Do you find French wine labels confusing? Hard to pronounce? Many ailing producers are sensitive to your plight, convinced that tradition, the rock on which the glorious French industry is based, has become a bit of a millstone. Hence we're seeing helpful words like "merlot" and "sauvignon blanc" crop up on bargain bottles of Bordeaux where grapes previously dared not speak their name. Some companies are creating fresh brands using English words. One of wine's greatest salesmen, Georges Duboeuf, who gave the world Beaujolais nouveau, recently scored a hit with a line called Hob Nob, complete with heavy social-media support.
So far, though, the overtures have largely been confined to mass-market offerings, not higher-end wines where France's byzantine appellation system, based largely on village and vineyard hierarchies, still enjoys currency with in-the-know consumers. Intimidated by the word Vacqueyras? Too bad pour vous. Go back to shiraz and kangaroos.
Well, not so fast. How does "The Vac" grab you? The name is rap-style slang for Vacqueyras, an appellation of the southern Rhône Valley known for powerful, savoury reds that tend to cost between $18 and $35. Launched in Ontario last week, the red wine is part of a range created for the U.S. market by a company called Gourmet Passions, which, according to a press release, launched the venture as "a direct response to the growing sentiment from young wine consumers that French wines, although well-respected, are seen as specialty items and can be overly complex."
Encountering a name like The Vac, you could be forgiven for half expecting a sketch of a Hoover upright on the label. But at least the bottle is also free of dusty castles. In a similarly condensed vein, there's a wine called The Gig (short for the neighbouring Gigondas appellation) and – wait for it – a red called Chat09. The latter is meant to be pronounced in French, as in Chat-o-neuf, for Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the famous southern Rhône district near Vacqueyras and Gigondas. Gourmet Passions doesn't make the wines. It outsources production to a 300-year-old family firm in the area called Arnoux et Fils. In other words, old wine in new bottles.
But it's good old wine. Ironically, as I took a sip of The Vac, I prepared myself for a letdown. I love gutsy, spicy, herbaceous Vacqueyras and live in fear that global consultants will march in and put the wines through their smooth-merlot meat grinders. New label notwithstanding, The Vac sucks not in the least. Made from grenache, syrah and mourvèdre, it is, in fact, pretty classic, laced with rich raspberry, smoke and mineral, all tightened up by good acidity and fine tannins. It would be a fine accompaniment to leg of lamb or braised red meats. Will it render one of France's undervalued premium appellations suddenly hip? I wouldn't bet on it. For one thing, it doesn't taste like Australian shiraz.
The Vac Vacqueyras 2009 (France)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95
Crafted by family firm Arnoux et Fils, this red blend of grenache, syrah and mourvèdre is full-bodied and concentrated, with perfect ripeness, flavours of raspberry, smoke and minerals, framed by pepper, fine tannins and solid acidity. Available in Ontario.
Domaine Bachey-Legros Chassagne-Montrachet Vieilles Vignes 1er Cru Morgeot 2009 (France)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $53.95
Complex white Burgundy, with smoky-reductive notes dancing over tropical fruit, roasted nuts and baked apple, all carried on silky-rich texture. Pair it with substantial fish dishes or chicken in cream sauce.
Mendel Malbec 2009 (Argentina)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $24.95
A dynamite old-vines malbec, smooth, chunky and ripe, with notes of plum and spice framed by sticky tannins and bracing mineral on the finish. Grilled beef would match beautifully.
Pascual Toso Alta Reserve Malbec 2008 (Argentina)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $31.95
Inky purple and succulent, with candied grape-gum quality answered nicely by savoury notes of spice and aromatic herbs. Cellar it for four to six years to tame its youthful, confected fruit and it should pay dividends.
Le Gravillas Plan de Dieu Côtes du Rhône-Villages 2009 (France)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $14.95
This is ambitious Côtes du Rhône, far better than most at its price, serving up soft, succulent red fruit, herbs, pencil shavings, a hint of barnyard and sticky tannins. Great for lamb shanks. Available in Ontario.
Eradus Sauvignon Blanc 2010 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $17.95
This wine delivers everything we've come to expect from Marlborough-region sauvignon blanc, in fine balance. Expect grapefruit and plump tropical fruit lifted by just the right amount of herbs and relatively moderate acidity. It is ideal for light seafood dishes and nice on its own.
Montebuena Rioja 2009 (Spain)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $12.95
Medium-full-bodied and earthy, this big Spanish bargain offers notes of cigar tobacco, forest floor and light, fine-grained tannins. It is a good red for herb-crusted leg of lamb. $15.99 in B.C.
Château Bertin 2006 (France)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $17.95
Fine Bordeaux for the money, this red from Lussac-Saint-Émilion delivers smooth, dark fruit, bitter chocolate and a dance of minerals. It is a nicely balanced package that would go well with roast beef, though it could improve with five years in the cellar.
KWV Chenin Blanc Chardonnay 2011 (South Africa)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $7.95
Slightly off-dry, showing fleshy, ripe peach tucked in by almost effervescent acidity. A big bargain and suitable for sushi or chili-and-citrus-marinated shrimp on the grill. $7.99 in B.C.