Look South for Value

S France tasting 1More than a quarter of all French wine comes from the south: the regions of Languedoc, Roussillon and Provence. It’s not surprising given the Mediterranean coast’s ideal climate for ripening grapes. But it’s only in last 30 years or so that the potential for quality wines from this climate has been realised. For much of 20th century, the emphasis here was on cheap, bulk wines and, as a result, most wine lovers rightly ignored this part of the world completely.

How things have changed! Today, all three regions are making really attractive wines. Yes, you still need to be selective (as you do almost anywhere) but, if you are, your chances of finding something delicious are high – and you won’t have to pay a fortune for it as those who came to a tasting I ran on the subject recently discovered.

I concentrated mostly on wines made from grape varieties that are native to the region – none more so than Picpoul, a fresh, crisp white grown almost exclusively around the beautiful Etang de Thau. Villemarin make a delightful example (only £7.99 from Majestic, where you can find all the wines mentioned in this blog).

Further along the coast, Provence is one of the few wine making regions of the world to concentrate on the production of rosé – it represents more than 80% of the output. Sadly, some of their best examples sell for silly prices and many of the cheaper ones are aimed solely at undemanding tourists. But I found a notable exception in the elegant, dry Vallée des Pins (£8.99), a blend of Grenache and Syrah with lovely strawberry fruit.

Despite the focus of Provence, the south of France is still essentially red wine country and, of the 2 we tasted, preferences were divided between the Fleurs de la Vigne, a young, berry-fruited Carignan-dominated blend from the Fitou area (£8.99) and the slightly more robust, chewy Grenache/ Syrah from Château Guiot in the Costières de Nîmes closer to the Rhône (£7.99).

Everyone had their own favourites on the night but all agreed that this is an area whose wines are worth exploring – particularly as so many are remarkable value for money.

Jones the Winemaker

In Wales, the surname ‘Jones’ is very widespread. Add in the fact that successive generations of a family often share the same first or given name, distinguishing between one Jones and another can become a little difficult. As a result, the habit arose to refer to people by their job; so, you get ‘Jones the Teacher’, ‘Jones the Butcher’ or ‘Jones the Farmer’. But, I suspect, rarely ‘Jones the Winemaker’ (although Wales has always had a few vineyards – a number that has expanded rapidly in the last few years).

But, there is a ‘Jones the Winemaker’, albeit in the south of France, rather than in Wales. After emigrating from the UK and working there for a few years, Katie Jones bought a vineyard in the Languedoc and began to make her own wine. She now has around 12 hectares (30 acres) spread across a number of small sites in the hillier, inland part of the Fitou Appellation. Following the classic recipe for making great wines, she has focussed on patches of low yielding old vines planted on very poor rocky soils.

As a result, life hasn’t been easy, particularly in 2013 when Katie lost her entire white wine production after some vandals opened the taps on her tanks, but, happily, she has fought back and her wines reflect her dedication.

Jones Fitou

Her Fitou (Wine Society, £15.50) is typical; a rich, savoury blend of Carignan, Grenache and Syrah – some from vines over 100 years old – giving a lovely spicy mouthful of hedgerow fruits, liquorice and leather. The label says 14.5% alcohol, and, although a big wine, this is beautifully balanced. Definitely needing food to show at its best – something full and robust: venison or other game, perhaps, or a mushroom- or aubergine-based dish spring to mind.

Jones the Winemaker is definitely a name to follow.

Pick up a Picpoul

Not so long ago, the name ‘Picpoul de Pinet’ would have meant nothing to all but a tiny minority of wine lovers.  Today, while still not widely known, this crisp, dry white from the Languedoc region in the south of France is beginning to establish a reputation.  And, surprisingly, much of the credit for that change must go to Britain’s major supermarkets, most of whom now have an example in their premium ranges.  Take Tescos:

Picpoul 1their ‘Finest’ Picpoul is just £7 a bottle but is delightfully refreshing with lovely herby, citrusy flavours and enough richness to suggest it would be a perfect accompaniment to many creamy fish or shellfish dishes.  And, it’s not just the supermarkets who are selling Picpoul – Majestic’s Villemarin (£8.99) and the Wine Society’s Domaine Félines-Jourdan (my favourite example and great value at £8.50) mean that it is readily available for those who are looking for something just a little different – but nothing too scary!

Picpoul, the name of the grape variety (occasionally spelt Piquepoul), apparently translates as ‘lip stinger’ in the local dialect (but don’t let that put you off); its home is a tiny area between the towns of Pézenas and Mèze overlooking the Bassin de Thau, a glorious nature reserve within a stone’s throw of the Mediterranean.  Apart from this one wine, this part of the Languedoc is an area far better known for its reds – the southern French sun and heat are too much for most whites.  But not Picpoul – it retains its acidity and freshness and provides a very welcome glass chilled on a hot day. 

And, thanks to the supermarkets, before long, more wine lovers will be able to pick up a Picpoul.