France starts fight-back on familiar soil

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel - James Halliday

SOME in­ter­na­tional ob­servers be­lieve Langue­doc-Rous­sil­lon is the key to any suc­cess­ful fight-back by France to re­claim some of its lost mar­ket share in Bri­tain, so rudely and rapidly taken by Aus­tralia in the past 20 years.

If that is right, the de­ci­sion by Hardys (as it then was) to es­tab­lish Do­maine de la Baume in 1990 may seem as in­spired as its sale in 2003 may ap­pear short-sighted. But it was not alone: South­corp came and went in sim­i­lar fash­ion dur­ing a roughly sim­i­lar time frame.

The irony is that th­ese two ven­tures, along with an­cil­lary flocks of Aus­tralian fly­ing wine­mak­ers, showed just how much could be achieved with ba­sic win­ery hy­giene and at­ten­tion to de­tail, not strong points of the co­op­er­a­tives that dom­i­nated the land­scape.

Now the chick­ens have come home to roost in Aus­tralia, al­beit in mod­est num­bers. Heart and Soil, the Melbourne im­porter-dis­trib­u­tor owned by Ran­dall Pol­lard, has brought in wines from Do­maine de St Do­minique of Langue­doc and from Do­maine Lafage of Rous­sil­lon, each with a story to tell but with one thing in com­mon: bar­gain prices.

Do­maine de St Do­minique is a new ven­ture owned by Danielle Vialard and Eric Hosteins, re­spec­tively the owner and wine­maker of Chateau Cis­sac, one of the most highly re­garded crus bour­geois su­pe­ri­ors of Bordeaux’s Haut Me­doc.

There are four va­ri­etal wines line-priced at $20 re­tail: 2006 chardon­nay, ’ 06 viog­nier, ’ 05 syrah and ’ 05 caber­net sauvi­gnon (all with ‘‘ de la Chapelle’’ tagged on). The chardon­nay is the least im­pres­sive of the four but the viog­nier sur­prises with its bright, zesty fin­ish. The pride of place goes to the spiced-plum syrah, again with a fresh fin­ish, then the cas­sis-ac­cented caber­net, here clos­ing with a tweak of grav­elly acid­ity.

A small step up is the 2006 La Chapelle de St Do­minique ($24), a blend of syrah, mourve­dre, carig­nan, mer­lot, caber­net sauvi­gnon and petit ver­dot. It has great colour, and though the tan­nins lurk, they don’t pounce on the un­wary palate.

The con­vo­luted la­belling con­tin­ues with the top-of-the-range 2006 Do­maine de St Do­minique ($34). It, too, is a blend of Rhone and Bordeaux va­ri­eties: while firm and au­thor­i­ta­tive, the tan­nins are more pol­ished than those of La Chapelle, the fin­ish and af­ter­taste echo­ing the bram­bly fruits de­tected on the mid-palate.

At the price of the va­ri­etals, it’s hard to crit­i­cise the use of Col­mate corks (treated with a white filler to cover the flaws in the nat­u­ral cork and not avail­able in Aus­tralia) or of be­drag­gled ag­glom­er­ate corks. At least the two top wines have Diam corks to give the con­sumer some con­fi­dence.

With one jaw-drop­ping anom­aly, the pack­ag­ing of the Do­maine Lafage wines is as classy and so­phis­ti­cated as that of St Do­minique is pal­pa­bly cheap.

Ex­pen­sive bot­tles, with spun-on long an­odised cap­sules and crisp front la­bels on wo­ven pa­per, the back la­bels in both French and English telling you all you need to know are un­am­bigu­ously im­pres­sive.

The cheap­est of the three, 2005 Cote Sud ($18.99), a blend of syrah, grenache and caber­net, earned 90 points from revered Amer­i­can critic Robert Parker and the com­ment: ‘‘ A wine this rich and com­plex and with a fin­ish this long takes on an aura of un­re­al­ity when one sees the price.’’

For my money, the un­re­al­ity comes with the dis­cov­ery a plas­tic cork has been used, con­demn­ing the wine to ox­i­da­tion be­fore too long. The good news is that it is very ami­able and ready to drink.

The skill of owner-wine­maker Jean-Marc Lafage, a con­sul­tant to winer­ies in France, Spain and Chile, shines through the two top wines. The 2006 Cu­vee Cen­te­naire Blanc ($29.90), from 100-year-old grenache blanc vines (and some rous­sanne), is the best wine of this widely planted variety (in France and Spain) I have tasted.

An aro­matic bou­quet of poached pear and cloves leads into a fleshy yet fresh palate, a pinch of oak do­ing what it is meant to, then a twist of cit­rus on the fin­ish ties the par­cel to­gether. And a Diam cork does its job, too. I sus­pect that Do­maine Lafage is here to stay.


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