Sips: For fish, shellfish and beyond, think Picpoul de Pinet from France’s Languedoc

Ask casual wine drinkers about Picpoul de Pinet, as I did with a couple of friends this week, and you’re likely to get looks of confusion and bemusement. It’s understandable. Picpoul de Pinet, though not uncommon in this country, is well off the beaten wine path. The first thing to know about Picpoul, as it’s called, is that it’s a white wine from France, from an area on the southern edge of the Languedoc region on the Mediterranean Sea. The second thing to know is that Picpoul de Pinet is the name of both the wine and the grape. This is unusual in France, where the name and the grape variety are usually two different things. (Sancerre, for example, takes the name of the town in which the grapes are grown, but the grape is the sauvignon blanc). The third thing to remember is that Picpoul is a largely underappreciated summer wine value. Find a bottle that you like and you will have discovered a superb wine for fish and shellfish, particularly oysters, and a refreshing and original aperitif wine.

I was reminded of Picpoul’s charms last week as I traveled through Languedoc and tasted several examples. Picpoul is  Languedoc’s answer to the Loire Valley’s Muscadet and deserves to be better known. After one forgettable bottle we oclaude jourdanrdered at a restaurant, I was introduced the next day to the wines of Claude Jourdan right,  and her Domaine Félines Jourdan, which makes about 15,000 cases of Picpoul, in addition to other wines, each year. The property, which is located on the banks of a large lagoon fed by the Mediterranean and used for oyster farms, is in a cool terroir that benefits from the Mediterranean breezes and produces refreshing wines with ample acidity. That was immediately apparent on tasting the 2010 Picpoul, a delicious blend of grapes from three different sites within the property. The wine, fermented and aged in stainless steel, is fresh and round with lemon, honey and vanilla tastes as well as a distinct minerality and a subtle briny note that reflect the domaine’s proximity to the sea and its chalk, limestone and clay soils. Claude Jourdan, who took over the domaine in 1996 from her mother, noted that the grapes are picked quite late (in late September). “I am looking for a maturity in the grape, a roundness,” she said. The wine sells for about $14 in the United States and.

Other notable wines from Domaine Féline Jourdan include  the 2010 Languedoc Blanc, a blend of 90 percent roussanne and 10 percent picpoul with apple, spice and grapefruit notes, and a trio of attractive Vins de Pays – red, white and rose – that are real bargains at $8.


Swirls: NY supermarket wine sales, wine & weight loss, a 13-year-old rosé

SWIRL: Legislation aimed at changing how wine is sold here in New York is once again making its way through the Legislature in Albany. On one hand, it seems lawmakers may finally be heading toward the right balance when it comes to permitting grocery  wine store stores to sell wine, while also giving liquor stores more flexibility in what they can sell and to whom. The Times Union has a good editorial on this today. At the same time, Dr. Vino.com has an interesting item on another New York bill that would curtail the ability of restaurants to purchase interesting older vintages from collectors and other sources, bypassing wine distributors.

SWIRL: If you’re trying to lose weight, are eating less but just don’t see much of a change, it could be those two or three glasses of wine you’re drinking. A survey of 2,000 people in Britain found that fewer than one third had an idea how many calories there are in a standard glass of wine (134). Read more about it in Scotsman.com and Marie Claire.

SWIRL: As we head into high season for rosé with lots of 2010 releases, most of them to be drunk within the next few months, Jeremy Parzen highlights one of the world’s ultimate rosés in the Houston Press -- R. López de Heredia 1998 Viña Tondonia Rosado Gran Reserva. Yes, a 13-year-old rosé that, like most wines from this great Rioja producer, is aged for years in barrels before release. They are singular wines, providing a unique tasting experience.


Sips: From dry to very sweet, a tasting reveals some memorable wines from France’s Vouvray

When it comes to the underappreciated chenin blanc, no place in the world is as important as Vouvray in France’s Loire Valley, which sets a standard by which all other examples of the grape are judged. The wines are made in a wide range of styles from dry to sweet, but if there is a signature Vouvray it is “demi-sec,” or semi-dry, which may or may not appear on the label. As with most French wines, the consumer is often left to know what’s in the bottle and, in the case of Vouvray, just how dry or sweet a wine is. These days, that is changing slightly in Vouvray, where the driest, or “sec” wines, can now be called that only if they have less than nine grams of residual sugar.

Both styles match well with a variety of foods, as I was reminded at a recent dinner that featured the wines at Craft, a New vouvray 2011York restaurant, that was sponsored by the Loire Valley Wine Bureau. How much variety? Beyond an assortment of appetizers (served with two sparkling Vouvrays), there was a first course of charcuterie and two kinds of oysters; a second course of hamachi and quail; a main course of striped bass, guinea hen, asparagus and Hen of the Woods mushrooms, and an Asian pear-apple crisp for dessert. Except for the dessert, each course was served with both a dry and a semi-dry Vouvray and it was up to the assembled writers and members of the wine trade to to decide which style worked better with each part of the dinner (the pie was served with two sweet Vouvrays).  As you might imagine, there was little agreement.

I found myself leaning toward the drier wines, and several of them stood out, starting with Didier Champalou’s very dry, fresh and lively Vouvray Brut, which is priced well at $18. Pierre Chainier’s 2009 Clos de Nouys Sec, $20, matched beautifully with the hamachi and quail, the latter cooked to perfection medium rare. The wine’s minerality and green apple notes emerged as it warmed up a bit. Another standout was François Chidaine’s 2009 Vouvray “Les Argiles,” a $23 wine I have enjoyed for many years. Made from biodynamically grown grapes and fermented with indigenous yeasts, it showed the delicacy and depth for which Chidaine has become justly famous.

The evening’s real treat was from the region’s most celebrated producer, Domaine Huet’s 2005 Vouvray Moelleux “Close du Bourg 1ere Trie.” This amber-colored sweet wine, $75, has a nose that can be described, without overstating it, as incredible, a complex and concentrated blend that included orange rind, honey and mocha supported by a firm acid structure that made it altogether refreshing for all its sweetness. While it seemed made for the pear-apple crisp, the pie was almost an afterthought. The wine was a memorable dessert on its own – and will be so for years to come.


An American in France produces some memorable Languedoc wines

NARBONNE, France -- One of the most gorgeous vineyards I have  seen lies just outside this small Languedoc city a stone’s throw from the MediterraneaA former German bunker, top right, at Chateau des Karantes in La Clape, Languedoc, Francen Sea. Château des Karantes, named after a Bishop of Carcassonne who owned the property hundreds of   years ago, is surrounded by steep cliffs on three sides, with an old  bunker (top right in the picture) still visible atop one of them, a reminder that the property was controlled by the Germans during World War II. Walter Knysz 3d, an American from Michigan whose family is a part-owner of the domaine, reminded me while looking over the property that the Nazis believed the Allied invasion would take place here in the south of France rather than in Normandy.     

Today, these are far happier times for the estate of 470 acres, a little over 100 of them vineyards. This week, Château  des Karantes’s 2009 AOP Languedoc La Clape Rouge was named best Languedoc-Roussillon red wine over 10 euros ($14 or so)  in Decanter Magazine’s World Wine Awards. “To win that award for thiWalt Ks wine is huge,” Knysz (right) told me as dusk settled over his vineyards in La Clape, which, with its extreme southern location in Languedoc,  produces some of the region’s most luscious and memorable reds. That reputation was upheld as I tasted the new release a short time later at a restaurant here in Narbonne with Knysz, his winemaker Nicolas Laverny and Christopher Laidebeure, the sales manager. The wine, which will have a suggested price of $23 in the U.S., is a blend of 50 percent grenache, 40 percent syrah and 10 percent mourvèdre grown on the clay and limestone soils that dominate the property. Its beautiful structure, concentrated fruit, mainly plum and blackberry, subtle oak integration and attractive herbal notes derived from the adjacent scrubland known as garrigue make the wine stand out.

Other notable wines from the Karantes portfolio include the 2010 AOP Languedoc Blanc, $22, a blend of bourboulenc, grenache blanc, roussanne and vermentino that is fresh and easy to drink with honey, apricot and lemon notes, a bit of brine and good acidity; the bright 2010 Rosé des Karantes, $12, a mourvèdre-grenache-syrah summer bargain with flavors of strawberry and raspberry, some herb and spice notes and a vanilla touch on the long finish; and the intensely concentrated 2006 Diamant, $60, which is 100 percent syrah, spent 18 months in large new French oak barrels and is marked by intense fruit, mainly blackberry, a good deal of spice and a black licorice note.

The Karantes team was over the top the other night, and it deserves to be.


Winemakers try to carve out a new image for France’s vast Languedoc

NARBONNE, France – Just about everywhere I’ve gone in the last three days here in Languedoc, winemakers lament how this vast region in southern France has suffered for decades from its image as a bastion of quantity over quality wines. They say it parenthetically, however, because there seems to be a great deal of momentum these days for repairing that image – about getting the word out that some first-class wines are being made Languedoc landscape here. Languedoc is, in fact, the world’s largest wine-producing region, with more than one third of its production shipped abroad. While the U.S. market is growing, it accounts for only five percent of exports, behind China and Canada, both at eight percent. “In the U.S., we have no real image,” said Jérôme Villaret, managing director of the CIVL, the region’s trade organization. Beyond, perhaps, the most broad and basic Languedoc AOC appellation, the wines are largely unrecognizable to most casual American wine drinkers. Ask them about Corbières, Faugéres or Limoux; about Pic Saint-Loup, Picpoul-de-Pinet or Saint-Chinian, and they  will draw a blank. As one agent doing business in the region told me, this would be like asking the average Frenchman to understand the difference between Napa and Sonoma.

And yet, as I am finding in my travels here, there are some superb and original wines being made by passionate, smart and creative winemakers producing authentic terroir wines, many of them under $20. One need only pay a visit, for example, to Claude Jourdan’s Domaine Félines Jourdan overlooking the oyster farms on a vast saltwater lake to realize that her fresh, briny and deliciously fruity Picpoul-de-Pinet can (and should) give Muscadet a run for its money for fish and shellfish. Or spend  some time with Regis Valentin at Château de Lancyre in Pic-Saint-Loup to see what he does with the white roussanne Pierre Bories and marsanne varieties and with a range of reds based on syrah, grenache and other grapes. Or taste and talk with  Pierre Bories, right, at Château les Ollieux Romanis in the Boutenac area of Corbières, or Charles-Walter Pacaud at Domaine La Croix Chaptal in the Terraces du Larzac, to see how they are giving new direction and distinction to carignan, a traditional red variety that, in the right hands, produces wines of finesse and elegance.

These are just a few of the winemakers who have impressed me, many of them growing grapes organically in Languedoc, which, with its dry climate, is producing almost a third of its grapes this way and leads in organic production in France. Today, I’m off to Saint-Chinian and Minervois in search of what I hope will be more revelations in this vast and largely undiscovered land.


Editor’s note: where in the wine world am I and why?

I’ve been writing recently about the need for transparency in new media, whether on a blog like this one or on social media outlets like Twitter. So, a quick word is called for on the fact that I am in France’s Languedoc region this week, on a visit sponsored  -- that means expenses paid for -- by the CIVL, the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Languedoc, the region’s trade arm, and organized by its public-relations firm. I, like many wine writers, occasionally accept such trips from wine regions as a way of expanding my knowledge, although I never accept invitations from individual wineries. My aim this week is to learn more about the Languedoc, a region in transition, and to find some of its best wines. Clearly, the CIVL believes that I can help promote the wines, and I undoubtedly will as I write about my travels and tastings. There is, however, no agreement about or conditions on my coverage, and I am free to say what I like – and will. For starters, take a look at the item just below this one on an unusual tasting event I took part in on Sunday.


On a brilliant afternoon in France’s Languedoc, a wine tasting like no other

I joined more than a thousand people in the Languedoc region of southern France yesterday afternoon at what must be one of the world’s ultimate walk-around wine tastings. Instead of being confined to a room, we hiked our way on a brilliantly sunny and windy day up and down the parched, gravelly trails of La Clape, a a sub-zone of the large Coteaux du Languedoc appellation not more than a couple of miles IMG_6770or so from the Mediterranean Sea. The area is known as  a “garrigue,” a landscape of low scrubland on limestone soils,  small slopes and plateaus. At this time of year it is already overgrown with wild herbs, including rosemary,  thyme and juniper, as well as almond trees and fennel plants that practically trip you as you make your way up and down the dusty paths. All around these trails are vineyards, still light green, their grapes just beginning to form. A few months from now they will  yield the fruit that defines this place -- grenache, mourvèdre, syrah, carignan and cinsault among the reds and rosés; grenache blanc, bourboulenc, roussanne, among others, for the whites.

In our three-and-a-half mile hike, there were six stops to be made, featuring six courses of food and anywhere from four to eight wines to be sampled at each. The dishes included a gazpacho of artichoke and fennel, a “marmalade” of eggplant and anchovies, a scallop and crayfish duo,  a “parmentier” of duck confit and, of course, a little chèvre to round things out. At least 25 wines were served -- white, pink and red -- ranging from the rustic to the refined, and I will describe some of my favorites here in coming days. But for now, have a look at some of the photographs I took at this unique and memorable event.


Swirls: Bringing your mistress to a Hong Kong wine auction; ‘90+ Cellars’; dentist offers beer and wine

SWIRL: There’s a good read on the red-hot fine wine market in Hong Kong from the BBC’s Chris Hogg, who notes that many auction bidders are now from the the mainland and are buying up a lot of the best vintages. “One of them appeared to have brought his mistress,” the story notes. “She was tiny and looked rather bored.” Charles Curtis, who was head of North American wine sales for Christie’s and now does the same for the auction house in Hong Kong, provides good perspective on where the market is headed.

SWIRL: As you know, I have never scored wines, preferring a narrative-approach to w90 hy I think a wine is worth drinking. But that’s  just me. The business, however, continues to be score- obsessed, and one incarnation I just read about on CNBC.com  takes the form of a new brand called “90+Cellars.” The company buys surplus wines from around the world, puts its own label on them and offers them at discounted prices. Not just any old wines, but wines that “must have a pedigree of 90 or higher ratings, best buy or gold medal accolades from a respected wine authority or publication,” according to the 90+Cellars Web site. The precise sources of the wine are not revealed.

SWIRL: And for those who dread a visit to the dentist, Dr. Clint Herzog, a practitioner in Fort Worth offers a novel way to make his patients more relaxed by offering them beer and wine in the waiting room,  giving new relevance to the expression, “feeling no pain.” Watch the KXAS video here.


Latest top wine Tweets, from the serious to the hilarious

I feel just a tad like that New York TV sportscaster whose “Spanning the World” segments used to show the highlights (and low lights) of the sports world. But as I devote more time and attention to Twitter, with its vibrant wine community, some Tweets clearly stand out, whether for their substance or refreshing lack of it. Herewith, offered raw and without comment in what I hope will become a regular feature in this space, a few that struck me as I scrolled back through today’s Tweets: 

 Ray Isle

@islewine Ray Isle

Congrats to @belinda_nyc & everyone at The Modern for winning James Beard Award for best wine service!! #jbfa


Doug Cook

@ablegrape Doug Cook

Interesting. Twitter suggested I follow Pampers. Do they know something I don't?



@SlateWine SlateWine

Bernard Madoff’s wine collection to be auctioned. Wonder if he had anything from Ponzi Vineyards. http://bit.ly/izWxKE


Wink Lorch

@WineTravel Wink Lorch

The nonsense Grand Cru Languedoc proposal as elucidated by @JancisRobinson http://t.co/Adf4mcn - great estates matter so much more than GCs.


James Suckling

@JamesSuckling James Suckling

Mouth is still raw from a number of overextracted, overalcoholic 2008 CA Cabs...ouch.


Debra Meiburg MW

@DebraMeiburgMW Debra Meiburg MW

Judging in So. Africa: Spider in glass #12; Snake in tasting rm #A; fab silver & gold medals in SB flight #1 #omtws


Sips: A roundup of notable new wines from France, California and Argentina

Since I’ve been leaning heavily toward wine news in recent weeks, I thought I would share some exciting new releases that will make for excellent spring and summer drinking. With one exception, all the wines are under $20. Also of note, given my piece earlier this week about alcohol levels, four of the five wines here are under 14 percent, which, no doubt, is part of why I enjoyed them.

Bieler Père et Fils 2010 “Sabine” Coteaux d-Aix-en-Provence Rosé. $12. This appealing and well-priced rosé  demands food with its considerable herb notes that punctuate strawberry, raspberry, citrus and subtle vanilla tastes. With its pretty, light-salmon color it shows considerable complexity and came into its own the herb-roasted chicken. The  blend is 50 percent syrah, 30 percent grenache and 20 percent cabernet sauvignon. Alcohol is 13.5 percent. Imported by Bieler Père et Fils, Sausalito, California.alta maria

Alta Maria Vineyards 2009 Chardonnay Santa Maria Valley, California. $28. This superb chardonnay from Santa Barbara County shows perfect balance, with pear, white peach, orange and lime, plus subtle vanilla and cream notes. Oak is seamlessly integrated. The fruit was sourced from the famed Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills Vineyards and the wine bears their unmistakable signature. Alcohol is 14.1 percent.

Carmel Road 2009 Chardonnay, Monterey County, California. $18. A beautifully balanced chardonnay with nuanced oak, pear, vanilla and a hint of orange. Effortless to drink and a real value. Alcohol is 13.5 percent.

Domaine de la Madone 2009 Beaujolais “Le Perreon,” Beaujolais Villages, France. $15. This first-rate Beaujolais from an excellent vintage is distinguished by the unusual concentration of its fruit, mainly blueberry and black cherry, with an appealing note of braised meat that adds to its complexity. From the gamay grape, it’s the kind of red wine I could drink all summer. Alcohol is 13 percent. Imported by Michael Skurnik Wines, Syosset, New York

Argento 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, Mendoza, Argentina. $11. An excellent budget cabernet with classic blackberry tastes joined by plum and red berry notes as the wine opens up, revealing surprising complexity. Smoke, cinnamon and brown sugar round things out, all of it framed by a good tannic structure. Should serve as a wake-up call to California for what’s being produced elsewhere for $10 or so. Alcohol is 13.5 percent. Imported by Lion Nathan USA, Overland Park, Kansas.


Swirls: Thoughts on wine alcohol levels and disclosing them

The issue of alcohol levels in wines has received new attention in recent weeks after the San Francisco Chronicle announced that it would include alcohol percentages in its reviews. This is a positive development, though the Chronicle is not unique in the  practice. I, for one, have included alcohol levels in most of my reviews -- for MSNBC.com over many years and, more lately,    yangarra for this blog. Every time I pick up a bottle of wine, whether in a store or from a box of press samples I have received, the alcohol level is one of the first things I look at. Sometimes it is nicely visible, usually on the back label. But often it is printed in extremely small type in a lower corner of the front label, sometimes even requiring a magnifying glass (or my children’s eyes) to make it out. Are these wineries trying to hide something?

But why look for this number and disclose it in reviews in the first place? For one thing, the alcohol level, even with a permitted margin of error, is the best indicator for consumers of the style of wine they are about buy or drink (beyond a knowledge of specific regions and appellations, which many consumers don’t have). The higher the alcohol the longer the grapes spent hanging on the vine and accumulating  sugar, which is converted into alcohol during fermentation. Thus, so-called “big” wines have higher alcohol levels, often in the range of 14.5 to 15 percent or more. These include many California reds and some chardonnays. By contrast, wines we would consider “light” are typically in the 12 to 13 percent range and include such wines as the white Muscadet and red Beaujolais from France. It’s important to note that lower alcohol levels don’t necessarily mean that you’ll be drinking wines without character. Both Muscadet and Beaujolais, for example, can show wonderfully expressive and concentrated fruit.

Alcohol levels, of course, have increased substantially over the years, driven up by warming trends and, perhaps more importantly (and disturbingly), by a perception among some winemakers that certain critics have a preference for bigger and bolder wines. (I looked at a prized bottle in my collection recently, a Bordeaux from the famed 1982 vintage, and was reminded that alcohol levels in the region back in those days were a mere 12 percent!)  The problem with some big-fruit, high-alcohol wines is that they have been zapped of their natural acidity. They lack balance. There are exceptions, of course, and I have enjoyed some very big, very powerful wines from time to time. But I can’t tell you how many flabby reds and whites I taste every year – big, bold wines, many from California, that are hotly alcoholic and are chore to drink. For me, this is not what enjoying wine is about. The good news is that some winemakers seem to be getting the message that not everyone wants to drink wines in this style.

It is, of course, a matter of preference, but I, for one, will continue to scrutinize the labels in search of learner, less alcoholic, more elegant bottles that, in general, I find to be more refreshing and better partners with food. By the way, soon after the Chronicle said it would disclose alcohol levels, Decanter magazine announced a similar policy. What do you think? Let me know your thoughts on alcohol levels in wines and disclosing them on labels.