In an effort to do just that, Snooth and Master Sommelier Fred Dexheimer recently hosted a wine tasting featuring 8 impressive wines from the region, which perfectly illustrated what Pays d’Oc means today. Thirty wine influencers joined me on a damp and cool Manhattan evening to discover just how far the wines of Pays d’Oc have come from being merely Vins de Pays. Allow me share some with you.
A Little Background
If the Pays d’Oc was a wine producing country, it would be the fifth largest country in the world; quite a feat if you stop and consider it. One out of every ten bottles of wine produced in France comes from the Pays d’Oc, and while much of this is what we might casually refer to as supermarket wine, there are wines at all quality levels emerging from the Pays d’Oc, and almost all are excellent values.
One grand advantage the region has over virtually all of France, even Europe for that matter, is that besides some regulations governing yields, the producers of the Pays d’Oc are free to plant what they want. In fact, today there are 56 grape varieties being produced as wine in the region. Used as we are to the concept of a variety being ‘right’ for a specific region, this might seem odd, but the truth is that the long stretch of Pays d’Oc, 150 miles or more, encompasses terroir as varied as narrow valleys in the Pyrenees, to alluvial flood plains close to the coast, and limestone hillocks as one moves closer in towards the Cevennes mountains that run parallel to much of France’s Mediterranean coast and help create the unique weather patterns that allow the region such varietal flexibility.
From Past to Future
With so much flexibility, producers have been of two minds; some are looking to create signature wines that embrace the spirit of the region, while others look to the market in hopes that they can meet unfulfilled demand. There are great opportunities for the consumer and the retail trade with producers that follow either path.
Take for our first example the 2011 Foncalieu, Les Fontanelles, Sauvignon Blanc ($10). Crisp and pure, this is a wonderful example of Sauvignon Blanc that blends the fruit forward character the marketplace clamors for with some of the crispness and minerality that France’s Sauvignon Blancs are famous for. Inexpensive and a perfect partner for goat cheese and light dishes, it illustrates how Pays d’Oc has made the transition from the anonymous bulk wines of the Vins de Pays days to today’s fighting varietals.
One of the great engines that has driven this move into the present for Pays d’Oc has been their ability to adopt some of the most important varieties as their own. Chardonnay for example, the world’s premier white grape, is well represented in the Pays d’Oc.
With wines across the style spectrum, the Chardonnays of Pays d’Oc can meet your many needs. At this tasting we tried the the 2011 Vignerons d'Alignan du Vent Cinquante Cinq Chardonnay ($10), a fresh, bright example coming for the fourth generation of this family run cooperative, France’s largest family run co-op.
In contrast, we enjoyed the 2010 Gérard Bertrand, Cigalus Chardonnay ($45), a benchmark example for the region reflecting Gerard Bertrand’s ambition and confidence in the region. Here we experienced Chardonnay that can compete with the world’s finest, spiced with a touch of Viogner and the freshness of Sauvignon Blanc barrel aged in French barrique and perfectly prepared to take on the top Chardonnays from around the world.
While much is being made of both the red and white wines from the Pays d’Oc, the region is coastal Mediterranean, and as such is one of the great regions for roses in the world.
Being winter we showed only a single rosé this evening, the 2011 Delatour Cuvée Premier Grenache Rosé ($7). A classic rosé, and the favorite wine of the night for more than one taster, this was a cool, crisp, dusty wine that cried out for food, and warmer weather! This wine, more than any this evening, reflected a look backwards in time, being produced from one of the most historically important varieties for the region, Grenache, and being made in what can only be called a classic dry yet light French Mediterranean style.
Varieties of Today
As with the Chardonnay of the region, many producers here have turned to Cabernet and even more so Merlot as their flagship wines in hopes of finding a niche in the marketplace. With fine terroir and a warm, dry climate both varieties have proven to be well suited to the region. The 2009 Domaine de Larzac Merlot ($11) was ripe, fresh and distinctly red fruited. A crisp, easy drinking expression of the grape that will thrill many consumers.
Taking advantage of the warm, dry climate is one of Gilles Louvet’s goals, and by farming organically he has shown he has what it takes to succeed. His 2010 O By Gilles Louvet Cabernet Sauvignon ($12) is another fresh example of Bordeaux varieties planted in the Pays d’Oc, offering more red fruit along with a lovely sense of clarity on the palate. At right around $12 a bottle it makes a compelling argument for both the region and the benefits of organic farming.
I set the order of the wines for the tasting so that we could experience both the present of the Pays d’OC, with its dependence on varietal wines as well as some of its history. The region that became the Pays d’Oc relied for many years on blended wines, often times wines that combined grapes that were well-suited to produce quality with those better suited to produce quantity. Today, forward looking producers are reinventing these wines by relying only on high quality base wines and blending to create a wine that is greater than the sum of its parts.
The 2010 Jeff Carrel Puydeval ($15) for example, blends Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Merlot to produce a powerful, complex red that represents the heights that the freedom for regulation allows for in the Pays d’Oc. This is a rich, powerful wine, modern in style but nowhere near over the top. Simply put, it’s the type of wine many consumers are looking for but have no idea that the Pays d’Oc is where they should be looking to find it.
That's a Wrap
If you want the epitome of freethinking consider Domaine Gayda’s Figure Libre, or Free Style ($22). We enjoyed the 2010, a wine based on 62% Syrah blended with Grenache, Mourvedre, Carignan, and Cabernet Sauvignon. A flat out exhilarating wine, it spoke to me of crisp, cool Syrah with the other varieties contributing a foundation for its flavors and fine structural components. It’s a wine that makes you stop and think and take another stop, then another, then another. Truly a remarkable wine, and one that would easily cost double the price if it had a more prestigious appellation attached to it.
The wines of the Pay d’Oc are becoming more and more difficult to ignore. I certainly can’t take them for granted any longer, and you shouldn’t either. Don’t take my word for it. Look who’s importing some of these great wines and ask them.
T Edwards - Vignerons d'Alignan du Vent
Southern Wine & Spirits - Gérard Bertrand
Savio Soares - Delatour
Hand Picked Selections - Jeff Carrel, Puydeval