Friday, March 13, 2009

French Wines with a Southern Exposure

For several years now, wines of France’s southern regions, most notably the Rhone and Languedoc, have been crafting wines well suited to New World wine palates. The longer growing season permits longer hang time for the grapes, thus higher sugar and higher alcohol for the wines. Longer hang time also means lower acidity and a different flavor profile for the grapes. Add to this the implementation of many modern winemaking techniques, which improves the consistency and quality of the wine.

One of the principal grapes of these regions is Syrah, which is also popular in the domestic market. The Northern Rhone makes many wines exclusively from this grape. In the Southern Rhone region, blends predominate as is typical with many French wines, and the results here are proving popular on this side of the Atlantic. Two of the key grapes used in blends are Grenache and Mourvèdre; both exhibit bold flavors and coupled with Syrah for structure make wines with bright fruit flavors, medium to full-body, and rich tannins.

Two of the most popular of these blends are Cotes-du-Rhone and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. We’ll explore Cotes-du-Rhone in this article and Châteauneuf-du-Pape in a follow-up article. If there was one wine that seemed to be ubiquitous when I explored Belgium and France in the mid-80s, it was Cotes-du-Rhone, and it became the go-to wine my fiancé, Barbara, and I bought. Inexpensive and dependable, it formed the basis of many repasts that revolved around bread, cheese, and pâté.

The Crotte du Diable Incident
One particular cheese and wine pairing always comes to mind. While exploring a castle outside Brussels with another couple the subject of strong cheeses came up. A suggestion was launched that we should try Crotte du Diable, which we were told, loosely translates to Devil’s excrement. That did give me a moment’s pause, but since I’m a certified cheesaholic, and never met a cheese I couldn’t handle, this came as a sort of challenge. Later we went to a fromagerie in Brussels to order some cheeses.

Barbara is quite conversant in French so I let her take the lead on ordering. Unfortunately, she wasn’t as conversant with the metric system. Her request for 200 kilos of cheese (about 440 lbs) prompted the counterman to ask, “Perhaps Madame has a truck outside?” When I saw the Crotte du Diable in the display case and pantomimed that I wanted it was well, I’m sure he thought we were both nuts. The round package – mercifully small as later events would prove – had an orange-yellow background with a black-accented devil holding a steaming object on one of the tines of his trident. The thing looked a lot like, er, perhaps you can guess.

The preparations for the picnic were not complete until we had a bottle of Cotes-du-Rhone, of course. We found a wonderful area on the grounds of Tervuren Park in front of an Musée Royal de l’Afrique Central with marble sculpture, a huge lawn, and a border of trees. After spreading a blanket, I opened the wine and then unpacked the Crotte du Diable, eager to taste this potent cheese. I noticed almost as soon as I opened the package that birds reversed their flight, dogs backed up whining and the sounds of insects buzzing ceased. Or maybe it was just my imagination. The watering of my eyes, I did not imagine, however.

Placing some cheese on a cracker, I was relieved to see the color at least was pale yellow and cheese-like. You’ve heard the expression, “flavor explosion”? I think this is where the term was derived. I experienced everything but sound effects. Limburger is wimpy compared to this little cheese. But I survived, at least momentarily.

Barbara said to me, “Oh, you have to try it with the wine.” Really? So I took a sip of the Cotes-du-Rhone and experienced a chemical change in the composition of the cheese that truly indicated where it got its name. Did this create a bad taste in my mouth? I wanted to rip out my tongue. If I’d looked more closely at this woman, I would have noticed the tears of pain coursing down her cheeks and the faux smile frozen on her face. Then she almost gagged as peals of laughter followed. I’d been had.

After that there was little else I could do but marry her, and try getting back at her for that nasty trick. I don’t think I ever came close, but I keep trying. I also keep trying Cotes du Rhone, but I’m much more careful about cheese pairing.

Maison Bouachon Cotes-du-Rhone
The Skalli Family Wines Americas includes the Napa-based St. Supery Winery, vineyards in Corsica, and in the Languedoc. The family came from Algeria in 1961 after Algerian independence, began growing grapes in Corsica, then Languedoc and two locations in Napa where conditions were similar to the Languedoc region. In 2001, they purchased Maison Bouachon in the Rhone valley.

I sampled their Cotes-du-Rhone “Les Rabassières” recently and was very impressed. This is a big wine, tasting like a harmonious blend of the Old and New World. Red berry fruits, tastes of violets, and prunes with a lush mouthfeel. The Grenache (60%) leads the way with 30% Syrah providing good structure, and 10% Mourvèdre for added complexity. I played it safe and paired it with a NY strip and baked potato. Besides, I’m not sure you can get Crotte du Diable without a permit these days. Salut!

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