winemaker Louis Barruol and associates at Château de Saint Cosme (sant comb) (makers, as well, of the tasty little Grenache we know as “Little James’ Basket Press”), have really got the Rhone thing down. From their vineyards around the town of Gigondas they produce consistently award-winning wines with appellations such as Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu, Gigondas, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and this Côtes du Rhône Villages blend. Andrew Jefford wrote in his book, The New France: "The young Louis Barruol has quickly emerged as one of the southern Rhone's most talented young winemakers." And wine writer James Turnbull adds, "So pure and authentic are Barruol's wines, that Saint-Cosme is destined to become one of the great names of the southern Rhone."
As is the tradition for Côtes du Rhône, the wine is a blend of Syrah, Grenache, Carignan, Mourvedre and Clairette co-fermented all together with six weeks of fermentation to bring out all the depth and complexity of the various grapes. I think the winemaker should have the last say, though (you can almost hear his accent):

"We have been cooking a lot in 2008, just like usual! Our Deux Albion vineyards have been vinified exactly the same way as the Gigondas wines. The cooking book says: crush and blend the grapes, leave the fermentation begin naturally, keep going adding cold grapes consistently. Then you’ll control your temperature fermentation without working too much. If you are lazy, be clever. Leave the indigenous yeasts get exited by mixing them up. As you want to keep the delicate aromas, don’t leave the yeasts become too hysterical by cooling down all the stuff. Don’t burn your aromas. Don’t ferment too hot. When you get to the end of the cooking, don’t stop it, leave it keep going gently as long as possible. Take your time. It has to be slow. Then gently rack the wine and softly press the grapes. Taste very often. Taste several times per day. Taste again. Look for your own pleasure, then you’ll get more chances to give pleasure. Serve at 16°C (61 F.) with a nice smile. Strawberry, earth, smoked ham, laurel."

“If you are lazy, be clever.” Oh, I will surely drink to that!
 
Provence
When you get to the lower Rhone Valley, if you go west you get to Languedoc-Rousillon. If you go east, you’re in the far southeast corner of France, on the Mediterranean, the land of lavender and rosé - Provence.
The last time we visited Provence in this blog was last April’s “Grillin’ & Chillin’” feature. There we introduced you to the scrumptious, dry, old vines Grenache rosé from Domaine Saint André de Figuière. This year I saw on the distributor’s list that these folks also make a white blend and a red blend. So we tried them. A couple more winners to add to our own list.
 
Saint André de Figuière Côtes de Provence Valerie 2008 Regular Price $17.75/ Feature Price $14.20
The signature cuvée named Valerie is a white blend of 60% Ugni Blanc, 25% Rolle and 15% Semillon. Pretty unfamiliar grapes, except for the Semillon.
A little research reveals that Ugni Blanc (OO-nyee blahnk) is the most widely planted white grape in France, particularly along the Provençal coast. It’s also the same grape that is known as Trebbiano in Italy. There it is most famously present in the Orvieto wines of Umbria, but it is also used to make balsamic vinegar.
Then we have Rolle, a grape better known as Vermentinu, where it is used in Corsica and Sardinia to make full-bodied, aromatic white wines known for their crisp acidity.
This kind of winemaking came naturally to winemaker Alain Combard, as I wrote in “Grillin’ and Chillin’”:

Saint André de Figuière winemaker Alain Combard was raised in Chablis, in northern Burgundy, almost as far north as the Champagne region. This is the home of exhilarating Chardonnays that are known for their dry minerality. When Combard bought the 44 acre Provencal vineyard in 1991, he had no worries for the white wine (from Rolle, Semillon and Ugni Blanc grapes) as he put his ‘chablisien’ expertise to work.

Combine that expertise with a commitment to Biodynamique practices in the vineyard and you have what their website calls, “A true wine, fleshy and without artifice.” (my translation) When we tasted it in Washington, we called it “mouth-watering.”
 
Saint André de Figuière Côtes de Provence Francois 2009 Regular Price $16.75; Feature Price $13.40
The red Francois cuvée is a blend of 30% Syrah, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Grenache and 15% Cinsault. The first three grapes are pretty familiar. The Cinsault (SAN-soh) seems like it might be a sign of how climate change is affecting wine making. Cinsault is known for its ability to withstand high temperatures and to produce large yields. It’s also known for its bright color, an aspect that we found particularly attractive in this brilliant ruby-colored beauty.
The complex flavor has ripe cherries and spice and would be great with hearty dishes or just sipping on its own when the Mistral is whipping through the chimney pots.
 
Languedoc
Finally we come to the Languedoc, west of Avignon and occupying much of the massif central. With over 800,000 acres in vineyards, it produces about one-third of the total French wine output. Many of the Languedoc wineries are more concerned with quantity than quality, but some are using the lower cost of production and land to make very nice French wines at very affordable prices. A good example is the brothers Lurton, whose Les Salices Pinot Noir is a perennial best seller in our shops. Or the Domaine de Nizas whose Carignan-based red and rosé are very good values (we tasted the latest Domaine de Nizas red this week and will be re-introducing it soon).
But there is also some premiere winemaking being done in this sprawling land, creating wines of integrity and individuality. A good example here is the Saint-Hilaire Brut Blanquette de Limoux that we bill as “the original made-in-the-bottle sparkler” and which has developed a loyal following in our Wine & Words stores. Another great wine that we’ve had in the store before is:
Saint Martin de la Garrigue Bronzinelle 2008 Regular $22.75/ Feature $18.20
You classical music fans who know a tiny bit of French will recognize that this winery is called “Saint Martin of the Fields.” “Fields” as a translation of the French garrigue doesn’t really do the French term justice. That’s because garrigue is the term used for the scrub oaks and herbs that grow on the dry limestone soils of Languedoc and Provence. It’s interesting to consider that some of the culinary herbs that grow wild there - rosemary, sage and thyme - are prominent seasonings in some of the best cuisines. These resinous, aromatic and tough little plants must get some of their flavors from the terroir, the land and climate in which they grow. It makes sense that wine grapes grown in these regions would also pick up some of these herbal notes that would make them very interesting dinner companions.
And so it is with this red blend that is named for Bronzinelle, a local hummingbird. This is a blend of Syrah, Grenache, Carignan and Mourvedre. It’s a wine of depth and mystery, very dark in color and thought-provoking as it glides past your tongue. I like what one wine writer said about it: Dark Syrah, wrapped around a core of raspberry and lavender-inflected Grenache fruit. Full-bodied, aged in Bordeaux barrels, for a cedary layer of Cabernet fruit whispering around the edges.
Shhh. Listen for the whisper. It might be the Mistral soughing through the garrigue. Or it might be tiny Bronzinelle humming a tune in the Occitan language of the troubadors. No; it’s just Chef Yvonne calling me for supper.
À votre santé!

adjustments