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May 15, 2011

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Southern France's glass of sunshine

ARRIVING in Shanghai this past week to a steamy 34 degrees Celsius made me desirous of cooling and thirst-quenching wines. Many regions around the world make lovely wines suitable for hot weather but few do it as well as the south of France. My perfect hot weather wine is light, relatively low in alcohol, fresh and not pricey.

For centuries the divide between the cooler and warmer European wine regions was clear. Cooler climates made the high-quality and sometimes even great wines while the warm regions turned out vast quantities of cheap low-quality wines.

The majority of wines from the southern regions of Europe lacked any semblance of elegance and were often quite fruity, even jammy with little freshness.

They did have one benefit though - ripeness. In the past when the more northern wine regions had bad vintages they would often secretly blend in the riper grapes of the south to achieve the level of alcohol required.

Other than ripeness, the wines of southern Europe had little to distinguish them. So why are they making exciting wines now? The simple answer is money and technology.

With increased funding from the European Union, many poorer regions in southern Europe were able to invest in better transportation and winemaking equipment.

The same abundant sunshine and heat that gave their wines the desired ripeness also caused the grapes to quickly lose their freshness after picking or be exposed to high temperatures during the winemaking process.

The sun and heat are mostly positive factors while the grape is on the vine but decidedly negative influences after the grapes have been picked. Now with the latest technology and equipment, not to mention more talented winemakers, we are seeing a growing number of excitingly fruity and fresh wines from southern Europe.

Vin de Pays d'Oc

The key word here is d'Oc. Vin de Pays in French means "country wine" but when followed by the word d'Oc it means the wines come from the southern French wine region of Languedoc. Though still infamous as the largest contributor to the EU-subsidized wine lake, this region has an increasing number of quality-minded producers who are making some of France's most attractive inexpensive white wines.

Some of these whites are labeled under specific sub-appellations in Languedoc, but many are simply labeled as Vin de Pays d'Oc which affords the winemakers greater freedom in sourcing grapes and making single varietal wines.

Some brand-conscious winemakers have used this freedom to create good-value, high-quality whites using noble varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and even Muscat. This trend has helped make these wines increasingly successful in important new world markets.

Cotes de Gascogne

Lesser known than Languedoc, but a great new discovery for good and affordable French white wines is the region of Cotes de Gascogne located in southwestern France. While neighboring wine regions produce predominantly red wines, the wines of Cotes de Gascogne are more than 90 percent white.

Furthermore, their price-quality ratio is among the best of all French white wines. The local varieties of Colombard, Petit, Gros Manseng and Ugni Blanc are common but Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon are also used.

In 1982, the region imposed stricter rules and standards for wine production resulting in dramatic improvements. So over the next few months should you need a respite from the steaming heat of Shanghai's summer, look no further than a glass of Cotes de Gascogne white wine.

Summer food friendly

Salads and other cold dishes are staples of our summer diet. They also pair better with white wines than red wines. The exuberant fruitiness and good acidity of the better white wines of Languedoc and Cotes de Gascogne make them ideal partners to the light dishes of summer as they complement the best attributes of the ingredients without overwhelming them.

The lively fruit qualities of the wines add flavor dimensions to the dishes while the acidity awakens the freshness. Three great summer dishes are seafood salad with Italian vinegar, shrimp and papaya salad and the Chinese favorite drunken chicken.

The Italian seafood salad is perfect with fragrant and tart Sauvignon Blanc wines as these wines are specialists in awakening the freshest qualities of the seafood while seamlessly blending in with the slightly sweet and sour sensations of the Italian vinegar. The more flavorful Thai shrimp and papaya salad with its pungent fish sauce and spicy-sour flavors necessitates a more weighty wine with ripe, almost sweet fruit to offset the spice but with good acidity that mirrors the lemongrass sourness of the dish.

A blend of two grapes, the Colombard which provides the fruitiness and Ugni Blanc that imparts bracing acidity is a fine choice. While my all-time favorite wine with drunken chicken is a Fino Sherry, some exotic dry whites also work well with the dish. The key to pairing any wine with this dish is to know how strong the Shaoxing flavor is in the chicken.

Very drunken chicken with an especially strong Shaoxing wine flavor is still best with Sherry or Shaoxing wine itself, but if there's only a light to medium expression of wine in the dish then a dry Muscat is ideal as it offers abundant rich aromas and flavors to stand up to the Shaoxing wine while also providing a dry almost spicy finish to highlight the flavors and textures of the chicken.


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