When I applied to work at Chambers Street Wines, I listed the Languedoc and Roussillon as regions of particular interest to me, meaning that I hoped to take part in the placement of wines from Corbières, Faugères, Saint-Chinian, Côtes Catalanes, etc… on our shelves. There were numerous reasons this detail found its way onto my resume, not the least significant of which was that it seemed unlikely that I’d get to take part in the buying decisions related to Burgundy, Champagne, Loire, Beaujolais, all of Italy, Germany, Spain, Austria… The more prestigious European buying sections were taken and, heaven forbid, I’d become a new world wine buyer.
I’d been drinking a lot of southern French wine because I could afford to. (The arrival of carbonic maceration and low sulfur wine-making to the south of France meant that I could find juicy, easy drinking Carignan, Grenache, Syrah type blends that didn’t pummel me with tannins and made good companions to Tuesday nights with some cheese and a few episodes of Gossip Girl on DVD.) Furthermore, my oldest friend’s mother owns a house in the south of France, close to Uzès, where the Rhône, Provence, and the Languedoc run together; consequently I’d spent a fair amount of time there. It seemed logical to make myself a specialist on the wines of southern France. Once enrolled at Chambers, this wine buying position soon morphed into that of “miscellaneous” French wine buyer and encompassed the southwest and Provence as well as the Jura and the Savoie in the far east (not to be discussed here).
I continue to think there’s an appeal to the notion of passionate growers in southern France making wine in marginal appellations that have little cache and are known for the cheapness and abundance of their product. All one has to do is find a bottle of Olivier Jullien’s Coteax du Languedoc with a few years of age or Mas Daumas Gassac’s white wine to realize that, without doubt, very good wine can be made in the Languedoc. However, I quickly noted a glaring problem with my position as southern French wine buyer at Chambers: though I have vast intellectual fondness for them, I don’t actually like to drink the wines. In my home, I drink more white wine than red, and the red wines I gravitate to are red wines for people who prefer white wines: 12% alcohol, delicate, aromatic wines with crunchy acidity and minerality, and an overall absence of any significant tannic structure. Case in point: a few nights ago I opened a bottle of 2010 Vézelay Rouge from Domaine Les Faverelles. I stuck my nose in the glass. “THIS… now THIS is what I like,” I ruminated, “herbs, crushed raspberries with seeds, cherry pits, cranberry, sumac, pure Pinot deliciousness.” The wine was light enough to accommodate my salad! A person like me truly has no business specializing in hot climate wines; it goes against nature.
I despaired, and the nature of my despair was complex; I was ideologically mildly opposed to the southern French wines I found myself most attracted to on a palate level. It turned out to be relatively easy to put wines on the self that I didn’t mind drinking: Axel Prüfer’s “Temps des Cerises,” Magnon’s “La Démarrante”, Matin Calme’s “Bonica Marietta” from just north of Perpignan, Sulauze’s “Les Amis” from Aix-en-Provence, to name just a few. Yet these are not traditional southern wines; their light frames and bright acidity are only possible because of temperature control and modern vinification techniques. Possessed of all the ripe aromas of southern wines, they drink like Beaujolais! In their own way, they’re spoofilated, at least no less spoofilated than a Bordeaux that drinks like a Cali Cab, right? In a store that eschews “modern” Burgundies and Bordeaux made using reverse osmosis, it seemed almost contradictory to stock the Languedoc section with these wines. Many things could be said at this juncture; it’s too complicated a conversation even to broach. Suffice it to say that I basically stopped buying southern wine and focused on the Jura and the Savoie.
Then, miraculously, a few months ago I started to take new interest in southern wine. I attribute the resurgence of my fondness for southern wine in part to my friendship with AR, a truly inspired wine professional who persistently makes me drink outside my comfort zone (think Primitivo Quiles Raspay and La Clarine Farms Mourvèdre). For AR, the Languedoc is a pet project. She has spent time with Maxime Magnon and Léon Barral; she’s traveled extensively in the region. 14% alcohol doesn’t scare her; she’ll laugh in the face of a wine at 15%! Perhaps best of all, she doesn’t succumb to widespread wine hipster-ism, which causes otherwise independent minded wine people to denigrate Big Wines as rapidly and as un-discerningly as boot-cut jeans in a world of skinny ones.
In December, AR and her friend MDC staged an event that caused many a raised eyebrow; it has come to be known as “More-Vèdre.” AR made lamb stew based on a Julia Child recipe and a group of us tasted a lineup of wines made from Mourvèdre, the black grape grown all over the Mediterranean from Provence to southern Spain. I think of this gathering as the beginning of my southern wine Renaissance, the night my fear of 14% faded.
In advance of the evening, an expression leaped to mind, an expression that dates back to my first cooking job. I was twenty or so and working the sauté station at a northern Italian restaurant in my hometown. On slow evenings I would meticulously whittle away at a chunk of carrot until it could be sliced crosswise to look like a flower. I used these carrot flowers to decorate the rims of the entrée plates. One day a co-worker strode by, a line cook with lots of tattoos and a motorcycle. He picked up one of my carrot flowers and gave it a dubious inspection: “Sophie, just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” The expression has come to mean something to the effect of “this may bring you some kind of bizarre joy, but that doesn’t make it a good idea.” This was precisely the kind of skepticism with which I contemplated “More-Vèdre.”
We commenced with three vintages of Tempier Rosé. This legendary wine comprises 50% Mourvèdre, with the rest Grenche, Carignan, and a dash of Cinsault. Most notably, this is a Rose that not only can age, but gets more interesting with time. Of the three vintages we tasted, ’08, ’09, and ’10, ’08 was the clear winner for me. A savory, cheesy wine with a definite note of caramelizing pork fat, the wine reminded me of a library release of 2007 Terrebrune Rosé that had stolen my heart a year or so ago. The fruit was there, but it had taken on a mature, burnished character. The texture was like washed silk. 2009 was the least exciting of the three; it was pretty but muted and showing some of the alcoholic burn of the vintage. 2010 had salty minerality, a long finish, and was absolutely delicious, but in a facile, primary way that made the 2008 seem all the more complex.
Next there was a non-Mourvèdre interloper in the form of 2010 Tempier Blanc. It may come as no surprise that this was my WOTN (wine of the night). This wine is mostly Clairette with portions of Ugni Blanc, Bourboulenc, and a bit of Marsanne. Made in tiny quantities, the yields are kept quite low (around 35 hectoliters/hectare) and the wine sees slightly less than a year of wood aging. Mellow, honeyed, almond-y, with notes of pine nut, this is a rich wine with good acid that has… for lack of a better word… uniquity; other wines don’t taste like this wine. And, being a Jura lover therefore a sucker for wines that taste like nuts, I was smitten.
Mussel shells cleared, rich, herby lamb meatballs having taken their place, the real Mourvèdre drinking began with two reds from Bandol: 2005 Pradeaux and 2008 Tempier. I have always thought of Pradeaux as expressing the rustic, punishing, masculine side of Bandol and Tempier as expressing the appellation’s prettier and more feminine side (didn’t think Bandol had a feminine side, eh?) Pradeaux makes you want a snowy night and a hearty cassoulet; with Tempier you can get away with lamb on the grill and ratatouille. The contrast was never more apparent. Pradeaux was black, tannic, earthy, and possessed of the very specific horsey smell of traditional Bandol; Tempier was alarmingly soft, lush, velvety, and fruity. In all honesty, the Tempier scared me. It tasted as though a demand had been put in for a young drinking Bandol and Tempier had acquiesced. Unsurprisingly, the Pradeaux was great with the meatballs, and the Tempier was too jammy for them.
Lamb stew on the table, served alongside a salad I made but cannot take conceptual credit for of mixed escarole, arugula, lettuce, dill fronds, and thinly sliced red onion in a mustard vinaigrette, we devoted the rest of our evening to a vertical of Primitivo Quiles Raspay. (That’s five vintages of the wine: 2001-2005… a lot of Mourvèdre, or “Monastrell” as the grape is known is Spain.) My first encounter with Raspay was with the 2001 vintage. I drank it at Terroir East Village. The bartender described it as “oaky, high alcohol, oxidative wine from southern Spain;” in other words, lots of things I don’t like rolled into one dark reddish brown glass. Low and behold, I loved the wine and I pondered its strange mixture of savory, chocolate-y, prune-y qualities for a long time after the first taste. I wish I could offer some elucidation as to how this wine becomes the total anomaly it is, but the website gives me the message “página en construcción” and the importer’s site merely tells me that the Bodega is the oldest in Alicante and that the top wine, “Fondillon,” matures in a solera that dates back to 1948.
2001 Raspay was the way I remembered it: dried fruits, strange maderized flavors, and the kind of alcoholic heat that is reminiscent of port. 2002-2004 are a blur, which one would expect after such a vast quantity of 15% alcohol wine, but 2005 Raspay, a Ruby Port-like dream, lingers in my mind. At the wine’s core is a deep sense of sweet, red fruits like cherries and damson plum jam, one of my favorite flavors of Bonne Maman. You have to be in the mood; it may be best to view this wine the way you’d view a Port: drink it with Saint-Agur, an extra creamy, texturally unforgettable blue cheese, but do drink the wine. In all its big, full-blown, unsubtle glory, it’s a delicious wine.
I guess the moral of the story is that for every ten bottles of Faverelles, there can (and should) be a bottle of Primitivo Quiles…