Value Vino - Great wines for under $15
There are more than 700,000 acres of grapevines under cultivation in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of Southwestern France, making it possibly the world’s largest wine-producing area. Most of us have never heard of it, and for good reason: Until recently, the Languedoc has been producing plonk, or to put it even more colloquially, the kind of wine a French friend refers to as “Un gros rouge qui tache” a coarse red that stains.
But in the late 1980s, visionary winemakers and negociants finally saw the potential benefit of producing better wines. Says wine critic and The Wine Bible author Karen MacNeil, “Year after year, wine quality increased by leaps and bounds while prices stayed low. The Languedoc quickly became, and has largely remained, a paradise for bargain hunters seeking easy-to-drink French wines ... ”
One of the people responsible for this whirlwind transformation is Dallas-based Martin Sinkoff. Though now representing properties worldwide, Sinkoff’s Languedoc presence is most closely tied to Les Vignerons du Val d’Orbieu, a huge cooperative, where his flagship Reserve St. Martin wines bear varietal labels such as Cabernet and Chardonnay, a practice not possible in more tightly controlled appellations. The more modest Selection St. Martin wines bear only Vin de Pays de l’Aude blanc or rouge labels, however, and don’t pretend to be anything more than everyday wines. The white is made from a field blend of grapes that includes chardonnay; it’s light in character with maybe a little quince or melon that shades into lemon with more chilling. The red is also a field blend that includes cabernet and syrah, and shows spicy, warm fruit hinting of dried cherry or black currant although, the flavors disappear so quickly, excessive analysis is not required. Buy the youngest release available, chill slightly, and enjoy.
The Reserve line, bottled in screw cap, includes a cabernet that’s worthy of more reflection. Definitely not a massive, California-style cabernet, the 2002 revealed nuances that ranged from tobacco and licorice to plum jam and pencil lead. The 2003 Merlot, however, was bursting with bright, juicy fruit raspberry, cherry; you name it, it was there in spades suggesting that the newer the better in this line as well. Presumably more age-worthy, the 1998 Val d’Orbieu les Deux Rives was a little corked, and though the musty aroma dissipated with time, it had a wet-blanket effect on the fruit. Regardless, cassis, blackberry, and even pine needles were evident through the haze. A 1999 Jaja de Jau (jaja meaning everyday wine in regional slang) of syrah and grenache was frankly over the hill, so, repeat the mantra: Buy young.
There are fine, age-worthy wines from Languedoc, of course, they’re just beyond Value Vino’s scope. But there is a dessert wine, sold in 500 ml bottles, that would be worth seeking out whatever the price. Red and lightly fortified with clear brandy, Banyuls is a regional classic, and the 2001 les Clos de Paulilles Banyuls Rimage is a delight. It may lack the gravitas of Port, but it doesn’t lack for appealing flavor, including coffee, cocoa, and dried red fruits. •