• 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), Malbec (Cahors), and Tannat (Madiran)… 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; the tail end of a brutal winter is the perfect time to explore a short-term flight of some of the finest examples.
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, and all are heartwarming. 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.
Sainte Croix 2012 Aramon, Corbières $11.50 gls • $5.75 tst • $50 btl
Native to the Languedoc, Aramon was the most planted grape variety in France from the late 19th century until the 1960s, thanks to its tendency for high yields and resistance to disease. At that time, it was made in a very light and pale style (counter to our modern expectation for the south), and served France as its everyday table wine. Since then, however, it has been on a very rapid decline. At their Sainte Croix estate in Corbières, 20 minutes from the Mediterranean, English ex-pat husband-and-wife winemakers Jon and Elizabeth Bowen craft this dense and driven version not from a field, but from a handful of individual Aramon vines scattered in their rows. A staff favorite, it shows memorable spice, polish, and rusticity.
Southern French Reds Flight (a two-ounce tasting of each of the above) $16.50
Sommelier, Jeremy Quinn