By Celia Strong
Many readers, in the last couple of years, have asked for wines from southern France. And not just any wines, but wines that were sampled during visits to this area. And, further, not just wines from the area, but good ones that didn’t cost much while there. Of course, if some of the wines were available here before, they sure weren’t available at good prices. But, now, finally, we’ve found some — the little appellations from the Lanquedoc-Roussillon area that are really good wines when their prices are right. (Obviously they aren’t as good when they cost too much, right?)
So, let’s look at the Lanquedoc-Roussillon, quickly, and then two smaller appellations in the area. I suspect you will recognize them as soon as we get there.
History of the region
Lanquedoc-Roussillon is a fairly large area, more than 10,000 square miles. It is located in southern France with a border along Spain and Mediterranean coastline that runs eastward to Provence. Historically, and hence politically, the area is a mumbo jumbo of cultures and languages. Before the 20th century, Occitan was the language spoken in Lanquedoc and Catalan was spoken in Roussillon. In the wine industry, this diversity (to use a positive word for it) resulted in many sub-zones, styles and grape varieties. The Lanquedoc has belonged to France since the 13th century and the Roussillon was acquired from Spain in the mid-17th century. (The two regions were joined into one administrative unit in the late 1980’s.) There are about 700,000 acres of vineyards in the area now, which makes this the largest wine-producing area in France. Actually, they make more wine than the whole United States.
Wines in this appellation can be traced back to the Greeks in the 5th century BC. These vineyards, along with some in Provence, are the oldest in France. From the 4th century through the 18th and early 19th, Lanquedoc had a reputation for high quality wines. In the 14th century, in Paris, certain wines were prescribed for their healing powers. Lucky patients! In the late 19th century, with the coming of the Industrial Age and mass production techniques, wine makers started making as much as they could, to the detriment of quality. They used high yielding grape varieties and even blended in red wines from Algeria to make more and more. Phylloxera invasions in the 19th century hit these vineyards like the rest of France, but American rootstock that was resistant to phylloxera and was used to replant other vineyard regions did not grow well in the limestone soil here. Instead, replanting was done with lower quality rootstocks from Amaron, Alicante Bouschet (one of the only varieties that actually has red juice) and Carignan vines.
But, Carignan is one of the grapes in one of our wines this week so we’re going to skip forward to it and some other varieties that grow in Lanquedoc-Roussillon. Carignan is a high yielding grape, believed to have originated in Spain (Carinena). Once it was used as part of Rioja red wines. From Spain it moved to Algeria and, then, into southern France. In wine making, Carignan is usually a blending grape, used for its deep color. It is usually blended with Cinsaut, Grenache, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Mourvedre, many of these planted across southern France. Old vine Carignan, though, like from Corbieres (anyone recognize this appellation?) can make exceptional wines.
Another, also lesser known, grape of Lanquedoc-Roussillon wines is Mourvedre. This variety is also probably from Spain (known as Mataro and Monastrell there) and is also used across southern France. This grape tends to make wines with a lot of tannins and high alcohol levels. And some experts say wines with Mourvedre have gamey and earthy notes in them and soft red fruit flavors. It is a harder grape to grow than Carignan because it likes lots of sun on the grapes themselves, which means viewer leaves on the vines and wet roots. Of course, too much sun and too much water on the roots are just as bad as not enough.
ABOUT THE WINES
Our two wines this week come from Gerard Bertrand. Born in 1965, Bertrand got his first wine experience from his father, Georges, at the age of 10 — a grape harvest at Domaine de Villermajou in Corbieres. At 19, Gerard started his rugby career and that lasted for 10 years and included being captain of the Stade Francais rugby team, all the while continuing work with his father. Georges died in 1987, and Gerard set up his Gerard Bertrand company, the name of our winery today. In 2002, the company took over Chateau l’Hospitalet. This became the center for his wine business, the flagship label of his wines and the center for his annual jazz festival. In 2006, the Lanquedoc-Roussillion region adopted a “marque,” or slogan we might call it — “Sud de France”(southern France). This “marque” is used to help consumers recognize the region, not only for its wines, but cheeses, olives oils and pies. Bertrand’s jazz festival, held at the Chateau l’Hospitalet, helps promote everything the Lanquedoc area has to offer.
So, our first wine is the Bertrand Corbieres. It is made from 40% Syrah, 40% Grenache and 20% Mourvedre. Corbieres is the largest appellation in southern France and the fourth largest in France. As stretched out as it is, there are variations in wine styles throughout because of different soil types and micro-climates. For this Corbieres, only very ripe grapes are selected. These are de-stemmed before they go into vats to macerate for 10 to 15 days. Each of the three grape varieties are fermented separately and then blended after they see what each wine is on its own. The blend is aged in French oak barrels for eight months.
The wine is dark ruby in color with rich and concentrated black fruit aromas. The flavors are black fruits and red berries with subtle baking spice and vanilla undertones. It’s full-bodied with a nice round mouth-feel and a long, long finish. At $9.99 we finally have a Corbieres just like they have in France. Big, rich red wine at an every day price!
And, wine number two is the Bertrand Minervois — another appellation some of you have been looking for. This wine is 50% Syrah and 50% Carignan. Of this week’s two wines, I suspect this is my favorite, but another tasting is going to have to happen to be sure. Darn! These grapes are all picked by hand and, again, each wine is made separately and then blended. Partial carbonic maceration is done with both wines. It is aged in Bordeaux barrels for eight months and then aged in the bottle for several more months before its release.
The black fruit flavors are also up front in this wine, along with black olives. It is richer and more elegant than the Corbieres, with aromas that include prunes, roasted coffee and black currants. As you swirl your glass of this Minervois, you can picture yourself in the Lanquedoc-Roussillon. Maybe even at the jazz festival? (Close your eyes and try. The 14+ percent alcohol will help!) This wine is a steal at $11.99.
There you are. Finally, “Sud de France” wines like you get to drink when you’re there, and priced right. Enjoy!