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January 10, 2010

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Affordable French wines from Languedoc

FAR too often in China the words affordable and French wines have been mutually exclusive. It's true that a visit to local wine suppliers will expose you to a plethora of inexpensive French wines from the top regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy, but the brutal truth is that many of them are not good.

The ability of Bordeaux and Burgundy to make good to great wines is undisputed, but because of their variable northern climates it is difficult to get the needed overall grape ripeness without quite a lot of selectivity.

Simply put, this means it's hard for these regions to make good cheap wines. While they make some good inexpensive wines, the reality in many stores in Shanghai is far too often insipid, diluted Bordeaux wines with alcohol content under 12 percent or excessively sour, undistinguished Burgundies.

Francophiles with smaller budgets need not lose hope. There is a region in France that makes affordable wines that will satisfy even the most demanding palates.

Languedoc AC is located in the Midi region in the south of France and is making some of the world's best low-priced wines. The more southerly climate certainly helps, but the creative wine makers and exciting Mediterranean varietals also play their part.

White wine grapes include vermentino, marsanne, roussanne and viognier while the most important rose and red wine grapes are the syrah, grenache, mourvendre, carignan and cinsault. These are exciting alternatives to the internationally prevalent chardonnay, merlot and cabernet sauvignon varieties.

Many wine makers have adopted the practice of putting the grape names on the label to make it easier for the consumer.

The abundant sunshine here helps ripen the grapes while evening breezes from the Mediterranean cool the vines, thereby helping add complexity to the wine. The hillsides of Languedoc are filled with wild herbs and flowers that also contribute special flavors to wines, all factors helping to make Languedocs distinctive, affordable and fun.

Some of the Languedocs available in Shanghai that I recommend are two lovely viognier whites, the 2008 Canteperdix Vins Attitude, a vibrantly refreshing wine with abundant white and yellow fruit flavors and pleasing acidic finish, and the 2007 Robert Skalli, an aromatic fruity and floral drink with excellent freshness.

These whites are perfect as an aperitif or with seafood dishes. The most important factor when picking a red from Languedoc is the producer. Robert Skalli also makes consistently good and affordable red wines. I'm especially fond of his 2007 Languedoc AOC, a syrah and grenache blend that's deeply colored and full of wild fruit and spice flavors.

Also, the superb wines of Daumas Gassac shouldn't be missed. While not cheap, they are still good values. Because Languedoc reds tend to be hearty and rustic with lots of spicy dark fruit flavors, they are lovely companions to boldly flavored meat dishes, especially those with some spice, like Sichuan spicy boiled beef and beef and offal slices.

With spicy foods, the reds should be served chilled to about 15 degrees Celsius, so the sensations of "la," or chilli spicy, and "ma," or numbing spicy, of the dishes will be soothed by the wines.


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