France starts fight-back on familiar soil
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.