South Specific

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Languedoc-Roussillon is about as far south you can go in France without finding yourself wading in the Mediterranean. The region covers a massive area which begins at the banks of the River Rhône in the East and stretches through the ancient cities of Nîmes, Narbonne and Montpelier. It covers the haunting walled city of Carcassonne and extends down to Perpignan and to the Pyrenees near the Spanish border. This enormous area is dominated by over 740,000 acres of vineyards, making it the biggest wine-producing area in the world. Not only that, they’ve been making wine there for centuries. And plenty of it too; it’s been estimated that ten percent of the world’s wine comes from the Languedoc-Roussillon. These days, some of the wines from the south can be exceptionally good.

On the face of it, these two bottles appear rather similar; the same colour (well, almost), the same grape, the same area of origin and appellation. Pretty much the same price, too. But in terms of character, they’re completely different.

Joseph Castan “Excellence” Merlot 2010, Pays d’Oc (red), France (Big C Extra, Pattaya Klang Bt. 449)

In 1907, Joseph Castan settled in the sleepy French hamlet of Lansargues, near the Mediterranean coast, to cultivate his own vineyard. He was so passionate about his vocation and proud of the wine he made, that his efforts were eventually rewarded. Today, Joseph Castan Fine Wines export to over fifteen countries, and produce wines from both the Languedoc-Roussillon and the Rhône Valley.

This is an intense ruby-red with reflections in the glass. It has a gorgeous red fruit aroma that wafts out as soon as you start pouring. The grapes were grown in vineyards at the foothills of the Cévennes. This name will have a familiar ring if you’ve ever read Robert Louis Stevenson’s book about his travels there in 1878, with a stubborn donkey named Modestine.

It has a lovely floral aroma (the wine I mean, not the donkey). It’s actually quite complex; with hints of strawberries, raspberries, peppermint and dried herbs, possibly rosemary. I wouldn’t lay money on the rosemary mind you, but I’m fairly sure it’s in there. You might even pick up the rather heady alcohol content of 13.5% on the aroma. The mouth-feel is beautifully soft and velvety, with a very supple underlying layer of soft tannins. The wine has a medium to full body and a long lingering dry finish.

Narbonne Cathedral, Languedoc (Photo: Benh Lieu Song) Narbonne Cathedral, Languedoc (Photo: Benh Lieu Song)

This really is a super easy-drinker but oddly enough, it doesn’t taste very French. At least, not to me. The wine reminds me more of California than of Carcassonne. But never mind; it’s smooth, classy and a terrific example of what Merlot can do. It looks, smells and tastes a good deal more expensive than it actually is. A month or two ago, I bought a well-known brand of Burgundy costing three times the price. This wine beats it hands down. Incidentally, Joseph Castan also produces some other varietals in the “Excellence” range, which include a Syrah, a Carignan, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Chardonnay.

Ph. Bouchard Merlot 2010 Pays d’Oc (red), France (Big C Extra, Pattaya Klang Bt. 445)

The well-known company Ph. Bouchard & Cie is based in the South of France and has been making wine since 1920. It’s now one of the largest companies in the region. This wine has plenty of black fruit on the aroma; blackcurrants, cherries, a touch of oakiness and a kind of spicy, brambly smell in the background which is difficult to describe but instantly recogniseable. How much easier it would be, if I could just hand you the glass and say, “Come on, get your snout into this!”

The wine has a rich fruity taste with a pleasing edge and there’s a longish dry finish. With its attractive bite of tannin, it tastes very French. Few wine-drinkers would fail to recognise its Gallic origins. If you want something for food, this wine with its slightly tangy taste and 13% alcohol content would be terrific if you serve it cool at around 16°C. It would be perfect with one of my home-made cheese quiches which, modest though I am, are rather good. Even the dogs agree.