Wine Tasting in Southern France

Guest Post by Don

Do people really drink this much wine? I’ve asked myself that just about every time we’ve taken to the highways around southern France this last year.

Vineyards seem to line every road, from the major auto routes to the tiny farm lanes around our house. They climb up and over the foothills of the Pyrenees and the Cevennes mountains and carpet the plains of the Rhone valley and the Languedoc. The French grow grapes like Iowans grow corn. Hence the “wine lake” description for the south of France.

IMG_3986Most of the vineyards in our part of the country are modest affairs, with the grapes going to the local caves cooperatives where small farmers pool their resources for production and marketing. The wines produced are generally drinkable but undistinguished, and sold, often in bulk, to the local clientele.  They also make up more than half of the wine produced in France.

Mixed in with the small farmers , particularly in the higher rent regions like the Rhone valley, are a number of independent producers who make and market their own wares.  In some heavily-trafficked areas you see signs advertising these wineries and promising tastings, etc., not unlike what you find in other wine regions like the Napa Valley and Tuscany, but there are many, many more that are anonymous and open to the public only if you can get them to answer the phone, make a reservation for a visit, and then actually find the domaine.

We visited three, based on liking their wines and geographical convenience. We first encountered M & S Ogier D’Ampuis at the Marché aux Vins de Côte-Rôtie where we very much enjoyed their wines and received a gracious invitation to visit their winery from the charming Julie. It took a few months to work out the logistics but we finally got it scheduled when we had another couple visiting.

Vineyards above Ampuis, Rhone Valley

Vineyards above Ampuis, Rhone Valley

The story goes that the Ogiers had long grown grapes and sold them to some of the top Côte-Rôtie producers. In the 80s they decided to start making their own wines and have been amazingly successful, producing a number of Parker 99 and 100 point Côte-Rôties. They have also gained a real following for several VDP (vins de pays, a designation given to wines not technically meeting the requirements for an AOC) wines made from parcels surrounding Ampuis but not within the Côte-Rôtie AOC.

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When we arrived we were greeted briefly by Stephane, who has taken over the operation from his father, Michel. He apologized for not being able to spend more time with us but he was in the middle of racking (siphoning the wine off of the lees and transferring to another barrel) and had to run. The week before he had been on a marketing tour in the US and tomorrow he would probably be pruning vines. Not quite a one-man operation but you get the feeling there isn’t much Stephane doesn’t do.

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The still charming Julie then reappeared to guide us through a tasting. We had a very nice sampling of six wines and as things were winding down Stephane appeared and dropped off a half bottle of one of his prized 100 point wines for us to sample. Frankly, it was an incredible gesture and considering that this was a free tasting. Something that would be unheard of most places.

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The second winery we visited was Mas des Bressades, just east of Nimes and on the northern edge of the Camargue. We’ve enjoyed their rose wines in the US and another visiting couple was very taken with a bottle of their red we had at the house for dinner one night. They insisted that we visit the winery.

We found the winery with little problem but unfortunately it was closed because of one of the ubiquitous French May holidays.  No worries, we returned the next day without an appointment and were warmly greeted.

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The family has been producing wine here for six generations and it’s still a very family run operation. Like Stephane at Ogier, Cyril seems to have his hand in everything, popping in to join us for the tasting, rummaging around the warehouse/cellar finding the bottles we wanted to buy, and even running into the vineyard on his way outto pluck off an offending tendril that had caught his eye. Clearly a man passionate about his wines and proud of his operation.

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The third domaine we visited was Chateau Puech Haut, between Nimes and Montpellier and at the southern edge of the Pic St. Loup region.

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Much larger and more commercial feeling, they had a real tasting room, a showcase cellar behind glass, and a dedicated staff attending to visitors. They also have some very interesting wines and judging by the number of people there a pretty good following.

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So, back to my opening question. It turns out that the answer is no, people really don’t drink this much wine. Between the French drinking a little less and increased production worldwide there’s a glut of wine in France. The government is sponsoring programs for farmers to tear out their vines and some percentage of the grapes we see being grown end up going into industrial alcohol production. Still, we appreciate the charm of a landscape carpeted in vineyards.

Near St Etienne de l'Olm - grapes early spring

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