If you are looking for fine French wine and food, consider the Languedoc-Roussillon region of south central France. You may find a bargain, and I hope that you’ll have fun on this fact-filled wine education tour in which we review a local red Merlot.
Among France’s eleven wine-growing regions the Languedoc-Roussillon is the largest in total area and ranks number four in the vineyard acreage. This area, which includes the Midi, had been known for generating immense amounts of rather dubious table wine called vin ordinaire. Recently, in part because of Australian winemakers, the region started to produce a lot of fine wine. Like Alsace, and unlike most other regions of France, many Languedoc-Roussillon wines, such as the one reviewed below, are identified by their constituent grape variety on the label.
This lovely region is hardly uniform. For example, Languedoc is mostly flat; in contrast Roussillon is hilly. Several areas take advantage of their unique combination of microclimate and soil (terroir) to produce one or more local AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlé) wines. These wines are usually more expensive than their generic cousins. We intend to examine one or more such wines in this series. Languedoc-Roussillon has almost 50 AOC wine appellations; red, white, rosé, sparkling, and sweet. This diversity is not surprising given that the region grows over 30 grape varieties including Merlot, the single most important grape variety in Bordeaux.
Perpignan, settled first in Roman times, was founded over a millennium ago. It was the capital of Roussillon. Unlike most of the other cities and towns mentioned in this series, Perpignan rose up against French rule. Even though it lost the battle, France ceded it to Spain for several decades. You won’t have to look far to see Spanish influence. Salvador Dali, arguably one of Spain’s greatest modern artists, called its train station the center of the universe and said that he got his best ideas sitting in its waiting room. Small wonder that there is a monument honoring Dali above the station. Other sites to see include the historic downtown near the docks of the Basse River, the fortified Palais des Rois de Majorca (Palace of the Kings of Majorca), Le Castillet a former prison, and the Cathédrale St-Jean (Cathedral of St. John the Baptist). Unfortunately it’s a bit late to visit the city walls; they were torn down more than a century ago to let a growing city expand.
The Mediterranean fishing village of Collioure is a major tourist attraction especially during the summer months. To a large extent it was made famous by Henri Matisse and other Fauve painters of times gone by. The good news is that the view hasn’t changed much. As you might well imagine, this village of less than three thousand remains popular with artists. Make sure to see the old port, the Seventeenth Century Notre-Dame-des-Anges (Our Lady of the Angels) Church and the Thirteenth Century Château Royal (Royal Castle) once the summer home of the kings of Majorca.
Before reviewing the Languedoc-Roussillon wine and imported cheeses that we were lucky enough to purchase at a local wine store and a local Italian food store, here are a few suggestions of what to eat with indigenous wines when touring this beautiful region. Start with Roque Anchois (Anchovies with Tomato, Spices, Vinegar, and Olive Oil). For your second course savor Tagine de Lotte (Monkfish Stew). And as dessert indulge yourself with Crème Catalan (Crème brûlée with Orange Flower and Aniseed).
OUR WINE REVIEW POLICY All wines that we taste and review are purchased at the full retail price.
Wine Reviewed Domaine des Aspes Merlot 2003 13% about $14
Let’s start by quoting the marketing materials. An attractive Merlot from the warm 2003 vintage. The aromas suggest ripe plum, blackberry and a hint of tar. It is dry, quite rich and supple with a long, balanced finish. Match barbecued steak.
My first meal was take out. It consisted of chicken breast with the skin on, potato salad, and a somewhat spicy tomato, red pepper, and garlic salad. No, I didn’t buy this last salad in the Midi. At the first taste the wine was excellent: it was very round and quite rich with a bit of tobacco and plenty of dark fruit. You know the old story about not getting a second chance to make a first impression. No need. I think that the Merlot’s length and level of complexity kept it from competing in a totally different price range. I wasted a bit by trying it with a quite unorthodox partner, fresh pineapple. No surprise, the two didn’t mesh.
The next meal was a stove-top home cooked chicken breast with a somewhat spicy tomato sauce, white rice, and green beans. Once again the wine was quite powerful with tobacco and dark fruit.
Of course I did want to try this wine with red meat. I went for hamburgers and the fixings. Once again it was a success. The Merlot was long and round with a pronounced taste of tobacco. Let me remind you that I am not now and have never really been a smoker. I don’t go looking for a tobacco taste but I do like it in a wine, if not overdone. In all cases I was pleased with its tobacco taste. The wine seemed a bit chewy and very pleasant. The last sips were quite enjoyable after the meal was over.
My first cheese pairing was with a goat’s milk cheese, a Palet de Chevre from the Poitou Charentes region of central-western France. This cheese seemed more like a Camembert than a goat’s milk cheese. The wine was less forward than with the meals, but I’d say subtle instead of flat. I got the taste of plums. The second cheese was a Swiss Gruyere. The wine was intense; a nice match between its fruit and the Gruyere’s nuttiness. I usually restrict these tastings to imported cheese but I found a real favorite of mine, a local Asiago that I prefer to its Italian cousin and, frankly, to almost any cheese that I have eaten in quite a while. The wine remained powerful and fruity with a good level of acidity. Black plums are good, but I don’t think that they were ever this good.
Final verdict. Can you guess? Will the next bottle be as good? I’ll follow my instincts and the marketing notes and try it with barbecued steak.
Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would
rather just drink fine French or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario
French-language community college. His wine websites include
www.theworldwidewine.com and http://www.theitalianwineconnection.com
Visit his website devoted to Italian travel www.travelitalytravel.com
Feel free to reprint this entire article which must include this resource box