Thursday, August 12, 2010

Exploring the Côtes du Vivarais

It's been over for a little more than two weeks now but I'm still missing my daily dose of Le Tour de France. As my cycling crazy brother-in-law — who was up with my sis, niece and nephew for a visit this weekend — said, "This year's race was too short." I doubt if any of the racers would agree (aside perhaps from Andy Schleck who I'm sure would like to have had another couple of chances to recoup those lost seconds), but true fans, true lovers of the sport, are always left wanting more.

Aside from the excitement of the race itself, and this year's edition was nothing if not exciting, I always enjoy seeing the event pass through various parts of the French countryside. Some spots are very familiar — I still vividly remember Kirsten Gum's interview with Prince Philippe Poniatowski several years back when the route passed through Vouvray — while others are new discoveries.

One such spot that was a horizon opener to me this year was the Côtes du Vivarais, through which the Tour passed on Stage 12. I've never traveled through the Vivarais and have drunk wines from the region only on rare occasions, as little seems to make its way overseas. My daily coverage of the 2010 Tour provided the impetus to get to know the region a little better, and to taste something along the way.

Technically part of the Southern Rhône, though actually just as close to the southernmost reaches of the Northern Rhône, the Côtes du Vivarais is something of a nether region, forgotten in between its two more famous neighbors. The region is rugged and — judging from the photos I've seen and the footage of the Stage 12 climbs — sparely beautiful, defined by the range of old mountains that roll across the landscape as well as by the Gorges de l'Ardèche that traverse the area.

The view to the south from the summit of Mont Mézenc,
the highest peak in the Vivarais at 1,753 meters.

Viticulturally, the Vivarais is also something of a transitional zone. Syrah is more important there than in the heart of the Southern Rhône yet, unlike in the Northern Rhône, Grenache is also a key player. First recognized as a VDQS zone in 1962, the Côtes du Vivarais was granted AOC status in 1999. There are roughly 550 hectares under vine, tended by nearly 140 different farmers; yet with only 22 independent producers/bottlers, a great quantity of the zone's wine is produced in regional caves coopératives. As in the overall Rhône region, red wine is the heart blood of the zone, constituting about 80% of total production, with the remainder split between rosé (15%) and white. Per INAO guidelines, the reds must constitute a minimum of 30% Grenache and 40% Syrah, with both Cinsault and Carignan allowed as minor blending partners.

Côtes du Vivarais, Mas de Bagnols (Maria et Pierre Mollier) 2005
$13. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Free Run, Seattle, WA.
According to the importer/E-tailer that brought this into the country, Maria and Pierre Mollier's expression of Côtes du Vivarais rouge is a blend of 80% Syrah and 20% Grenache. While that would appear at face value to go against the INAO's requirement of 30% or more Grenache, it's entirely possible that the discipline refers to the plantation in the vineyards and that the winemakers then have the flexibility to blend as they see fit in the cellar. Of course, it could also mean that the Molliers simply make wine as they see fit. Whatever the case, what's truly important is whether or not the wine is good and expressive – the raw materials are only a means of achieving that end. It is, both good and expressive.

What it's expressive of is exactly the kind of dichotomy I've already talked about in geographical terms above. It shows some of the sun-baked, garrigue-scented red berry fruit typical of the Southern Rhône, offset by the kind of meaty, floral, blue-fruited characteristics I associate with the more approachable side of Northern Rhône reds. It's low alcohol, bright framework, too, evokes the North while there's a baked-fruit character more reminiscent of the Mediterranean. I'd not go so far as to say it reminded me of Saumur rouge, nor of the Northern Rhône reds from Gonon or Dard & Ribo, as suggested by the above-referenced E-tailer. I would, however, heartily concur that this is solid juice, showing some lovely bottle development, and a pretty tremendous value at its $13/bottle tarrif. Definitely worth the exploration.

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