|The Trick: Look for the Importer's Label|
"There is a simple, usually failsafe means of determining whether a foreign wine is worth buying if you are having trouble deciphering the label: Flip the bottle around and see who imported it."
And indeed, after enjoying another evening tasting French wines brought to California by importer Return to Terroir, I've come to realize how good that advice is.
I first met the importer's representative, Raphael Knapp, when invited to a small wine event he held a few years ago in a San Francisco restaurant to promote some of the wines his firm represents. I was impressed: The wines, all French, were tasty, enjoyable, pleasant -- and, it turns out, very reasonably priced. And you know how hard it can be to find an affordable French wine without being disappointed.
Raphael and his colleagues perform this trick by finding wines from little-known winemakers, from places near but not in the most expensive winemaking areas of France, wines that are a bit offbeat and underappreciated.
Raphael, I've discovered and confirmed in subsequent tastings over the years, has the knack.
How does he do it? By finding new-generation winemakers, wines made from grapes we hardly know in America, and chateaux that are just over the hill from the more renowned and expensive ones. Here is his description of his most recent trip to France to find more wines.
"Ten days, 60 wineries selected and visited, 2000 kms driven through the French countryside, and a dozen wineries added to my imports pipeline (Montlouis, Cahors, Gaillac, Fronton, Northern Rhone, Jura and Alsace). Grapes include: Chenin Blanc, Malbec, Negrette, Braucol, Loin de l'Oeil, Mauzac, Viognier, Savagnin, Pinot Blanc, and more... Many are organic, all are Vignerons Independants. Mission accomplished. France is beautiful, the wines are better than ever, with so many young, ambitious winemakers. Most importantly, the new generation understands that French wines = diversity. Every region sees a resurgence of native grapes. I am so excited of introducing that diversity to our California customer friends. And I cannot wait to my next trip when i will visit more of the exciting southwest, Marcillac and smaller appellations from Provence and Languedoc Roussillon."
"If you don't know the Negrette, Savagnin, Jacquere, Baco, Folle Blanche, Picpoul, Mauzac, Duras, or Altesse grapes, you will soon, thanks to France's exciting NEW GENERATION of young, passionate winemakers. Outside the beaten path of Bordeaux and Burgundy, the country is home to dozens of indigenous grapes and this is so exciting!!"
Alameda Wine Co., next to the movie theater on the San Francisco Bay island of Alameda. Only a dozen were there to enjoy Raphael's latest discoveries -- and the wines were, as usual, most enjoyable, and the company most amusing. Let's take a look -- bearing in mind that all these wines are available at the restaurants and wine bars Raphael supplies, specifically in this case the Alameda Wine Co., rather than in stores. Expect to pay between $13 and $38 a bottle; bargain prices for the flavor.
First up was a white, a 2010 Picpoul-de-Pinet from Languedoc Roussillon, along the Mediterranean coast, made by Domain Felines Jourdan. This is an acid-clean white knicknamed in French "lip-stinger" because of the acid tang. I liked it, and imagine it would go well with most foods. The bottle is tall and thin, like a German white, and has a Celtic cross design on it; Picpoul is a Celtic word, and wine was first made here in Roman times.
I now see why Decanter Magazine wrote about Picpoul from this winemaker as a white that is becoming suddenly fashionable: "Climate change may have something to do with it, but this citrusy mineral wine has bright acidity, making it perfect for summer days... [Domain Felines Jourdan] is, for me, the top Picopul de Pinet producer."
Next we had a Rose. Chateau Flotie produces a Fronton Rose 2010, made from Negrette, a dark-red native grape grown mainly in southwest France near Toulouse a descended from a grape grown in Cyprus). Legend says it was brought to France by the Knights of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem during the time of the 12th-century Crusades.
This Rose has a lovely nose, a silky-unctuous feeling on the tongue. It's very pleasant, dark fruit with good acid, easy to drink -- this is a Deck Wine. Yum.
Cahors, in southwest France, is "the birthplace of Malbec," according to Raphael. "The dominant grape variety in AOC Cahors wines is Malbec, which must make up a minimum of 70% of the wine, and which is known locally as 'Côt,' 'Côt Noir' or 'Auxerrois.' "
The next wine was called "Elle" and is another Fronton from Chateau Flotis, 2007. It's 80% Negrette and 10% Syrah, producing a rich, cmoplex wine with lots of dark fruit, a big middle, with nice tannins. I liked this wine too. It's only $13 (!).
La Bastide Saint Dominique, 2009, is a Cote de Rhone with 80% Grenache and 20% Syrah; it didn't have the high fruit ofmany Grenache wines, but was rich and tasty, with a nice finish.
Our Bordeaux of the evening was Chateau Cap Leon Veyrin, a Listrac-Medoc, 55% Merlot and 45% Cab. It was nice, but didn't have as much fruit as I think it should have. Is that what "reserved" is supposed to mean?
This is one of those "Why I believe I'll have just another sip" wines that we kept coming back to, until we had drunk it all up and were wishing there was more. This winner is $38, the most expensive wine of the evening, and worth it.
You can visit Return to Terroir from time to time to keep an eye on upcoming tasting events in San Francisco and Los Angeles.