A few weeks ago we traveled to the small and ancient village of Paulhan in the Languedoc region of southern France to visit Chef Yvonne’s sister and husband. Yvonne’s brother and wife live not far away in the neighboring village of Montady, all of them pensioner refugees from London’s miserable weather. It was to be a long-delayed family visit, as well as a return to the European ways of food and wine we love so much. Knowing that some of the Languedoc wineries that produce some of our favorites are close by to where we were staying, I was hoping to see some of them. But I was also aware that this was a family visit, and I was going to have to fit into the schedule at hand.
On the third day of our visit, Yvonne’s brother Peter set up the arrangement for all three couples to meet in the market town of Beziers, where the ladies would ramble the shops while the gents took to the hills in search of wine. It’s not a long search in Languedoc. The early spring hillsides were lined with rows of barky stumps of winter-pruned vines as far as the eye could see. The chilly winds were whistling across the ancient Greco-Roman fortress town that was our first stop, so we climbed back into Peter’s weirdly (for me) right-hand drive English car to retire to a new cave (they say “kahv”) that is being established as a center for the tasting and sale of wines from all over the Languedoc region.
The cave is a large building set by the side of the the Canal du Midi (a 17th Century engineering marvel and World Heritage Site). The woman who showed us around was Belgian, fluent in both French and English. As we browsed through the shelves, she described the mission of the cave and apologized that they had only been open a few months. She explained that they were still making contact with regional “wine farmers” so they could feature a bigger selection. I was struck by that phrase - “wine farmers.” We Americans usually call these people “winemakers.” But as I thought about it over the next few days, while driving past dozens of “wine farms,” I began to see how apt it is. Wine is an agricultural product, like beef or wheat or eggs. And like those areas of food production, there are big factory wine producers and small, artisanal family wine producers...the ones we like. I made a note to thank a "wine farmer" next time I savor a great glass of wine.
I didn’t see any of the products of the “wine farms” we sell in the shop, but I did get a poster of the grape varieties (cépages) of the Vins du Pays D’Oc (“wines of the land of the Oc” - Languedoc). It’s posted on the shop wall next to the Wine Regions of France poster.
Oh, well. Not being an importer, I can’t sell wines that I bring back from France, anyway. So I contacted one of my back-home distributors and put together a list of great wines from the region I had just visited. And here it is - some wines from the “wine farmers” of the south of France. Come on along for a tour of some great wines...and I'll recollect about my trip.
Saint Martin de la Garrigue Bronzinelle Blanc Regular Price $21.95/ Feature Price $18.66
While out on a hike through the misty wilds of Languedoc with nephew Crispin, we stopped on a rock outcropping to enjoy the view. He said, “What’s the smell?” Yes, there was an air of herbal sharpness. We walked down a bit to the flat area and immediately found ourselves walking on beds of wild thyme and rosemary...the famous garrigue. Garrigue is the French name for the scrubland flora that grows on the rocky limestone soils all around the Mediterranean basin. So the name of the chateau, St. Martin de la Garrigue, could be translated as “St. Martin of the Fields.”
When, a few years ago, I introduced the red version of “Bronzinelle” I did extensive research to find what the word means. I came up with “a local hummingbird.” Now the winery has a website and, through the miracle of Google Translate, I find from them that Bronzinelle is an Occitan word that suggests “the soft rustle produced by bees when foraging” (le doux bruissement produit par les abeilles lorsqu'elles butinent). It’s still a nice image of the wine farm in the garrigue.
The château is located near Pézenas, the hometown of Molière, and one of the market towns we visited on our trip. Surrounded by pine forests and garrigue, it is situated overlooking the Hérault River. Its proximity to a water source and ideal terroir makes it the perfect spot for growing grapes. The microclimate here is different from St. Martin’s neighbors. It sits at a slightly higher altitude and is therefore cooler, allowing a one-to-two week delay of the harvest. This long, even ripening of the grapes is also attributed to the humidity and the cooling influences of the Mediterranean breezes, as well as bountiful rains in the fall and at the end of winter. Beautiful red and white limestone gravel covers the floor of the vineyards, lending aromatic depth and freshness to the grapes.
Jean-Claude Zabalia is the “wine farmer” here. He blends almost all of the white grapes found in the Languedoc - 46% Marsanne, 12% Roussanne, 20% Grenache Blanc, 10% Picpoul, 7% Viognier, 5% Terret. The result is layered and complex...a tour of Languedoc whites in your mouth.
Note: Saint Martin de la Garrigue also makes a sharp and delicious Picpoul de Pinet. This year’s release hasn’t come in yet, but we’ll be sure to let you know.
Château de Lascaux Cote du Languedoc Blanc
Regular Price $21.00/ Feature Price $17.85
Lascaux means “limestone,” the gravelly soil of Languedoc that gives its grapes such minerality and character. Chateau de Lascaux is nestled along the foothills of the Cevennes, a mountain range that sits in the heart of the Midi. These foothills protect the vines from the cool Mistral and Tramontagne winds and bring more rain to an otherwise dry climate.
The “wine farmer” is Jean-Benoît Chevalier, a seasoned professional with a lifetime of experience growing grapes in this region. Jean-Benoit knows that the temperate zone where his vineyards are located brings a long, slow ripening of the grapes that adds to the wines’ complexity. And he also “farms” his grapes using organic methods that preserve the bounty of the land. For a real treat (if your computer system handles Vimeo) you can watch an interview with Jean-Benoit in English.
This white is a blend of 50% Vermentino, 20% Roussanne, 20% Marsanne and 10% Viognier. Not as rich as the Bronzinelle Blanc, it’s drier and more a food-style wine. I think that’s because the rich Roussane/Marsanne combination has been put in second place behind the crisp minerality characteristic of the Vermentino.
Fontsainte Corbieres Rosé Gris de Gris Regular Price $18.25/ Feature Price $15.51
I first wrote about this wine when we introduced it in May 2010:
The classy label on the wine says it is a "Gris de Gris." In this region, the French "gris" (gree) doesn't mean "gray," it means "pink." So this is a pink wine made from pink grapes, and indeed it is lighter in color than other Languedoc rosés. This tasty blend (70% Grenache Gris and Grenache Noir, with 10% each of Mourvedre, Carignan and Cinsault) is made in the traditional saignée method, with the whole grapes resting with the dark-colored skins for about 24 hours. The fermentation then takes place at 18° Celsius (64 F.) for 35 days, and the wine "rests" for a month before bottling. This careful handling and attention to detail brings out all the freshness and subtlety of the blend. The wine should not be served as cold as a crisp white...45 to 50 degrees would be about right. In this warm season you can take it out of the fridge about 20 minutes before serving. As it warms, you'll taste the various elements as they unfold. I like this wine before a meal, with any kind of cheese or tapa, but you can also serve it with grilled seafood (salmon would be my choice) or maybe a grilled chicken salad. It's one of the unmistakable pleasures of summer.
I couldn’t have said it better myself. I love this wine. It is elegant and interesting and beautiful in the glass. If this one doesn’t make a rosé drinker of you...I give up.
Fontsainte Corbières Rouge Regular Price $17.40/ Feature Price $14.79
Domaine de Fontsainte has a wonderful website that includes an interview with wine farmer Bruno Laboucarié and a gallery of beautiful photos of the winery throughout the seasons. You’ll learn there that:
What the family sees here is a more traditional Languedoc red blend of 60% Carignan, 30% Grenache Noir, and 10% Syrah. The predominant Carignan is another of those grapes (like Garnacha/Grenache) that originated in Spain. In its native Aragon it is known as Cariñena. Carignan is a difficult grape for winemakers to work with, being naturally high in acidity, tannins and astringency which requires a lot of skill to produce a wine of finesse and elegance. Yves Laboucarié introduced the process of carbonic maceration (fermenting whole grapes in a carbon dioxide environment...commonly used in Beaujolais) as a way to bring out the sweet fruit notes of the 100-year-old Carignan vines. Adding the Grenache and Syrah is a traditional way of producing a softer wine with deep structure and delicious fruit. This is a beautiful wine that tastes like a Southern Rhone blend, and I’m very pleased to be able to introduce it to our French line-up.
Saint Martin de la Garrigue Tradition Regular Price $20.85/ Feature Price $17.72
The St. Martin Garrigue Tradition is almost the same blend as the Fontsainte Rouge, except the Grenache and Syrah trade places (56% Carignan, 30% Syrah, 14% Grenache). Giving the Syrah the more dominant role adds some soft, puckery tannins that make this my choice for food pairing. Here, as in the Fontsainte, the Carignan is fermented by carbonic maceration, while the Syrah and Grenache undergo traditional fermentation. The whole is then aged in stainless steel to preserve the rich fruit flavors. Lovely!
Domaine de Nizas AOC Coteaux du Languedoc 2007 Regular Price $25.60/ Feature Price $21.76
Domaine de Nizas is located outside Pézenas, not far from Saint Martin de la Garrigue. The small, single vineyard estate was purchased in 1998 by John Goelet, an American descended from a distinguished family in Bordeaux. He identified the exceptional 'terroir' of Pézenas as the ideal site to craft high-quality artisanal wines that express the spirit of the Mediterranean. The Domaine de Nizas is Goelet’s latest project. He also created Clos du Val in the Napa Valley, Taltarni in Victoria, Australia and Clover Hill in Tasmania.
The wine farmer here is Nathalie Arnaud-Bernard, a native of the Rhone Valley who has been making wine in the Languedoc region for 13 years. In this red blend Arnaud-Bernard brings the Syrah to the fore (60%) with Mourvedre (35%) and Grenache (5%) playing supporting roles. The wine is aged 12 months in French (of course) oak barrels and some stainless steel. Wine Spectator magazine gave this vintage 87 Pts.
Note: Domaine de Nizas also makes a very nice rosé (Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Rolle) that we’ve carried (and very much enjoyed) in the past. The current release has not yet arrived at our distributor’s warehouse, but I can assure you we’ll get some in as soon as it arrives.