Thursday, February 13, 2020

Wines of Southern France

The French vintner, Alexis Lichine, was known for skillfully keeping one foot in Bordeaux and the other in the United States. The Bordelaise remember him as the proprietor of Chateau Prieure-Lichine in Margaux, while most Americans knew Lichine as the husband of 1950s film star, Arlene Dahl.  

Born in Russia, Lichine fled with his family to France in 1934 to escape the Russian Revolution, and then on to the United States. He was the consummate wine man,  dabbling in a number of ventures, including developing varietal labeling with Frank Schoonmaker. Lichine moved freely between New York City and Bordeaux, although he spent much of his time at Prieure-Lichine, working on the quality of the wine.

(And that reminds me...After spending many years going to college part time, in many different places, I finally earned my degree in Colorado. As a reward, my wife and I went to Europe for three weeks. I was learning about Bordeaux wines then by tasting and reading "Alexis Lichine's Guide to the Wines and Vineyards of France." So, a visit with Lichine at Prieure-Lichine was a must.

I wrote Lichine asking for an hour or two of his time, not expecting to get a welcoming reply from him personally. Word was, in those days, the Bordelaise were very reserved and chateau visits were rarely granted. If you did get an appointment, punctuality was expected. So, I was surprised that we would be received at Ch. Prieure-Lichine.

Our host was the gracious, showing Janet and I the chateau (including his bedroom) and the chai and inviting us for a lunch of grapevine grilled steaks and, of course, a tutored tasting of Prieure-Lichine. After lunch, Lichine insisted on showing us around the commune of Margaux, with a drive-by of Chateau Boyd-Cantenac. It was a great learning experience, and we were charmed by our host's open hospitality.  As we were driving back to our hotel, Janet said that she thought Alexis Lichine was lonely and enjoyed having someone to talk to. 

Years later, Lichine wrote to tell me that he was coming to Denver to promote his line of French country wines. I was writing for the "Rocky Mountain News" then and arranged to interview him at his hotel. That evening Janet and I attended a tasting of the country wines, sponsored by Lichine's importer, in the hotel. Lichine sat on the stage facing the audience and as the owner of the import company droned on, we all watched as Alexis Lichine slumped in his chair, chin on chest, the casualty of jet lag.)

It was a hard sell in Lichine's day promoting wines to the American wine consumer who knew little about French wines.  Now, some forty years later, American wine drinkers, looking for quality and value, are taking a fresh look at the wines of southern France. 

French country wines is a catch-all term that generally applies to any wine from the wide arc of wine regions along the Mediterranean, from Provence in the east, to Roussillon in the west, on the border with Spain. Between the two is the inland region,Languedoc. Also inland is the southern Rhone Valley wine region, which we will look at in a future essay. 

Roussillon is a sunny corner of France that, owing to its geography, is part French and part Spanish. Spanish Catalonia is just across the Pyrenees, and the people of Roussillon identify closely with Spain and many of them speak Catalan. There is also a strong Spanish influence in the cuisine of Roussillon, much of it based on seafood. 

In recent years, the American wine consumer has connected Roussillon with its neighbor Languedoc, as in Languedoc-Roussillon wines. But the lay of the land in Roussillon is more hilly, even mountainous with vineyards climbing up the lower slopes of the Pyrenees. Languedoc is mostly flat, while Roussillon vineyards and olive groves struggle in narrow rocky valleys.

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Roussillon: Where vineyards meet the sea

The Spanish influence is also seen in the red wines of Roussillon, made from Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Carignan. (Mourvedre is called Mataro in some places and in California Carignan is spelled Carignane). Roussillon reds are deep in color, more robust, with lots of ripe fruit; more Spanish, or Californian, than French.  Look for wines with the appellations Cote du Roussillon and Cote du Roussillon Villages, the latter, according to the rules, are higher in quality.

Roussillon white wines are not as widely seen as reds, an oddity considering the heavy emphasis in the region on seafood. A pair of Muscats and Grenache Blanc are the main white grapes, with Grenache Gris used for most pink wines. 

The quality of Roussillon wines is high, particularly from small producers, such as Domaine Gauby. Varietal wines clearly represent the stated variety, with forward warm fruit, moderate acidity and good length. Use of oak for extended aging, while not the rule, is becoming more common. Value is the key, especially from small wineries. 

For years, the best-known wine of Roussillon was Banyuls, a vin doux naturel wine that loosely translates to "sweet natural wine." Grenache Noir is the primary grape in Banyuls and at one time, the wine was made in an oxidative style and even aged outdoors in a solera, similar in style and aging to Spanish Sherry.  Alcohol is added to the grape juice during fermentation, giving Banyuls (and Banyuls Grand Cru) a high level of concentration. 

A Valentine tip: Fans of Banyuls say it is the perfect red wine with chocolate. Look for Chateau de Jau and Domaine Cazes.

Languedoc vineyards stretch from the Mediterranean beaches across vast flat plains. At the turn of the century, there was a large surplus of wine in the European Union countries, so growers were encouraged to pull vines. The scheme resulted in cutting vineyard acreage from approximately 600,000 acres, to about 470, 000 acres of vineyards. 

Today, the Languedoc is a network of small growers working to keep up with the local wine rules and the overarching EU regulations. The once common Carignan has today given way to Syrah and Grenache Noir. Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon fill out the red wine list. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier are the most popular white grapes, for dry and the sparkling wines of Limoux. 

Much of the wine made in the Languedoc is bottled as IGP (Indication Geographique Protegee), the replacement for vin de pays wines. More general yet are VSIG wines, without a geographical indication. Some IGP wines are exported to the United States, but not VSIG wines. 

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Mas de Dumas Gassac, Languedoc
IGP wines are clean, fruity and good values. Careful selection will yield good values. A step up (or two) in quality are Languedoc wines of longevity such as Mas de Daumas Gassac and Domaine de l'Aigueliere.  

Provence has two things in abundance: plenty of sunshine and tourists. The region also has a rich cultural history that has contributed to its food and wines. A total of 13 varieties are allowed in Cotes de Provence wines, with Grenache and Cinsaut the two most planted grapes. Mourvedre and Syrah round out the list of most popular red varieties. Provence is known for rose wines, but the focus today is on reds, mainly from Grenache Noir and Syrah. White wines get less attention, although there is growing interest in Vermentino (an Italian grape from the Italian Riviera) and Semillon in coastal vineyards. 

There are times in every wine drinkers life, or should be, when high-end wines are not the best choices. It could be the meal, maybe the occasion or the wine price. Whenever such a time arises, think of Languedoc, Roussillon or Provence wines. 

Next blog: West Coast Chardonnay.

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