Southern France, the whites
Southern France whites prove the case for traditional rather than international grape varieties. The first in a series of four articles devoted to this great source of value.
We have a bad habit of lumping Roussillon in with the Languedoc, tagging it on the end as if it were a punctuation mark rather than a region, all the while putting Provence on a separate and rather elevated pedestal as if lavender, Cannes and Cézanne are underwriters for good wine. This year, I’ve turned that on its head. Roussillon, as it richly deserves, will get its own uncontested spot in the limelight in a few weeks’ time and over the next three days, Provence, along with a handful of wines from Costières de Nîmes and Luberon, will rub shoulders with wines from Limoux to Pic St-Loup.
We don’t often group these regions together, so it makes for some interesting comparisons. A couple of things stood out. Firstly, bottles from Provence are almost routinely heavier than those from the Languedoc, with a few exceptions of course, most notably being Languedoc heavyweights La Négly, Puech-Haut and Gérard Bertrand. Secondly, although it sounds like a trite cliché, wines from the Languedoc, red, white and pink, are way better value overall than wines from Provence. In fact, it is quite clear to me that when it comes to rosé and white wine in particular, you’re paying a premium for Brand Provence. ‘Go west, young man’, as Horace Greeley apparently advised.
Comparisons and competition aside, the real excitement and interest in this line-up of whites came from wines made with traditional grape varieties, particularly blends. The modern winemakers of the south of France have, for too long, focused on producing varietal wines made from easily pronounceable and recognisable international varieties. Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are still the most widely planted white varieties by a wide margin. But apart from a couple of stellar wines from Limoux – which is, to be fair, the southern pole star of French Chardonnay – Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay not only don’t shine in that region, but they are part of the reason it has this annoyingly persistent reputation for cheap, boring wines. I would argue that the core strength of the south of France does not lie in varietal wines.
Winemakers who are turning to mosaic-like blends with varieties such as Marsanne, Roussanne, Bourboulenc, Carignan Blanc, Grenache Blanc and Gris, Clairette, Terret Blanc and Viognier are producing wines with shimmering complexity and balance. Equally, winemakers who are focusing on their vineyards – eschewing chemicals and industrial-agricultural practices for holistic, biorhythmic farming – are making wines that, almost without exception, show extra depth.
Some of the best white wines seem to be coming out of a quiet, subtle swing away from the aromatic-inoculated-yeast mindset that goes hand-in-hand with low-temperature fermentation and rigidly reductive vinification in sterile stainless steel. At the same time, there were very few ‘oaky’ wines. Oak, where used, tends to be subtle, clever, spicy, adding curve and complexity (although there are, of course, exceptions). Some producers are experimenting with skin contact and making beautifully pure, fruit-rich, spicy wines – a million miles from the skinny, mousy, tannic orange wines that conservative drinkers are terrified of.
There are also some singular (pardon the pun) exceptions to the varietal dullsville: Famille Fabre, with their Le Camin Viognier; Mas d’Amile and their Terret Blanc; Laurent Miquel’s La Vérité Viognier; and Ch Rives-Blanques’ simply heart-breaking Odyssée Chardonnay; Ormarine’s barrel-aged Picpoul Acaciae – all magnificent. Also look for the producers experimenting with varietal Petite Arvine (yes, truly), Albariño, Grenache Blanc and Gris, Carignan Blanc and Marsanne. My hot list of blending magicians includes Le Conte des Floris, Ch Les Bugadelles, Ch de Caraguilhes, Gayda, Mas de Daumas Gassac, L’Ancienne Mercerie, Prés-Lasses, Ste-Marie des Crozes and Terres des 2 Sources. I know I’ve left some worthy contributors out – please let me know who they are!
The following 89 wines are presented in alphabetical order by producer (sur)name. You can reorder by score or appellation if you prefer.