France. It’s one of those countries people either love or hate, or, even more often, love to hate.
I fall in the love category even if I don’t really fancy the politics and can’t quite figure out how anyone can live to old age in the country given how horrific their driving skills are.
But many people I know fall into the love to hate camp, so they invariable hate French wine, too. Such opinions might be politically driven (history is difficult to forget for some people), or simply by past experiences with bad French wine (too tannic, too austere, poorly made, etc).
That’s a shame. Too many people I know have turned away from Old World wine in favour of the New World. Sure, we’ve seen excitement coming out of California, New Zealand and Australia, so too South Africa and Chile.
But saying new regions are more interesting than established regions is like saying classic cares aren’t as fun and exciting as modern sports cars. I’d argue the frightening tendency of an older Porsche 911 to spin out at high speeds offers up plenty of excitement compared to the 2012 model with all of its traction control, but I suppose it all boils down to how you define the term.
So while many of us might see the New World as a hotbed of excitement in winemaking, can the stuffy Old World producers reinvent themselves to keep up with modern times?
You bet. And that is one thing I love about France right now, particularly in the South.
While there are plenty of producers in France who continue to turn out uninspired attempts, it’s not as though this isn’t happening elsewhere, either. But for the Languedoc-Rousillon region, which had a reputation for producing cheap mass-market wine, a renaissance has been taking place.
In 1985 big changes were set in motion in the region when it was first granted AOC status. This also happened to be the year when Madonna, the most famous of all reinventers, first started appearing in movies, first with Vision Quest (yeah, I can’t remember it either) and most notably Desperately Seeking Susan. Coincidence? I think not.
Since then, winemakers all over the region have invested in better techniques, better viticulture and much more careful winemaking. No longer can we look upon Languedoc with scorn. It is now a place where serious winemaking happens.
Another thing I adore about France is the co-operative system – when it works at its best. If you happen upon a great co-operative, you’re likely to unearth pleasant, well-made wines at more than reasonable prices.
This was the experience I had with my English friend Trev when we were in the Loire region in 2011. Spurred on by a recommendation in one of Hugh Johnson’s books, we went off in search of the co-operative known as Confrérie des Vignerons de Oilsy et Thésée. What we ended up with was bottle after bottle of vibrant, enjoyable wines that seldom cost us more than €5 each.
More recently, I had a similar experience when drinking the wines of Les Vignobles Foncalieu at a dinner the company arranged for clients and some wine writers (disclosure: the company paid for a meal a London restaurant and supplied the wine).
A slightly more commercially minded outfit than the Confrérie des Vignerons de Oilsy et Thésée, Foncalieu has manged to keep its co-operative culture while also break into the premium wine market.
Of all France’s regions, it south must be one of the most exciting, most diverse and most surprising. This is an area that has made vast improvements in quality over the years, all resulting wines that are rich, full of flavour and, more often than not, reasonably priced.
The Foncalieu wines I drank range from their Grands Vins series, all four of which originating in the Languedoc region. I also had the chance to try their white Saint-Chinian, called Petit Paradis, and their wonderful Enseduna Muscat sec 2011.
Of all of their wines, the muscat sec was the one that stood out the most. It’s an honest, crisp white wine that was harvested early, in mid-August of 2011. The winemaker described it as “like eating fresh grapes,” while I thought it had a pungent, almost gooseberry aroma, along with a grassy, almost straw-like appeal. In my notes I wrote that it reminded me of a fresh New Zealand sauvignon blanc in character, even if made from a different grape. For just £8.50, this wine is a steal.
Another one of their whites, the Petit Paradis Saint-Chinian 2010, is a blend of marsanne, grenache and roussane. This is an oaky wine thanks to being matured in barrel and is dry and refreshing. It is mineral and citrusy with a hint of marzipan.
Among the reds in the producer’s Grands Vins series, I was able to try the Apogée Saint Chinian 2008 and 2009; Le Lien Minervois 2008; Les Illustres Coteaux d’Enserune 2008; and La Lumiere Corbieres 2009.
These were all rich, interesting wines, but sadly contained in those politically incorrect heavy bottles. Packaging aside, I found most of these wines to be full of wonderful baked dark fruit flavours so typical of warm wine regions. Le Lien was young, rich and brambly, with an almost fruit cake flavour to it.
Meanwhile, Les Illustres 2008, which sells for about £20, offered up dark fruits, boiled sweets in a leaner style, almost humble and restrained. La Lumiere 2009 had fresh acidity, medium body, those baked dark fruit plus a tannic backbone. The Apogée 2008 was fresh and lean, while the 2009 version had more finesse, lots of dark fruits and a good dose of tannin, suggesting it needs a lot more time to mature.
So there you have it. Had the AOC not been granted in 1985, perhaps these wines would never have existed.