• this month’s featured wines •
Rare Southern French Reds
When one thinks of the south of France, it’s easy to quickly classify grapes with their regions: Syrah (Northern Rhône), Grenache (Southern Rhône), Mourvèdre (Bandol/Provence), Carignane (Languedoc), and Malbec (Cahors)… as easy, in fact, as it is to forget that like nowhere else in the country, the south of France contains a trove of rare grape varietals and pioneering winegrowers who work with them. It’s a great time to explore a short-term flight of some of the finest examples, as a brutal winter slowly turns to spring.
When geographically defining the (potentially generic) term ‘South of France’, I like to follow esteemed food writer Waverly Root when he divides the country into 3 gastronomic lands: the land of butter in Brittany/Normandy; the land of fat in the northeast/Alsace; and the land of oil, embracing the south. Driving south from Burgundy on the A6/Autoroute du Soleil toward Marseille, for example, one crosses a physically palpable yet invisible line after which signs for oil and garlic proliferate. The broad region can be said to run from Nice in the east to Biarritz on the western coast, and includes such appellations as Corbières, Languedoc, Roussillon, Cassis, and Aix-de-Provence. As a warm, decidedly Mediterranean zone, it has been a famous home of high-yielding, affordable, and largely mediocre bulk wine; for generations, the product of its vigorous vineyards was either used for thin, daily table wine, or, when harvested at lower yields for a rich extracted wine, as a blending component to beef up northern wines. There is still a host of affordable bulk wines from the south, but alongside them, a set of artisanal estates committed to the finest wine they can make, true to tradition and delicious on the palate. The wines below are a tiny representation of these; each shows some combination of exuberant fruit, a measure of spice, and complex textures. Enjoy!
Nicolas Gonin 2011 Persan, Isère $11 gls • $5.50 tst • $48 btl
Nicolas belongs to a small group of dedicated ampelographers who see it as their mission to resurrect forgotten varietals from total obscurity; these include Verdesse, Mècle, Bia Blanc, Servanin, and this stellar Persan. Historically, it has been known as a very high-quality, almost noble varietal in the Isère and Savoie, (just east and south of Lyon), but there are only miniscule plantings left today. On the palate, this 2011 bears some relation to Pinot Noir for its savory lightness and clean expression of sweet blackberry fruit.
Andrea Calek 2011 ‘Babiole’, Ardèche $10.50 gls • $5.25 tst • $45 btl
Andrea’s one of the most talked-about – and stylish – winemakers in the ‘natural’ wine movement today. A defector from the Czech military, he lives in a trailer among his vines in the Ardèche hinterland between the Northern and Southern Rhône, and crafts a range of stellar bottlings in small quantities without chemicals and minimal sulfur. This Grenache/Syrah blend balances cidery tartness and bacony spice with panache.
Château d’Aydie 2011 Tannat, Madiran $7 gls • $3.50 tst • $30 btl
Aydie is fairly large for Madiran, at 50+ hectares – yet this family-run, third-generation estate has long been recognized as one of the masters of the often recalcitrant Tannat varietal. Here, it’s blended with 30% Cabernet Franc, and I really enjoy how the latter puts Tannat’s otherwise dark, tannic, and brooding character into delicious relief, with a measure of fresh plum, blackberry, and vegetal spice.
Southern French Reds Flight (a two-ounce tasting of each of the above) $14.25
Sommelier, Jeremy Quinn