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Wines of Languedoc-Roussillon provide quality for price

Jason Cato
| Tuesday, September 16, 2014 9:00 p.m
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In France, the best compliment a wine can receive is bon rapport qualité / prix — good quality for the price.

As often as not, when the French look for such wines, they turn to the vast swath of vineyards hugging southern France’s Mediterranean coast.

Known as the Languedoc-Roussillon, the area extends from French Catalonia near the border with northern Spain eastward all the way to Provence. Its ideal grape-growing climate and nearly 750,000 acres of vineyards create a total wine production nearly triple that of Bordeaux.

In the mid-20th century, the Languedoc-Roussillon held a dubious reputation for producing watery and even flawed wines. With notable exceptions, the wines delivered alcohol and low prices, but little else. No longer.

The past 60 years brought a monumental transformation in quality. The planting of “international” varieties, such as cabernet, merlot and chardonnay helped lead the resurgence. The wholesale modernization of wine-making equipment and an overall reduction of vineyard yields also played big roles. The quality of traditional varieties such as grenache, syrah and mourvèdre for reds and grenache gris, roussanne, marsanne and viognier for whites improved in lock step.

For a tasty — and highly economical — introduction to France’s Mediterranean wines, try the following.

In the early 1980s, third-generation Languedoc winemaker Robert Skalli played a pivotal role in the transformation, but only after investing in California. There he founded St. Supéry Winery in the Napa Valley and learned firsthand the power of so-called “fighting varietals.”

Napa vintners earned huge market shares by labeling their wines with grape variety names, rather than brand names. Skalli transplanted the practice on a big scale to the Languedoc, a then revolutionary move. In addition to changing his own vineyards, Skalli slowly forged business partnerships with local growers who started planting “international” grapes previously foreign to the Languedoc. A cultural change took root.

Highly competitive production costs allowed Skalli and his imitators to offer low prices and compete effectively with California producers at their own game. Today Skalli embodies the bon rapport qualité / prix ethos with wines such as the 2013 Couleurs de Sud “Terroir de Collines” Viognier, Pays D’Oc IGP, France (Luxury 33428; Chairman’s Selection, on sale: $9.99). Made from grapes grown on hillside vineyards rich in limestone, the wine retains vital freshness for excellent balance.

The light, yellow color offers honeysuckle and orange aromas. Lush grapefruit and white-peach flavors balance with fresh acidity through a dry, luscious finish. Pair the wine with a tapenade of grilled eggplant, diced tomatoes, olives, capers and minced garlic with baguettes. Highly recommended.

Jean-Benoît Cavalier represents the 13th generation to operate his family’s Languedoc domaine. He expanded the vineyards to more than 200 acres amidst an isolated landscape of rolling limestone hills, pines and aromatic wild thyme, lavender and rosemary.

Try his 2013 Château de Lascaux Languedoc Blanc, France (Luxury 45078; $17.99), a delicious blend of vermentino, roussanne, marsanne and viognier. After fermentation at cool temperatures to preserve the purity of the fruit, the wine aged in tanks without seeing any oak-barrel aging.

The resulting wine unfolds a lovely golden color with honeydew, pear and light herbal notes. Ripe peach and apricot flavors with hints of lavender balance with crisp acidity The fruity, yet dry, finish pairs beautifully with grilled fish. Recommended.

The 2013 Domaine de Saint Antoine Syrah Pays du Gard IGP, France (Luxury 33397; Chairman’s Selection, on sale: $8.99) provides a tasty rendition of a single red grape variety. Grown on a rocky, limestone plateau near the old Roman city of Nîmes in the Languedoc’s eastern sector, the terroir resembles that of the nearby famed appellation of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

The vines toil in blistering-hot days tempered by cool nights. Breezes off the Mediterranean help keep the fruit clean and free of molds and pests.

After harvesting by hand and careful sorting, the wine ferments in tanks to highlight ripe fruitiness. The resulting wine unfolds a concentrated dark color redolent of black and red fruits, spicy black pepper and light, earthy notes. Ripe dark-fruit and black-licorice flavors balance with subtle meaty notes, fresh acidity and smooth, yet firm, tannins. Pair the wine with either grilled burgers or slowly barbecued ribs. Highly recommended.

Dave DeSimone writes about wine for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at ddesimone@tribweb.com.

Jason Cato is a Tribune-Review assistant city editor. You can contact Jason at 412-320-7936, jcato@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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