Explore southern France in 58 different grape varieties
- Credit: Les Vignobles Foncalieu
If you want to be impressed by wine-linked statistics, how about these: 24 bottles filled every second, 58 different grape varieties, an area of vines similar to South Africa's and three times that of New Zealand.
But forget these and a whole load more overwhelming figures. What does the wine from such a clearly very big region taste like? The answer, not unexpectedly, is that there isn't one particular style.
Many bottles carry a single very familiar grape name on their labels – merlot, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay top the list – and generally the wines reflect their varietal content well. But I believe more character lies elsewhere, with far rarer single varieties or in blends. All, though, depends on your taste: do you like to know what you're going to get when you pour a glass or are you more prepared to experiment?
Enough musing. The area in question is a huge swathe of southern France, the Pays d'Oc IGP. While that's a regional designation for 12,000 hectares of Languedoc-Roussillon rather than specific appellation, there is serious quality control – for example, before any wine can carry the label, it has to be approved in a blind tasting by professionals (close to 10 per cent of contenders are rejected).
What the vine growers and wine makers like – and what is great for consumers too – is that there is so much more room for initiative than in strictly-specified appellation wines. Not only does this result in grape varieties you'd never expect to see in southern France, but it also gives invaluable flexibility in planning sustainable plantings in the face of climate change.
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Let's look particularly at rosé, which comprises a quarter of Pays d'Oc production (a bigger volume than comes from Provence). Recent tastings have demonstrated the splendid choice: I've loved an example blended from pinot noir, grenache noir and grenache gris, and others where pinot gris meets vermentino or where petit verdot is vinified pink. Innovation indeed!
Increasingly, such wines, as well as classic Provence-style blends where grenache, syrah and cinsault are the core grapes, equal their high-fashion neighbours in quality and challenge them on price. Don't take my word alone – Patrick Schmitt, editor of respected trade magazine The Drinks Business, is among many enthusiasts. He champions the diversity of Pays d'Oc terroirs, the freedom given to vignerons and the personality in the bottles.
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"Don't think of Pays d'Oc as cheap," he urges – consider instead the relative value of its wines compared to rivals. "Explore the region, try something a bit different."
Five Summer Wines to Drink Now
To take the Pays d'Oc story from words to glass, here are a few of many names to look for on rosés – and reds and whites – from the region: Foncalieu, Gérard Bertrand, Famille Fabre, Bonfils, Paul Mas. One stand-out producer with wide UK distribution is Domaine Gayda (great choice at www.cambridgewine.com and highburyvintners.co.uk, also hhandc.co.uk and Majestic)
But the following recommendations are a round-up from elsewhere in France and beyond, of summer-suited wines that I've particularly enjoyed recently. First, somewhat provocatively, a sensibly priced and deliciously zesty, pretty Provence rosé, Château des Ferrages Roumery 2020 (£88 a case of six, northandsouthwines.co.uk).
Burgundy is another classic region where prices are often intimidating, so look to the less sought-after south, where macon whites are full-flavoured but rarely over-influenced by oak. Les Enracinés 2019 is an enticingly modern and just a little wild example (£13-£15, thesolentcellar.co.uk, thesurreywinecellar.co.uk).
Bright and light gamay is a perfect summer red, served slightly chilled: Louis Jadot Beaujolais Villages Combe aux Jacques 2020 delivers concentration and mouth-watering appeal, again well priced (£10-£11, Tesco, Ocado, thedrinkshop.com).
I can't resist saying that purgatory is very far from hell, certainly in the case of Familia Torres Purgatori 2016/17 (£19 -£20, latitudewine.co.uk, vivino.com). Not only is this carinena/garnacha/syrah blend from a high, harsh area of Catalonia special – complex, rich, warm yet with an engaging streak of freshness – but the back story of naughty monks and missing barrels adds extra spice.
Finally, to Chile and two bargains from The Wine Society: Undurraga Cauquenes Estate viognier/roussanne/marsanne 2020 (£8) is peachily aromatic, ripe yet crisp, and while The Society's Chilean Pinot Noir 2020 (£9) can't challenge burgundy it offers concentrated cherry-fruited pinot character at a very tempting price.