Since at least the 1990s, people have been hailing the make over of France's Languedoc. By far the country's largest vineyard area,it hugs the sunny Mediterranean coastline from the Pyrenees on the border with Spain to Provence in the east. Think of southern Ontario's Golden Horseshoe from about Hamilton to Oshawa, only with vines in place of Tim Hortons franchises, and you get a sense of the satellite map.
Languedoc – and here I speak also of Roussillon, the southern extension with which it's commonly twinned – has been pejoratively referred to as France's "wine lake." For a century, it slaked a nation's working-class thirst with juice as cheap as the containers from which it was poured, which more often than not were jugs or carafes. As that thirst began to decline in the 1960s, the lake's level rose, leaving producers in a bind.
Exports increasingly came to be seen as the salvation.
There was a problem. The world scarcely needed more jug wine from France. Global competition was heating up, yielding an ocean of fruit-forward, instantly lovable bargains from elsewhere.
That left one other option: quality versus quantity.
It has been a patchwork make over at best, still very much a work in progress. Rather than get with the program, some producers leaped on their tractors to block highways, rallying in protest against imported wine and falling prices. Others jumped on the fashion bandwagon, cranking up production of such globally popular varieties as merlot, cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, although with results I find as thrilling as some French art-house films.
You'll taste better evidence of the progress, and the way forward, in my opinion, in the region's traditional quintet of quality red grapes: grenache,syrah, mourvèdre, cinsault andcarignan. They dominate in the distinguished appellations of Minervois, Saint-Chinian, Corbières and Fitou (names you'll find on labels in larger print than"Languedoc") as well as in the wider swaths encompassed by Coteaux du Languedoc and Côtes du Roussillon.
There's usually a strong suggestion of fresh herbs, chiefly thyme and lavender, in the red wines; fennel and cracked pepper,flavours common to the Rhône next door, are also present.
I am fond of that essence, a welcome relief from the torqued up fruitiness that prevails in modern wine making in comparably warm regions.
Languedoc reds are classic bistro wines, suitable for braised red meats, grilled sausages, roast poultry and aged cheeses. And while prices have been rising,they're still attractive. The quality and character can be impressive for not much more than the price of a ticket to a French art house movie. The first five selections outlined here are from the Languedoc, the next two from the Rhône; all were released last week in Ontario.
Hegarty Chamans No. 2 GrenacheMourvèdre Cinsault 2009 (France)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $21.95
This is as modern as the Languedoc gets. England's Sir John Hegarty, founding partner of the ad agency behind Johnnie Walker whisky's "keep walking" campaign,owns the Minervois estate. Soft, luscious and ripe (at 15-per-cent alcohol), the fruit yields enough to reveal a big essence of lavender as well as spice. You can feel the alcohol in this grenache-mourvèdre-cinsaultblend, though it's still tame compared with Johnnie Walker.
Château de L'Ille Cuvée Andreas 2008 (France)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $16.95
Those Languedoc herbs leap out instantly from this medium-bodied Corbières red,with licorice and black olive in supporting roles. A blend of 40-per-cent syrah withmourvèdre, carignan and grenache, it shows a firm acid spine.
Domaine Piquemal Tradition 2009 (France)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $15.95
There's lots of verve in this Côtes du Roussillon blend of syrah, grenache and carignan, medium-full-bodied and lively with spice and acidity.
Mont Tauch Le Tauch Fitou 2009 (France)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $19.95
This austere wine offers syrah pepperiness,licorice and chewy tannic structure.
Foncalieu Réserve du Sud Languedoc 2009 (France)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $15.95
With minerals, dark berries and cedar set against crisp, angular acidity, this one begs for food, preferably grilled meats or cheese.
Romain Duvernay Vacqueyras 2009 (France)
SCORE: 94 PRICE: $24.95
Tannic and built for the long haul, this blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre is concentrated but not excessive with ripeness. It is layered with herbs and other savoury notes as well as minerals and earth, like the smell of clay baking in the sun. Cellar it for up to 15 years.
Domaine des Fées Côtes du Rhône 2010 (France)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $14.95
Spicy, herbal, licorice-like and tight with acidity, this unfiltered red is much better than most of the widely available, big Côtes du Rhône brands.
Poderi San Lazzaro Podere 72 2009 (Italy)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $17.95
From the central-eastern Marche region,this one is half sangiovese and half montepulciano, sort of a cross between good-value Chianti and premium montepulciano d'Abruzzo. It's medium-bodied and nicely sweaty, with dried cherry,cigar, aged wood, crisp acidity and light tannins. Good for duck confit.
Rosehall Run Sullyzwicker SZ White 2011 (Ontario)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $14.95
In the tradition of Alsatian whites blended from various grapes, this is lovely juice from the talented hands of Dan Sullivan. The name is a mélange of his family name and that of his partner in both life and business, Lynn, as well as a play on the Alsatian style known as edelzwicker. Thisblend of riesling, chardonnay musqué, ehrenfelser, pinot gris and muscat ottonelis light-bodied and delectably round, with canned-peach and melon flavours that start vaguely sweet but finish dry and chalky. It's perfect for pork, fish cakes,cheese or light curries.
McManis River Junction Chardonnay 2010 (California)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95
Showing fine complexity for the price, this wine is brimming with peach, butter and pineapple, with well-integrated, toasty oak. It's perfect for lobster or grilled salmon.