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Moderately priced 'country wines' show quality

Dave DeSimone
| Wednesday, July 28, 2004

After World War II, annual wine consumption in France reached a high of about 180 quarts per capita. To quench this massive thirst, many French wine producers churned out a steady supply of indifferent to poor-quality wines, the so-called le pinard ("cheap wine, plonk") or vin ordinaire ("ordinary wine").

As long as the wine was red, inexpensive and had the minimum 11 percent alcohol required by law, the average French wine consumer of the 1950s was satisfied to drink it to aid digestion and provide a little boost at lunch and dinner -- sometimes even before work in the morning.

Most vin ordinaire came from the southern region of the Languedoc-Roussillon, a massive swath of vineyards beginning just west of Avignon and curving along the Mediterranean Sea to Perpignan near the Pyrenees mountains on the border with Spain. Many winegrowers in this sun-baked, rugged region -- also known as the Midi -- grew high-yield crops and sold the grapes to cooperatives. The wine -- the word is used loosely in this instance -- was produced at the cooperatives, then sold to bulk shippers and commercial merchants or dealers.

Often, these dealers would blend the wine with stronger wines (so-called vin médicin ) from the French colony of Algeria before bottling and selling it under brand names.

The cooperatives had little incentive to upgrade equipment because they focused on quantity, not quality. In an effort to maintain wholesale wine prices to sustain the cooperative system, the French government exacerbated the situation by buying the co-ops' unsold inventory to distill it into industrial alcohol.

Beginning in the 1960s, and continuing today, production in the Languedoc-Roussillon has changed dramatically, thanks to the French government and forward-looking winegrowers. There are two macroeconomic factors.

First, Algerian independence in 1962 dried up the steady source of better wines for blending. Second, wine consumption in France dropped rapidly, first to about 159 quarts per capita by the end of the 1960s, to about 118 quarts by the early 1980s, and falling to about 70 quarts per adult by the 1990s.

Although the French began drinking less wine, they started to choose better bottlings. The government responded by creating a regulated wine category called vin de pays -- "country wine."

Wines designated Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (A.O.C.) and Vins Délimités de Qualité Supérieure (V.D.Q.S.) come from relatively small vineyards. Vin de pays bottlings are from much larger areas. For example, the entire Languedoc-Roussillon is allowed to produce wines carrying the Vin de Pays d'Oc designation.

To earn the designation, winegrowers and winemakers must follow strict production regulations. For example, crop yields must be reduced considerably to improve the concentration of the fruit, and there are standards limiting oxidation and the use of sulfur for preservation.

Along with massive reinvestment in modern winemaking equipment by many of the cooperatives, the creation of the Vin de Pays d'Oc designation has led to significant improvement in the wines. It also has introduced internationally popular grape varieties, such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay, to the Languedoc-Roussillon region. These grapes are not traditional there.

Many purists argue that planting nontraditional varieties has put the centuries-old grape-growing traditions and culture of the region under assault. Two thousand years ago, the Romans were making wines in the Languedoc-Roussillon with varieties such as syrah, grenache, mourvèdre, cinsaut and carignan. When blended, these grapes exhibit distinctive flavors different from familiar international grapes. Purists argue for the continued cultivation of traditional varieties with a focus on developing the best vineyard sites for them.

Much of the Languedoc-Roussillon features wide flat plains and sandy areas near the coast. Grapes grown there tend to have little complexity. However, lying behind and interspersed with the plains are hilly slopes, called coteaux , where better drainage and less fertile soils create the potential for more flavorful grapes.

Many of these superior areas have been recognized with A.O.C. and V.D.S.Q. designations, including Corbières, Coteaux du Languedoc, Côtes du Roussillon, Faugères, Fitou, Minervois, Montpeyroux, Pic Saint-Loup and Saint-Chinian.

Wines from the Languedoc-Roussillon aren't well-known in the United States, so prices are reasonable. Many quality bottlings are great values. Try the following reds with grilled steaks or lamb, barbecue and spicy dishes:

2002 Le Trésor Syrah, Vin de Pays d'Oc (7069, $21.99 for 5 liters): An excellent example of modernization. The wine is packaged in a 5-liter airtight pouch in a cardboard box. (Five liters equals almost seven bottles.) The wine stays fresh for weeks because it is not exposed to air. It's a simple but well-made wine, light-bodied and fruity. A superb value, especially if you drink just a glass or so every day. Recommended.

2002 Thierry and Guy Fat Bastard Shiraz, Vin de Pays d'Oc (6178, $9.99): This wine, made in the "international" manner, has a fruit-forward style of plums and brown spice aromas and flavors balanced with firm tannins and adequate acidity. Recommended.

2000 Domaine Salvat Cotes du Roussillon (Specialty 19550, $14.49): Lovely fruity aromas of black cherries and plums greet the nose and are followed by similar fruity flavors wrapped in a medium body with firm tannins and good balance. Recommended.

2000 Chateau Maris Minervois La Livinière Syrah (Specialty 19152, $14.99): The grapes for this wine were grown on hillside vineyards to produce dark purple color leading to spicy plum aromas with hints of black pepper and oak. The rich dark fruit flavors are balanced with fine acidity and soft tannins through a lush, fruity finish. An excellent buy on a Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board's "Chairman's Selection." Highly recommended.

2001 Domaine Borie de Maurel Minervois, Cuvée Alex (Specialty 19975, $19.99): This high-quality wine is made from grapes grown on hillside vineyards. It has lush, complex aromas of plums and grilled meat with accents of lavender followed by ripe, fruity flavors of plums and dark berries that are well balanced with firm, yet silky tannins and good, refreshing acidity. An excellent "traditional" bottling. Highly recommended. Additional Information:

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