by Everett Hutt
February 27, 2007
One of the many pleasures of living in France — and Paris, in particular — is that there are endless interesting regional wines to explore. Many, many restaurants — from humble cafés to great Michelin-starred establishments — take pride in trying to bring you something special, something new, something different, or just plain good value. The key to this adventure is to hand yourself fully over to the sommelier or restaurant owner. If you are lucky, you will hit gold.
Take note that France is not completely a wine paradise. I have had more than my fair share of really bad wine in France (just pick up a box wine from the local supermarket priced at about one Euro and you will see what I mean). The biggest frustration for wine lovers in France, however, is the lack of wine selections from the rest of the world. Want an unbelievably crisp German Riesling? A wonderful chewy Cab from the US or Australia? The warmth of most Italian Reds? Then do not come to France. These wines are nearly impossible to find. But what you can find in France is far beyond what is readily available in many other countries – and far beyond what you read about in most international papers and wine reviews.
The wines I am about to introduce you to will infuriate you. I doubt most of them can be found on the retail market outside of France, let alone within France. In fact, their entire production might well have been reserved for the restaurant where I tasted them.
I start with a coincidence. I was dining with a friend at a simple but hearty steak house — open 24/7 and just off the Champs-Elysées — with a superb wine list (La Maison de L’Aubrac, 37 rue Marbeuf, 75008; +18.104.22.168.05.14). In the mood for adventure, I asked the sommelier to chose “quelque chose bien intéressant” to go with our steaks. He came back with a 2000 Côtes du Roussillon Villages from Domaine Gauby. The result was stunning. This is a hearty mix of Syrah, Grenache and Carignan like it should be, bursting with berry fruit flavors and restrained tannins. And it will only get better as it ages. It has at least another five years to go.
About ten days later, I was at a completely different venue — a high-end fish restaurant. Again, I asked the sommelier to surprise me, and once again out came a Domaine Gauby wine. This time it was their 2004 Vin de Pays des Côtes de Catalanes. This wine was an unusual blend of grapes (Muscat and Macabeo), but one that resulted in a lovely mix of chalky minerality and honey sweetness. It was a perfect match for the fish selections my friends and I were having.
A final note on Domaine Gauby, a few months later, I tried the 1999 Côtes du Roussillon Villages as a comparison. While not as complex a wine, it was already at its peak. I also tried the 2000 Côtes du Roussillon “Vieilles Vignes.” The latter term means “old vines” in French and is often used to denote that the wine is supposed to be of superior quality. However, in this case, I found that the Syrah, Grenache and Carignan had lost its youth and left the wine a bit flabby.
My second set of wines comes from Burgundy, which is my favorite area of France both for visits and for its wines. When it comes to ordering in restaurants, however, I usually shy away from them, since, even when they come directly from the producers, Burgundy can be horribly expensive (unless you are fortunate enough to have an unlimited budget).
Nevertheless, I was able to discover some good values recently. The first was a 2003 Bourgogne Aligoté from Domaine Fleurot-Larose. The Aligoté grape is a lesser-known white grape of Burgundy. Long relegated to second place behind the super-star Chardonnay, it often merited this second-class treatment, producing highly acidic, slightly bitter, dry whites. The French mostly use it now for mixing with cassis (blackcurrant liqueur) to create Kir, a pleasant classic, bistro aperitif. Recent years have seen an upswing in interest in Aligoté, as a new generation of producers clearly knows how to get the most out of this grape. This Aligoté had none of the bitterness normally associated with it, but instead exuded lovely peach flavors. It lingered on the tongue for an unusually long time.
The other Burgundian surprise was more classic. This one actually was not served at a restaurant, but came straight from my wine cellar, a gift from a connoisseur friend. The 2000 Vosne-Romaneé 1er Cru from Domaine Henri Felettig was a real stunner. This Pinot Noir had lovely hints of spice overlaying silky smooth tannins. It was everything a classic burgundy should be.
Switching back to the south of France again, the Gaillac region has long been producing wines — mostly of poor to middling quality. In the past several years, however, a new generation of producers has been shaking things up. I benefited from two of these.
With friends at a wine bar (an excellent selection at La Muse Vin, 101 rue Charonne, 75011; +33.1.40.09.93.05), we were in the mood for something sparkling. The barman steered us away from Champagne and recommended a more modest Mauzac Nature from Robert and Bernard Plageoles. Not only was the price for this Gaillac gem a lot lower, so was the alcohol content at only 10.5%. Flavors on the palate were like baked apples and it was very dry. With a faint fizz, it reminded me of sparkling cider, but I cannot say I have ever had anything quite like it.
From sparkling to sweet, we stayed in Gaillac. This time, the wine was a 2004 “Grain de Folie” Gaillac Doux from Patrice Lescarret. This wine is a mix of Mauzac and Ondenc, the latter a little-planted, traditional grape from the region. The tastes were of overripe pink peaches. It was super sweet on the palate, but with enough acidity to balance it out. It is not for the faint of heart given its strength, but makes for a great tasting experience (and it went beautifully with the lemon tart I was having).
Finally, for the best value wine I have had in ages, we must go back to the Roussillon and another white wine. The 2004 Mas Lumen Vin de Pays de Cassan from Pascal Perret is a marvel. It has a pale golden color but gives off wonderful flavors of limpid butterscotch and vanilla. It lingers and lingers and lingers. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to acquire, as I have since learned. I managed to scrounge six bottles after calling the producer (who had already depleted his stock) and several distributors in France. The last distributor on my list sold me his six remaining bottles.
The moral of the story? Move to France if you love French wine. But if we must be practical, wherever you are, ask your sommelier or wine merchant to recommend something different and exciting. Even if it is not a familiar style. More often than not you will not regret it.