Warming to southern France Wines: Outstanding values are to be had from this region, which at one time was called Europe's 'wine lake.' Look for the French labels.

March 02, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

It wasn't too many years ago when the south of France was scorned by wine connoisseurs as the source of Europe's "wine lake" -- an economic ball and chain on the entire continent.

You don't hear that term much any more.

It's not that the vast region known as the Midi doesn't still produce vast amounts of wine. It's because perceptive wine consumers the world over have jumped into that lake, drawn by the excellent values and rapidly improving wine quality.

Even California wineries have joined in the fun. A few, struggling with grape shortages because of small harvests and root louse phylloxera, have begun to buy southern French wines and sell them under their own labels.

The Robert Mondavi Co. even decided to move the base of operations of its Vichon winery to France.

So far, the pseudo-American wines I've tasted indicate that those wily French saw these Yankee rubes coming a mile away. Merlots from Stone Street and the Monterey Vineyard were both pathetic.

The real values coming out of southern France are indisputably French. Some are white, some are red; some are made from traditional grapes of the region; some are made from the great varietals of Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley.

We're not just talking about sound wines to serve with hamburger. Some of the small estates of the south are producing wines that any Bordeaux chateau owner would be proud to claim as his own.

Not convinced?

Then try the 1994 Chateau Calissanne Cuvee Prestige from Coteaux d'Aix en Provence. The $18 price tag is high for the region, but this perfect synthesis of Rhone and Bordeaux styles displays the kind of complexity and aging potential normally found in red wines that fetch twice the price.

The Calissanne is an exception. Most wines from the south of France cost less than $10. Some carry precise geographic appellations, but most bear the designation Vin de Pays (French for country wine), abbreviated here as VDP.

Here are some of the best values:

Whites

1994 Les Fumes Blanches Sauvignon, VDP d'Oc, Jacques and Francis Lurton ($9). This smoky, herbal sauvignon blanc does a reasonable imitation of a prestigious Sancerre from the Loire Valley.

1995 Les Jamelles Chardonnay, VDP d'Oc ($8). This rich, toasty, well-balanced chardonnay compares well with a good Macon.

1995 L'Orval Chardonnay, VDP d'Oc ($5.59). This wine offers breezy flavors of lemon and apple. It's a little short, but at this price, that's a quibble.

Reds

1995 L'Orval Cabernet Sauvignon, VDP d'Oc ($8). This superbly balanced, medium-bodied cabernet is loaded with bright black cherry fruit. The length and concentration are impressive, showing that cabernet adapts superbly to the Languedoc region. L'Orval's 1995 merlot ($8) is soft and pleasant, but not in the same class.

1995 Chateau de Pena Cotes du Roussillon Villages ($7). This full-bodied, lush wine shows impressive complexity and depth for one so inexpensive. It displays admirable flavors of black raspberry, herbs and coffee now, but in another two years it might show even better.

1994 Mas Champart Coteaux du Languedoc $9). This chunky wine offers lots of blackberry fruit, seasoned with herbs. Nothing complex here, just a fine belly-warming red.

1995 Les Jamelles Cabernet Sauvignon, VDP d'Oc ($9). A fine medium-bodied cabernet, ready to drink, with expansive black currant fruit and hints of chocolate, herbs and coffee.

1995 L'Orval Syrah, VDP d'Oc ($8). There's plenty of lush, ripe black raspberry fruit in this reasonably priced wine made from the classic red grape of the Rhone Valley. It's nothing complicated, just a mouthful of flavor.

1994 Val d'Orbieu Reserve St. Martin Syrah, VDP d'Oc ($8). This soft, fruity, earthy red doesn't have quite the Rhone-like character of the Orval, but it's still a good basic red to keep around the house.

1995 Domaine de L'Ancien Courrier Corbieres ($9). A fine, hearty red with nuances of blueberry to match the chunky blackberry fruit.

1994 Domaine de la Presidente Syrah, VDP d'Oc ($7.29). This unfiltered wine displays super-ripe, plummy, almost port-like flavors. One could complain that it's a little over the top, but if you value flavor more than finesse, this is your wine. It's bound to be controversial.

1993 Mas des Chimeres, Coteaux du Languedoc non-Filtre ($9). This rich, full, in-your-face red certainly hasn't had any flavor strained out. It's a bit tannic for its price class, but nobody can complain that it lacks concentration or meaty flavors.

Pub Date: 3/02/97

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