If you’ve read more than a page or two of our monthly newsletter since its inception in 1973, you may have noticed that we adore our garrigue about as much as we love to talk about stones, unfiltered wines, and big old foudres. Just as this balmy shrubbery manages to anchor its roots in each little nook and cranny offered by southern France’s arid, rocky hillsides, it appears to populate virtually every piece of literature you’ll lay eyes on concerning the wines from these very landscapes. Garrigue is defined as the bushy vegetation that grows in poor limestone soils around the Mediterranean, consisting of low-lying plants whose vigor is limited by dry conditions and periodic wildfires. Juniper, rosemary, thyme, sage, oak, broom, and lavender are typical in these habitats. The concentration of resinous herbs and flowers gives such environments a distinctive scent, especially palpable in the summer when the sun’s heat causes these plants to release their oils, creating an unmistakably Meriterranean essence that saturates the air. Wines produced from garrigue-ridden terroirs are often described in such terms, with an herbaceous bouquet recalling the wild vegetation that covers vast expanses of wine regions like Provence, the southern Rhône, and the Languedoc. Is it simply the power of suggestion? Scientists have in fact proven that the waxy texture of grape skins can capture aromatic compounds present in the air. Furthermore, the perfume of garrigue is found across many different grape varieties and in wines in all three colors, lending further credibility to the terroir-driven hypothesis of garrigue-flavored wines. Whether you prescribe to a scientific explanation of this phenomenon or simply dismiss it as yet another one of the wine world’s romantic, yet ultimately ungrounded presumptions, there is no denying that redolences of wild herbs and flowers provide certain wines with a beautifully earthy character. Moreover, these nuances can echo the flavors of dried herbs featured prominently in Mediterranean cooking, providing simple gourmet wine pairing opportunities.
Here's a selection of wines illustrating the wild brush of southern France in all its fragrant glory:
They say good things come in threes. How about: Three brothers: Pierre, Xavier, Jean-Marc. Three nouns: Pic, Saint, Loup. Three soils: clay, marl, limestone. Three grapes: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre (plus a little Cinsault). Three flavors: strawberry, raspberry, citrus. Three adjectives: alluring, mellow, tangy. Three fish on the family crest (they are loups or sea bass, a tribute to the mountain of Pic Saint Loup and to the three brothers). Three gauges of quality: biodynamic, organic, certified. Three occasions: breakfast, lunch, dinner. Three bottles: definitely not enough.
Surrounded by storied red wine districts like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Vacqueyras, and Lirac, Tavel is the only AOC in the southern Rhône dedicated entirely to rosé production. And what a rosé it is! Famously lauded by Ernest Hemingway, who declared it his favorite wine, and a staple on the table of at least two French kings, Tavel takes its pink wine seriously. Unlike many rosés, which use second-class fruit not deemed suitable for reds, the raw material here is picked exclusively for the purpose of creating a top-class rosé. Guillaume Demoulin, a fourth-generation vigneron, crafts Trinquevedel’s Tavel—a blend dominated by Grenache—by way of a skin maceration at cold temperature lasting up to two days, depending on the vintage. This process draws out aromatics of wild strawberry and thyme, while achieving a seductive deep pink color. Delightful with a bowl of olives in the summer, this no-nonsense rosé also has the structure to stand up to anything off the barbecue.
Once again, prepare yourself to be wowed. I now have three favorite Roussannes. One is from the Ravaille brothers at Pic Saint Loup (fine, theirs isn’t 100% Roussanne, but who’s counting?). Then there is the Chignin-Bergeron from the Quenard family in the Savoie. Here’s the third. From vines deeply rooted in the garrigue-encrusted, limestone foothills of Les Alpilles, Jaspe is fermented in concrete eggs and aged briefly in stainless steel. A gorgeous perfume of honeysuckle meets the nose, and the wine is at once both lush and nervy, comforting and stimulating. It is picture-perfect with Provençal cuisine, those garlicky, herby, tomato-based dishes that sometimes give white wine a hard time.
Just across the Rhône from its distinguished neighbor Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Lirac shares a similar, yet less exalted, terroir. The key lies in the rounded riverbed stones (galets roulés) that litter the land as far as the eye can see. Beyond providing good drainage and insulation, these stones absorb the sun’s heat and reflect it back to the grapes at night, ensuring great ripeness each year for the Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, and Carignan vines that make up the blend. The outcome is a goût de terroir characterized by ripe, dark, smoky fruit, with accents of Provençal herbs like thyme and lavender. Vigneronne Marine Roussel has worked hard to achieve the stony sensation that keeps things fresh in this rich, bold red, obtaining desirable results through conversion to organic and, later, biodynamic viticulture. Try her Lirac with herb-rubbed grilled meats or Provençal specialties like soupe au pistou.
Fresh off the boat from France—fresh from the farm, so to speak—here is Sylvain’s flagship wine in all its carnal, primary glory. Full-bodied, meaty, with bold fruit and ripe yet substantial tannins, it can be enjoyed now with hearty stews, grilled and roasted meats, or pasta ragùs. It can also be aged for ten-plus years.
Rhône valley, old-vine Grenache at the top of a plateau, riverbed stones… If you think that sounds like a recipe for success, you’d be correct. Stones aren’t unique to Châteauneuf, by the way. They are also located in humble, off-the-beaten-path Cairanne, an often-overlooked appellation with superb terroir. Catherine Le Goeuil set up shop in Cairanne a little more than twenty years ago and hasn’t looked back. During that time, she converted her vines to organic viticulture and honed her winemaking craft. The grapes are harvested by hand, fermentation is natural, and the wines are bottled without filtration. What ends up in your glass is greater than the sum of the parts: an inky, royal purple robe gives way to aromas of black licorice and Provençal olives. The palate has meatiness, with grain and texture—it sinks in and lingers, serving as a reminder that you’ve found a wine not simply of great value but of true quality from one of the village’s best.
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