By Celia Strong
Time for another glass of wine. Yay! For this week, we are off to southern France — the number of new wines coming from this area is almost inexhaustible. Let’s hope we’re just as inexhaustible in finding them and tasting them. Our wine this week is red, made from two grape varieties, 50 percent of each. Let’s look at each of these grapes, Grenache and Syrah, and in particular, what they do in French wines.
Grenache is one of the most widely planted red varieties in the world. This grape takes longer to ripen than many others, so it needs hot and dry growing conditions to do its best. These conditions exist in southern France, as well as in Spain and California’s San Joaquin Valley. The wines from Grenache are generally spicy with berry flavors, softly textured in your mouth, and high in alcohol. The best wines made from Grenache are the result of controlled yields (aggressive pruning on the vines). Because Grenache wines, usually, are short on acidity, tannins and color, they are often blended with Syrah, Carignan, Tempranillo and Cinsault.
In France, in the southern Rhone Valley, Grenache is the main grape red Chateaneuf-du-Papes. In these wines, it is usually over 80 percent of the blend, one of 18 varieties they are allowed to use. (In the Rhone, Grenache is also the main grape in their regional red Cotes du Rhone appellation reds and their famous rose, Tavel.) There is also a red dessert wine from this area, Banyuls, that is made from Grenache because of its high sugar content. The history of Grenache in the Rhone is closely connected to the wines of Burgundy, the region located just to the north of the Rhone. During the 17th and 18th centuries, producers in Burgundy were looking for a blending variety to add body to their lighter style red wines. This resulted in numerous plantings across the southern Rhone. And, more recently, it has spread widely throughout the Lanquedoc-Rousillon area and the Drome. And, here’s a new tidbit on this grape’s vines — the wood of the vine itself is particularly strong. This allows it to be pruned as bushes and stand up to the Mistral winds that blow across the whole area. Hot, dry winds that help Grenache grapes grow well.
Syrah, our second grape, it estimated to be the seventh most widely planted grape in the world, red and white. Also known as Shiraz, mostly in Australia, this variety is dark skinned and produces powerful wines. (We have to be careful, though, not to interchange or confuse Syrah with Petit Sirah. The latter is actually the Durif grape, mistaken for Syrah before DNA testing sorted things out.) Syrah wines have blackberry and dark chocolate flavors, along with mint, eucalyptus, smoked meat and black pepper. From hot climate vines, we also can get licorice and cloves. And, as some of these wines age, they start to show leather, earth and wet leaves, especially green tobacco leaves. (Looking at this list, I know it doesn’t sound so great to all of us, but, I for one, love those flavors and can’t find them often enough.)
Syrah has a long history in the Rhone Valley. It is the offspring of two barely known varieties from southern France, Dureza (father) and Mondeuse Blanche (mother). Both of these varieties are obscure now, with very minor plantings in the valley. Again, because of DNA testing, most experts now believe Syrah originated in the northern Rhone, because that’s where its parents were grown. The science says it can’t have come from Syracuse or the Iranian city of Shiraz, which is an old, but well-liked theory. Supposedly, in one version of Syrah’s myth, the Phocaeans brought the grape from Persia to their colony at Marseilles around 600 BC. This version does not explain its presence in the northern Rhone, nor its absence from the southern Rhone. All the other versions of Syrahs origins, too, have evidentiary problems, no science to back them up, so we’ll have to accept the Dureza/Mondeuse Blanche one.
Syrah’s fame in the wine world is less confusing. The wine that made it famous comes from the northern Rhone town of Tain-Hermitage. The wine, Hermitage, comes from the hill above the town. “Hermitage” is a French word for “chapel.” After his crusades, de Sterimberg is supposed to have settled as a hermit on the top of this hill in the chapel that was built there. For centuries, Hermitage wines had great reputations for their quality and power. During the 18th and 19th centuries, these wines attracted a lot of interest from foreign oenophiles, including Thomas Jefferson. Part of its fame and popularity, at this time, was based on the use of Hermitage as a blending wine, especially in Bordeaux. This was all before the appellation laws were enacted, and red wines from warmer climates were often used to pump up the lighter-bodied red wines from cooler areas. (Wines from Spain and Algeria were also used.) Because of their power and strength, Syrah wines can age for decades. But, less extracted styles can be enjoyed young. These have red and blueberry flavors with milder tannins.
One of Thomas Jefferson’s well-known wine quotes is, “Good wine is a necessity of life for me.” Really, he wouldn’t have died from a lack of wine, but it was important in his life. He traveled through many French wine regions, enjoying all they had to offer, including the everyday lifestyle that came with the wines from these regions. It is this lifestyle — good wines and fresh foods — that is the basis for the company that makes this week’s wine for us. For good wines, Hand Picked Selections, founded in 1985, works to provide moderately priced wines with good flavors and character. Somehow, they know we can’t all afford high priced wines for everyday drinking. Duh! Modern technology in the wine business means consistency for all price levels of wine. And, Hand Picked specializes in finding independent growers who harvest and vinify their own grapes. This means their wines are unique, characteristic of their origins, and affordable. Even one of their best wines, the Chateauneuf-du-Pape from Domaine de Pegau (a 96 to 98 point wine) is fairly priced in the world of great Chateauneufs.
Our wine, Plume Bleue, is made by this same Chateauneuf Domaine de Pegau. Plume Bleue is half Grenache and half Syrah. Currently, Laurence Ferraud is the family member making their wines, trained by her father Paul. (Yes! Her! )This wine is medium-bodied, full of red fruit (cherry) flavors and mild tannins. Interestingly, this red wine is not oaked.
I have sipped glasses from the same bottle for five days now. Not that any of us normally have a bottle last that long, but it’s good to know, if we don’t open them all immediately, they will age well. Over the five days, all the flavors and textures have held together beautifully. And what about wine’s name? Plume Bleue means “blue pen” in French. The label has a little picture of an old feather quill pen, and there’s even a bright blue screw top (helps it last longer once you open it). So, taste this wine for $8.99. And sign off on it in blue ink. Enjoy.
By Celia Strong