France – Languedoc

Devil Wine Of Yes Country

22 June 2013

Prix Fixe Diable RougeI don’t think of France as a particularly tumultuous country in terms of wine. Its AOC system is well-defined and strict, meaning that when you buy a Chablis or a Beaujolais, you can be relatively certain about how that wine will taste. But in the south, in the Languedoc region in particular, things get a lot more wild and wooly. In the manner of Italy’s Super Tuscan vintners, many important Languedoc producers “ignore the AOC system completely and put most of their effort into making high-quality vins de pays,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine.

Vins de pays, or country wines, were originally intended to be simple, tasty wines which have some basic hallmarks of the region from which they came. But according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, “This category of wine includes some of the most innovative and exciting wines being produced in the world today.” The lack of restrictions in this class of wines “encouraged the more creative winemakers to produce wines that best expressed their terroir without being hampered by an overregulated AOC system…” the Encyclopedia goes on to say.

The most successful of the vins de pays, according to the Encyclopedia, is the Vin de Pays d’Oc, which encompasses the entire southwest coast of France from Spain almost to Avignon. The refreshingly easy-to-pronounce name means, rather strangely, “wine of the yes country.” In the ancient local Occitan language, “oc” is used for “yes” instead of “oui,” so if you’re in oc country, you know you’re in the south (though you’ll be hard pressed to find an Occitan speaker nowadays, thanks to France’s policy of stamping out any language or dialect that wasn’t high French, which continues even now to a certain extent).

I’m very fond of this unruly region of France, and thus it was with pleasure that I received a complimentary sample of a Vin de Pays d’Oc, especially because it was made from a grape variety I’d never heard of: Marselan. Created in 1961 and authorized for Vin de Pays d’Oc use just 23 years ago, this crossing of Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache Noir was created specifically for the Languedoc terroir, and it “can offer respectable levels of both color and flavor,” according to the Oxford Companion.

I therefore opened the 2011 Prix Fixe “Diable Rouge” Marselan with high hopes (“respectable” in Oxford Companion terms usually means “quite good” to the rest of us). This wine from the Pays Cathare region of Languedoc is imported by a Napa winery called Spelletich Family Wine Co., and Barb Spelletich explained in an e-mail to me how a California winery became involved with a Marselan from Languedoc:

We were looking for a wine to import from France and a friend of ours, a broker in France who works for Scodex, Nicholas Reble introduced us to this grape. I was intrigued with the facts about Marselan… This Marselan is grown and produced by Cantalric co-op servicing the region of Pays Cathare. This region is bordering the Mediterranean Sea up to the Alaric mountain… I love the combination of Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon. The flavors are very intriguing.

Intriguing indeed. It has an aroma that’s both darkly fruity and earthy — one friend I tasted the wine with detected a note of barnyard in the nose, and another remarked, “It reminds me of Asian preserved plum, oh, but don’t write that down — no one will know what it means.” Maybe not, but it certainly sounds enticing to me.

On the palate, the wine has ample fruit tempered by earthy undertones. It tasted meaty, hearty and spicy, with an aromatic finish of cherry pie. Some in the group thought the wine’s earthy character dominated, but I found the earth and fruit to be very well-balanced. It packs a lot of flavor, this red devil, making it a fine example of what wild and wooly Languedoc can produce, and very fine value at $18 per bottle.


2011 Prix Fixe “Diable Rouge” Marselan: Darkly fruity, earthy and fun, ideal for a summer barbeque. Be sure to chill in the refrigerator for 15 to 30 minutes to bring it down to cellar temperature.

Price: $18, and a fine value at that.

Find It: You might not see this wine in your local shop, since only 416 cases were produced, but you can purchase it on the Spelletich website.

Philadelphia Degustation – Part 1

25 July 2012
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Philadelphia may mix a mean cocktail, but the wine scene isn’t too shabby either. I was delighted to discover that most restaurants I visited had something unusual on their wine-by-the-glass menus, and I availed myself of the opportunity to try a number of deliciously odd vintages.

For your vicarious pleasure, a six-course tasting menu complete with wine pairings:

COURSE 1: Languedoc Blanc de Blancs

To start, a non-vintage Jean-Louis Denois Brut Blanc de Blancs from France’s Languedoc region, sampled at Le Bec Fin. A wine from this rather humble region seemed almost out of place at this relentlessly formal restaurant, where a bust of Marie Antoinette peers unironically at diners through cascades of crystal chandeliers. Even today, inconsistent Languedoc produces vast seas of boring vin ordinaire as well as exciting terroir-focused varietals (unusual in a country known mostly for blends).

In keeping with Languedoc fashion, this varietal sparkling wine is 100% Chardonnay, as indicated by the words “Blanc de Blancs” on the label. My initial feelings of suspicion were quickly assuaged. The wine had a rather green aroma, and it started tight and tart on the palate before opening up into flavors of apples and yeast. Bubbles felt prickly but elegantly small. Delicious. It cut right through the richness of some seared Hudson Valley foie gras, making for an excellent pairing. Even so, it’s hard to get over the eye-popping $19 per-flute price tag. That’s the average price for an entire bottle, according to Wine Searcher! Well, I suppose Le Bec Fin has to pay for all that gilt somehow.

COURSE 2: Grüner Veltliner

Next, a refreshing glass of Austria’s most famous variety, Grüner Veltliner, sipped at farm-to-table sensation Talula’s Garden. This food-friendly variety has a murky and fascinating history. Genetic testing revealed that one of its parents was Traminer, but the other parent remained a mystery for some time, until (at least according to Wikipedia) its other parent was found in the year 2000. Only a single vine of this parent variety remained, barely clinging to life in an overgrown pasture. Apparently, there are plans to try cultivating this mystery variety in the near future, and I can’t help but feel pretty darn excited about that.


Next, Part 2: Next

5 July 2011
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…With expectations shooting high enough to punch a hole in the ozone layer, we passed through the vestibule connecting The Aviary to Next and entered the restaurant. Our chairs pulled ceremonially from the table, we settled into two of the most coveted seats in American restaurantdom and took in the scene.

A latticed appliqué covered the front windows, focusing all attention within, and a length of Eiffelesque metal undulated along the ceiling. Braced by ribs arcing to the walls, it looked like the spine of some steampunk cetacean. Above that, thick metal disks punctured by glowing circles of glass evoked manhole covers.

Beneath the industrial-age whale spine and sewer-chic light fixtures, luxury reigned, with padded silvery walls, immaculate table linens and gold-rimmed china plates. If you’ve ever fancied a seven-course gourmet meal in subterranean Paris, this is the place for you.

The expense may give you pause, but that’s the least of your worries. Securing reservations at one of the most talked-about restaurants in the country can be tricky. To get in, you must buy tickets through Next’s website, as if you were attending an opera or, more accurately, a blockbuster rock concert.

According to Next’s Facebook page, they received 1,000,000 hits on their website within an eight-day period, and tables are available on the website for an average of one second. It goes on to estimate that about 3,400 people compete for the restaurant’s 16 tables — 16 tables — each day new reservations are released.

If you’re lucky enough to obtain tickets, they already include the meal, tax and gratuity in the price (as well as the wine pairing, if you so choose). No money is exchanged at the restaurant, and the tickets are non-refundable.

I feel somewhat awkward about describing the rest of our experience, because we dined at Next the very last evening they were serving the “Paris, 1906 — Escoffier at the Ritz” menu, composed of recipes from Auguste Escoffier’s monumental Le Guide Culinaire, the bedrock of classic French cuisine. Grant Achatz and his team are currently fine-tuning a new Thai menu, with the first practice dinner reportedly happening tonight (July 5).

I’ll describe the experience of “Paris 1906” nevertheless, as a record of the event and as an example of the kind of experience you can expect at Next. And goodness knows, if you want that experience, start working on getting tickets as soon as you can.


Lip Stinger

29 June 2011

I helped staff a booth at a local street festival this past weekend, and though I appreciate the work of the organization, I knew their cocktail selection would likely be suspect. So as not to be stuck with the cheap vodka and imitation lemonade of years past, I perused my wine collection for something inexpensive, bright and cheery (and not too alcoholic — it was barely noon).

I found just what I was looking for in a bottle of 2009 La Chapelle de la Bastide Picpoul de Pinet. After chilling it for 45 minutes in the freezer, I tossed it in my backpack and hopped on my bike.

The cocktail selection in the booth proved as dire as my predictions: Vodka and Sierra Mist. Hardly the worst mixture one could concoct, but it exuded a whiff of frathouse improvisation. I opened my Picpoul.

Picpoul de Pinet is quite an unusual cru in France, in that it’s named after a variety, Picpoul, as well as a place, Pinet (most French appellations refer only to geography). It’s no surprise this cru, just west of the canal-laced town of Sète, is set in the heart of the rather wild and wooly wine appellation of Coteaux du Languedoc, “France’s most anarchic wine region,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. Perhaps only here could a variety work its name into the French AOC system.

Picpoul (also written as “Piquepoul,” which means “lip stinger,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine) dates back to at least the 17th Century, according to the Picpoul de Pinet website, when it was already recognized as a quality variety. It apparently waned in popularity due to its low yields and suceptibility to fungus, notes Wikipedia (without citing any sources), but it’s relatively easy to obtain now.

But enough of that — this is supposed to be a fun, festival wine. I cracked it open, poured a generous helping into a clear plastic cup and held it up to the sun. A beautiful yellow-green, this wine looked like summer. The back label claimed “wild roses” on the nose, but I detected only green apples. The wine tasted satisfyingly bright, with apples and juicy lemons, before closing with a pleasantly chalky finish. Sunny and fun, this wine surely reflected its terroir near the coast of southwestern France.

It certainly beat Vodka + Sierra Mist.


2009 La Chapelle de la Bastide Picpoul de Pinet: Fun, bright and juicy, with a hint of minerality. A great value summer white.

Grade: B

Find It: This bottle was purchased on sale at Whole Foods Market Evanston South for $5.50, but $9.00 is a more representative price.