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Good values from south of France

Good values from south of France

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Americans are always looking for something new, the next big thing, the undiscovered star, designer, iPhone app or whatever. So it might seem strange to look to France - the stodgy, hidebound homeland of fine wine, with its rigid classifications and appellation laws - as a source of innovation in wine. Yet the southern provinces of Languedoc and Roussillon have shown tremendous improvement in quality over the past decade, and they remain a great source of high-value wine at reasonable prices.

Languedoc and Roussillon have a reputation for producing massive quantities of inferior wine. With modern winemaking techniques and capital, these regions still produce boatloads, but the cheap wine is getting better. In part that's because big French wine names from other regions are investing in Languedoc's cheap vineyard land to produce bargain wines that anchor their portfolios. Foreign companies, too, are investing, including Gallo, which markets the Red Bicyclette wines.

You may have enjoyed some other Languedoc wines under cute brand names, such as Arrogant Frog, Petit Bistro or Fat Bastard, among others. There has even been a whiff of scandal, which shows how important this sector of the market has become. French and U.S. authorities are investigating whether pinot noir exported from Languedoc to the United States actually was pinot noir. They haven't determined which brands, if any, were sold as fraudulent pinot, but Languedoc is not exactly known for the grape, so suspicions run high.

The real excitement lies in the various sub-appellations of Languedoc and Roussillon, such as Corbieres, Faugeres, Fitou, Saint-Chinian, Minervois and Cabardes, and the broader Coteaux du Languedoc. Here, the traditional Rhone Valley grapes of grenache, syrah, mourvedre, carignan and cinsault feature in various combinations, often with a splash of cabernet or merlot for added interest.

The French magazine La Revue du Vin de France lavished patronizing praise on Languedoc in its July-August issue. “No other region in France has made as much progress as the wines of Languedoc over the past 10 years,” the magazine said. (Presumably no other region had to.) The wonderful 1998 vintage surprised “local vintners” with the potential of their formidable terroirs, and, in the decade since, improvements in blending and aging their wines have enabled a few leading domaines to shake off the inferiority complex that haunts the region. So the magazine says.

La RVF, as it calls itself, listed what its tasters considered the best 100 red wines from Languedoc. Bringing the magazine home with me from a visit to France this summer, I decided to explore Languedoc wines available here. I found a few that were on La RVF's list of favorites and a few others from producers that were on the list.

Some of the wines I would call “modernized traditional:” modernized in that the quality is high, traditional in that alcohol levels stay under 14 percent with little or no noticeable new oak. An example of this style is the delightful Ermitage du Pic St. Loup Cuvee Sainte Agnes 2005 from Coteaux du Languedoc ($23), imported by Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant of Berkeley, Calif. It is fresh and herbaceous, with herbal notes of the “garrigue” -that heady mix of aromas, especially sage and thyme, that conjures southern France - and an appealing citrusy note of orange peel. The 2006 of this wine ranked 57th on the RVF list.

The Mas Laval 2006 from the Vin de Pays de l'Herault appellation, for example, has a gorgeous perfume of evening, a rich silky texture and new oak that is evident but comfortable in a supporting role. It is ambitiously priced at $37, but some of the same magic can be found at $19 with the 2007 “Les Pampres” bottling from the same winery.

Recommendations

Mas Laval 2006

3 stars

Vin de Pays de l'Herault, France, $37

Perfumed with evening air, this gorgeous wine offers rich texture that coats the palate like fine silk. New oak is evident but content to play a supporting role. It ranked 20th on La Revue du Vin de France's list of the best 100 reds from Languedoc.

The Mas Laval 2007 “Les Pampres” ($19, 2 stars, GREAT VALUE) is shy next to its more powerful sibling; decant it for an hour or two and let it blossom.

Murray-Sykes Selection: distributed by Nice Legs in D.C. and Maryland. Exclusive Wine Imports in Virginia.

Ermitage du Pic St. Loup, Cuvee Sainte Agnes 2005

2 1/2 stars

Coteaux du Languedoc, France, $23 GREAT VALUE

Herbaceous and fresh, deceptively light in body but long in flavor, with a hint of orange peel and intrigue. The 2006 ranked 57th on the RVF list, while another wine from this producer was 34th.

Winebow in D.C.

Castelmaure Grande Cuvee

“Vendanges Humaine” 2006

2 stars

Corbieres, France, $23

Deep aromas of thyme, olives and sage speak of the traditional garrigue character of wines from southern France, yet this wine has an impressive richness that should appeal to fans of New World wines.

Kysela.

Chateau Coupe Roses “Granaxa” 2007

2 stars

Minervois, France, $25

According to importer Roy Cloud, “the important thing about this estate is that the wine is made by a woman, so you can trust it.” Okaaaay. … But this grenache-based wine is also grown in the highest part of the Minervois appellation, which gives it bright fruit and good acidity for structure and balance.

Vintage 59/Country Vintner.

Chateau de Caladroy, Cuvee Saint Michel 2005

2 stars

Cotes du Roussillon, France, $26

Lavishly oaked in a New World style, this mourvedre-based blend needs a little air to settle down, but when it does reveal its fruit, it shines. Mourvedre is the main grape grown in the Bandol sector of Provence, and this should appeal to fans of the highly touted and hard-to-find wines of Bandol's Domaine Tempier.

Vintage 59/Country Vintner.

Les Hauts de la Brune 2007

2 stars

Coteaux du Languedoc, France, $15 GREAT VALUE

I love the color of this wine, deep purple but not opaque, as though I'm looking at a jewel and the summer of 2007 is reflected inside. Syrah, with grenache and mourvedre.

Kysela.

Chateau Aiguilloux, “Tradition” 2006

1 1/2 stars

Corbieres, France, $11 GREAT VALUE

Minerally, cherry fruit, nice structure and balance. A good example of the traditional style from a producer that also captured the 94th rank in La RVF with another wine.

M Touton.

Chateau Jouclary, Cuvee Tradition 2006

1 1/2 stars

Cabardes, France, $10 GREAT VALUE

Musky, herbal garrigue notes, light in body but with refreshing acidity and good fruit unmasked by oak.

Wine Traditions.

Recommendations

Mas Laval 2006

3 stars

Vin de Pays de l'Herault, France, $37

Perfumed with evening air, this gorgeous wine offers rich texture that coats the palate like fine silk. New oak is evident but content to play a supporting role. It ranked 20th on La Revue du Vin de France's list of the best 100 reds from Languedoc.

The Mas Laval 2007 “Les Pampres” ($19, 2 stars, GREAT VALUE) is shy next to its more powerful sibling; decant it for an hour or two and let it blossom.

Murray-Sykes Selection: distributed by Nice Legs in D.C. and Maryland. Exclusive Wine Imports in Virginia.

Ermitage du Pic St. Loup, Cuvee Sainte Agnes 2005

2 1/2 stars

Coteaux du Languedoc, France, $23 GREAT VALUE

Herbaceous and fresh, deceptively light in body but long in flavor, with a hint of orange peel and intrigue. The 2006 ranked 57th on the RVF list, while another wine from this producer was 34th.

Winebow in D.C.

Castelmaure Grande Cuvee

“Vendanges Humaine” 2006

2 stars

Corbieres, France, $23

Deep aromas of thyme, olives and sage speak of the traditional garrigue character of wines from southern France, yet this wine has an impressive richness that should appeal to fans of New World wines.

Kysela.

Chateau Coupe Roses “Granaxa” 2007

2 stars

Minervois, France, $25

According to importer Roy Cloud, “the important thing about this estate is that the wine is made by a woman, so you can trust it.” Okaaaay. … But this grenache-based wine is also grown in the highest part of the Minervois appellation, which gives it bright fruit and good acidity for structure and balance.

Vintage 59/Country Vintner.

Chateau de Caladroy, Cuvee Saint Michel 2005

2 stars

Cotes du Roussillon, France, $26

Lavishly oaked in a New World style, this mourvedre-based blend needs a little air to settle down, but when it does reveal its fruit, it shines. Mourvedre is the main grape grown in the Bandol sector of Provence, and this should appeal to fans of the highly touted and hard-to-find wines of Bandol's Domaine Tempier.

Vintage 59/Country Vintner.

Les Hauts de la Brune 2007

2 stars

Coteaux du Languedoc, France, $15 GREAT VALUE

I love the color of this wine, deep purple but not opaque, as though I'm looking at a jewel and the summer of 2007 is reflected inside. Syrah, with grenache and mourvedre.

Kysela.

Chateau Aiguilloux, “Tradition” 2006

1 1/2 stars

Corbieres, France, $11 GREAT VALUE

Minerally, cherry fruit, nice structure and balance. A good example of the traditional style from a producer that also captured the 94th rank in La RVF with another wine.

M Touton.

Chateau Jouclary, Cuvee Tradition 2006

1 1/2 stars

Cabardes, France, $10 GREAT VALUE

Musky, herbal garrigue notes, light in body but with refreshing acidity and good fruit unmasked by oak.

Wine Traditions.

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