Wine Trivia : small is beautiful

All right, new category! Taking inspiration from The Drunken Cyclist and his Trivia Wednesdays posts, I will start asking trivia questions as well. I think it will be a little different in format as I’d rather give a longer, single question with context and hints than a set of questions with multiple choices.

I mentioned in an earlier post that small vineyards and thus small production were major causes of high prices for French wines. Burgundy was my example, especially when considering the tiny Grand Cru parcels and the wines they produce. The map of AOCs in Burgundy can get pretty maze-like and the smallest AOC in France is La Romanée Grand Cru in the Cote de Nuits. But if we exclude Burgundy from the equation, what is the smallest AOC in France?

What is this AOC? Which region does it belong to? What’s the main / only variety used there? Which AOC is it completely enclosed in?

Yo ho ho and a bottle of wine

Today I want to scratch the surface of something that has been on my mind for a while about the way wine is marketed. A few years ago, with my embryonic wine knowledge, I noticed that in the US and more generally, in any non-European wine region, the prominent feature on a label is the grape variety. Most of the time, the variety does not even appear on a French wine label.

 I said scratch the surface because I’m sure there is more to it than 500 words worth and I’ll probably get back to it later but let’s start with the basics, or at least some basics. In Bordeaux and Burgundy, you never see the grape variety on the bottle, mostly because well, it’s illegal. Labeling laws are very strict in those regions, in Burgundy they are location based and in Bordeaux they are producer based. You will never see wines from there showing Chardonnay or Merlot on the labels.

It’s not like producers have a choice then, it’s not a marketing choice but a marketing constraint, they have to work within set boundaries. That is not the case of producers in other regions like the Loire Valley. This region attracted a generation of young producers that brought a more modern approach to wine marketing, there are a lot less regulations about labeling there and, to be honest, they can do pretty much whatever they want. You’ll get fantastic original labels there; a personal favorite is the Cuvee SO2 by Domaine de l’R, based near Chinon, proudly flying the skull and bones.

cuvee So2

SO2 is sulfur dioxide’s chemical notation; it’s often added to wines in order to protect wines from bacteria and oxidation. The “contain sulfites” message on the labels comes from there. Frederic Sigonneau’s the wine producer wanted to produce a wine without any sulfites, and he decided it to call it after SO2. No conservatives, no sulfites, no quarter.

This sort of label is unimaginable in Burgundy or Bordeaux where people do thing one way because they have always done it this way. That’s why I tend to look at them as “old” regions and places like the Loire Valley as “young” regions where anything can happen, kind of a far-West approach to winemaking. Now, I’m not going to lie to you, I did this post mostly because I wanted to show that skull and bones label !

SO2

Tasting Notes : Gerard Bertrand Grand Terroir Pic St-Loup 2010

Gerard Bertrand Grand Terroir Pic St-Loup 2010

Region: Pic St-Loup, Languedoc, France

Grape: blend of Syrah, Mourvedre and Grenache

Price: around $20

PSL

I had my friend who works in the wine industry over for dinner the other night and, since I didn’t have any dessert ready, we decided to have wine as dessert instead. My stock of red wines was limited and I chose the Pic St-Loup because I thought it would be a good conversation wine. Pic St-Loup is a specific sub-region of the vast Languedoc region in Southern France. Languedoc is traditionally known for producing a lot of simple, cheap, easy to drink wines even if recently the overall quality has been rising and smaller sub regions like Pic St-Loup have been established. The region produces mostly red wine and the varieties are centered on the GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) trilogy.

Eye: very deep ruby

Nose: Clean, intense. Well, hello jammy fruit! Plums, prunes and blackberry, I also detected a hint of thyme, very Southern France flavors

Palate: medium acidity, medium body, low tannins, short finish

I’m going to start by saying a very snobby thing, but I promise, if you bear with me, I will explain and it won’t sound as bad once I’m done. Deal? Ok here it goes. This producer exports a significant part of his production to the US, and you can tell he caters to a perception of what Americans expect from a wine. This Pic St-Loup is a very easy to drink, very enjoyable and ultimately very forgettable wine. It has very little tannins, very little structure and almost no staying power at all. From the first sip on, it’s pure fruit, very well rounded, very simple and, I think, very efficient. Languedoc wines can be a little harsh with high alcohol but this wine is very well rounded and goes down easily. A third of the wine is aged 9 months in oaked while the rest is kept in vats and the two parts are then mixed together to produce a smooth, fruity result. By design, this wine is easy to drink.

Food pairings: As I said, this wine was my dessert. I think it would work well with dishes that include herbes de Provence. Lamb chops grilled with thyme come to mind for some reason.

Overall opinion: My friend called it a slut of a wine. It gives you everything right away without making you work for it. Instant gratification that ultimately leaves you not totally satisfied. This Pic St-Loup is enjoyable, but it is not interesting.

 I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing, sometimes easy to drink and accessible is what you’re looking for. Ultimately that’s what it comes down to: what are you looking for? If you want a wine that will change your life, challenge you and make you see God, then this is not your wine. If you want to sit back, relax and just have a glass of wine then, by all means, have some of this Pic St-Loup.

I’m not a snob, I’m just French

There is an inherent risk for wine lovers to turn into wine snobs. Wine snobbery is a documented, legitimate, and extremely annoying disease. When I say to people that I love wine there is a 37.4% chance they might assume I’m afflicted by this disease. The number might seem high to you, it is also imaginary. While I was at it, I bumped it up a few imaginary levels too because of my being French, since it’s a natural reaction to label French people as snobs. The French thing and the wine thing, I’m really not helping my case, am I?

Oh well, if you ask me, I don’t think I’m a snob, at least not a wine snob. Of course that’s my opinion and I might not be in a position to judge, but still. I’ve seen wine snobbery. Back when I was living in Paris I had a friend who would turn up his nose at every bottle not coming from the two most celebrated wine growing regions in France: Bordeaux and Burgundy. That annoyed the crap out of me because I love wine from “lesser” regions, like the Rhone and Loire Valley wines, that tend to be cheaper, simpler and also extremely easy to enjoy compared to the more classic stuff. For the same price you could get a very boring Bordeaux or a really fun to drink Vouvray. I know which one I’m choosing. In that case being a wine snob gets you inferior wine, counterproductive to say the least.

And that was a debate about two French wines. Imagine what it would have been if I considered a “New World” wine! This being said, it’s true that I do not have a lot of experience with US wines. It’s not a conscious choice on my part, it’s an availability thing. In France finding US wines is hard. You’ll find South American, Australian and South African wine a lot more easily than Californian wines. I think it’s mostly a commercial issue, the Chilean and Australian wine sectors are geared towards exportation, the US one targets a more domestic market. I you also take into account the local production from France, US products will only have a small market share.

That’s why I’ve been mostly drinking US wines in the two years I’ve been living here; it was time to discover a whole world of wine I knew next to nothing about. I really want to plan a trip to the Pacific Northwest to hit some wineries there, and some breweries while I’m at it.

Finally, if starting to take wine classes is teaching me something, it’s that the less you learn, the more you realize you know nothing. Realizing that makes being a wine snob a lot harder.