It basks in all that grape-ripening Mediterranean sunshine, yet southern France is a shadowy place to most wine drinkers on this side of the Atlantic. Corbières, Saint-Chinian, Minervois, Faugères - they could be Quebec beer brands rather than French wine appellations for all the average $15 shiraz-sipper in Canada knows.
But if you've sipped a glass of the hearty house red in a French bistro, chances are good that you were enjoying a wine from southern France. Savvy bistro managers know that southern France is a bargain geyser next to the fancy-pants regions such as Bordeaux and Burgundy. They also know it's producing much better wine than ever - with more concentration and cleaner, fresher flavours.
It's a big, diverse place, the south. Sometimes referred to (pretentiously, unless you happen to be French) as "le Midi," it encompasses roughly the bottom third of the nation, a wide band hugging the Mediterranean and the Pyrenees on the border with Spain. We're talking many regions and microclimates. Yet it's often grouped under the Midi umbrella because, in part, it stands in contrast those other high-profile French places like Bordeaux and Burgundy in one important regard: constant sunshine. In that respect, it spiritually lies halfway between Europe and such New World regions as South Australia, California, Chile, Mendoza in Argentina and the southern Okanagan in British Columbia. The weather tends to deliver dense fruit concentration. I call it vin de soleil.
Yet what I like about southern French wines, in particular the reds from good producers, as distinct from most New World wines, is that they deliver a strong savoury character -uncanny notes of licorice, lavender, cracked pepper and meat drippings.
You'll find that character, to varying degrees, in all the wines below, which are released today in Ontario through Vintages stores. They're listed in rough order of preference, but even the last on the roster is terrific for the money. Pair any of these full-bodied wines with hearty meat dishes.
Domaine des Aures Hautes Minervois La Livinière 2007 ($19.95, product No. 17137). A huge wine, at 15.5-per-cent alcohol, it's dense and dark, with flavours of plum and blackberry, plenty of herbs and a salty character. Though concentrated, it's not what I'd call a crowd-pleaser; there's too much bitterness here for the average shiraz-lover. Try it with sweet-marinated flank steak.
Château de Beaucastel Coudoulet de Beaucastel 2007 ($29.95, No. 48884). A regal Côtes-du-Rhône from land abutting one of the great Châteauneuf-du-Pape estates, this wine delivered lots of concentration in the great 2007 growing season. Velvety and rip, with lots of well-integrated tannins and a finish of bitter licorice. It could age nicely for more than 10 years. A good companion for lamb chops or poultry.
Cave de Roquebrun Roches Noires Macération 2007 ($17.95, No. 177519). A standout value, this blend of syrah (60 per cent), mourvèdre and grenache has a core of raspberry, plenty of chewy tannins and a delicious character of fresh herbs. A fine choice for aged cheeses.
Domaine La Croix Sainte Eulalie Espéranto Saint-Chinian 2007 ($15.95, No. 178400). Another standout value, this one is blended from syrah (60 per cent), grenache and carignan, showing supple plum and raspberry, with a dusting of cracked pepper and tight, moderately tannic finish. It would be a fine match for fatty meat dishes such as cassoulet or sausage.
Perrin & Fils Les Cornuds Vinsobres 2007 ($17.95, No. 566844). From the same family that brings you the Beaucastel above, this is a 50-50 blend of grenache and syrah. I found the alcohol, though not excessive for a 2007 Rhône, a tad conspicuous. I'd age the wine for two more years to help the alcohol integrate with the fruit. But I like the wine for its considerable, still-youthful tannins and note of graphite (like many a Bordeaux aficionado, I like the taste of pencil lead in my wines). Steak would be a good match here.
The bargain of today's Vintages spotlight on southern France, I think, is Domaine Les Yeuses Les Épices Syrah 2007 ($12.95, No. 177584). The texture is silky and the flavours veer toward currants and lavender, with a good dollop of juicy acidity and spice.
Michel Gassier Les Piliers Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($16.95, No. 653725). Concentrated and astringent with tannins, this value cabernet does a good imitation of a quality petit chateau from Bordeaux, with accents of spice, mineral and green pepper. Decant it if you can and serve it with rare beef or lamb.
One of the most accessible, crowd-pleasing wines of the southern French selections is Château Haut Lignières Le 1er Faugères 2007 ($15.95, No. 177691). Cherry Popsicle is what it reminded me of, though dry, not sweet, and with an added note of herb.
The French should come up with a wine-flavoured Popsicle. It might be just the thing for a hot, lazy summer afternoon in the sunny Mediterranean south.
Picks of the week
Domaine Les Yeuses Les Épices Syrah 2007 ($12.95, No. 177584) is silky in texture and the flavours veer toward currants and lavender, with a good dollop of juicy acidity and spice.
Cave de Roquebrun Roches Noires Macération 2007 ($17.95, No. 177519) is a blend of syrah, mourvèdre and grenache with a core of raspberry, plenty of chewy tannins and a delicious character of fresh herbs.
Château de Beaucastel Coudoulet de Beaucastel 2007 ($29.95, No. 48884) is velvety and ripe, with lots of well-integrated tannins and a finish of bitter licorice. A good companion for lamb chops or poultry.