Region: Vin de Pays des Pyrénées-Orientales, France
Tasted: September 1, 2012
I have a confession to make. Anyone with even the slightest sense of taste and decency will have an immediate impulse to judge me, but please, allow me to explain, as I believe that I have atoned for the sin. The confession is this: until earlier this year, I almost always tended away from French wine. It just did not do it for me. Italian wines with their soft, fruity notes, or Spanish wines with their buttery sweetness - those were for me. French wines were venerable, yes, but compared to the their smooth, warm, friendly, outgoing-yet-relaxed Mediterranean counterparts they were cold, angular, unbending, stressed and stressful. At least, that is the impression that I let myself keep, for no reason other than that it was there.
All of that changed in February. The evening of February 18, 2012, to be specific. The inestimable Lettie Teague had a wonderful article in The Wall Street Journal that weekend entitled "Saying Oui and Si to France's Most Spanish Wines" in which she explored the offerings of France's Roussillon region.
We learn in the article how it came to be that there is, indeed, an entire region of French people who identify primarily as something other than French, we learn how such a relatively small sliver of land produces more wine than the rest of the country combined (indeed, it produces more wine than most entire countries), and we learn that Roussillon makes reds, whites, and even a fortified wine. Then comes the surprise: we learn that the wines do not taste like French wine. Ms. Teague explains:
In fact, Spain may a better reference point for Roussillon than France. Tim O'Rourke, manager of Weygandt-Metzler Wines in Washington, said that he sells Roussillon wines most easily to Spanish-wine lovers. "When I talk about the Roussillon, I talk about how the wines resemble those from Spain. It's not like I'm going to sell a Burgundy lover a bottle of wine from the Roussillon," he said.
I thought to myself, "Resembles Spanish wine, eh? I like Spanish wine. Sounds like a good place to open the door into French wines for myself." So I got myself a bottle of 2009 Cuvée de Peña Rouge, which is made by Château de Pénain the little Roussillon commune of Cases de Pene, took my first step into Gallic oenology, and have not looked back. One day I am eschewing anything north of the Pyrenees, and the next day I am reviewing a Bordeaux. It is wonderful to have that door open to me.
The Cuvée de Peña, by the way, is exquisite. It has a very robust red color; one cannot see through it, and the hue, ironically, is Burgundy. The aroma is a complexity of red table grapes, berries, and red apple. It is not pungent, but lively and sprightly, as though the scents are especially anxious to leap from the glass right away. The wine has fruity notes of red apple, purple plum, and a touch of berry, all balanced with a little acid and tannins. With its supple body, the Cuvée is almost sensual, caressing the mouth and gliding tenderly, tantalizingly down the throat, leaving finishing notes of pomegranate and strawberry to keep one company until the next sip.
After twenty minutes of breathing, the nose is much mellowed, with aromas of peach and fresh melon. The palate is the same, though a little relaxed in the tannin and acidity departments. It is smoother now, and the same peaches and melon reappear as the Cuvée takes the plunge.
The story gets even better, by the way. When I was first shopping for the Roussillon, one bottle said "Vin de Pays des Pyrénées-Orientales," another said "Vin de Pays d'Oc," still another said "Appellation Muscat de Rivesaltes Controlée," and there were a dozen more. I had no idea what any of that meant. Just find me the one that says "Roussillon"!! I felt a little silly surrounded by scores of different wines, with labels plastered in all sorts of text, not being able to pick out which are from an entire region. So after the shopkeeper helped me find this one, I went home, researched a little, got a couple of books, researched a little more, kept up with the material by doing plenty of product testing (in the interest of education, you see), and found myself so fascinated that there was no avoiding the inevitable: I must become part of the world of wine. The result has been my enthusiastic entry into just that world by way of this website that you are reading right now.
I believe that a thank you is due Ms. Teague for both introducing me to French wine and getting me interested in the larger world of wine. It is, and promises to forever continue being, an exhilarating experience.