October 18, 2006
Costières de Nîmes and Vins de pays du Gard: Sunny, comforting and affordable wines for wintry days.
Stéphane, You may remember that when you went to this small village in the department (district) of Gard, in Southern France, to watch the Tour de France bicycle race, you enjoyed drinking some very pleasant "vins de pays du Gard" produced in that specific area. Since the departement du Gard is the area where I was born, I wanted to give you a little more info about some of its wines, particularly the Costières de Nîmes that I love. I also wanted to make some suggestions regarding a few vineyards that I like particularly, whose wines you may find in the Bay area. I will mention only those that I found in retail stores in Chicago. The very small town of 3.400 inhabitants where I grew up from 1940 to 1947, Saint-Hippolyte du Fort, was surrounded to the South, East and West by vineyards and olive trees and to North when you started to climb up the Cévennes mountains, by chestnut trees. But these vineyards, most of them belonging nowadays to the appellations of “vins de pays d’Oc” (which represent 33% of the French market for "vins de pays"’), “Vin de pays du Gard”, or a very few to the more specific zonal appellation of “Côteaux du Salaves”, in those days produced a very mediocre “gros rouge ordinaire”. That means that until the mid-sixties these wines were most of the time sold by the local cooperative cellar and consumed locally by people who could not afford any better wine. Or they were purchased in bulk by wholesalers and blended with other mediocre wines to be sold to regional and national distributors who would bottle them under not too fancy brand names found in supermarkets all over France.
The few good wines, that in the fifties received a VDQS (a label guaranteeing the origin and quality of this wine) label, then an AOC (label guaranteeing that the wine comes exclusively from grapes grown and harvested in the specific area of the appellation, and is produced and vinified according to very strict requirements) were the Costières du Gard. These wines changed their official appellation in 1986 to become Costières de Nîmes. Starting in the late eighties their growers expanded, diversified, and improved in a very impressive way the types and the quality of the grapes produced in this area. They invested a lot of money in modern equipment, adopted new vinification techniques, and hired consultants who helped them to develop new products and marketing concepts. By the mid-nineties they had reached such levels of sophistication in both terroir characteristics and development of specific aromas, that several of these domaines and chateaux were starting to receive well deserved awards in national and international wine competitions. The first vineyards of the Costières were planted by the Romans during their occupation of Southern France. The area covers 37,000 acres in a zone located between the beautiful old roman city of Nîmes to the North, to the town of Beaucaire on the right bank of the Rhône river to the East, to the marshes of the Camargue to the South, close to the delta of the Rhône River when it reaches the Mediterranean Sea, and to the small town of Vauvert to the Southwest. The vineyards are concentrated in areas around 24 villages, hamlets, and very small towns: Manduel, Caissargues, Saint Gilles, Bellegarde, Beauvoisin, Générac, Meynes, Garons, Redessan, to name a few. But not all the wine coming from this acreage is exclusively labeled as “Costières de Nimes”. Many producers prefer to sell a substantial part of the wines they produce, cellar, and bottle under the label of “Vin de pays du Gard”. Some of them, among the best, are in fact sometimes exported to the U.S. with the name of the varietals printed in large characters in the center of the label: Syrah-Carignan, Grenache-Syrah, 100% Grenache etc. These astute growers discovered a few years ago that the American wine drinkers did not know, or were not interested to find out where the Costières de Nîmes are located, and preferred to buy or order a wine according to its main grape component.
In fact, until the late eighties, very few people in Paris and in the northern part of France had any knowledge of these very attractive wines, and generally-speaking had a contemptuous attitude towards the wines of Languedoc (the largest wine producing area of France, and perhaps of the world, with 700,000 acres, including the “départements” of Gard, Hérault and Aude). Fortunately, the major newspapers and specialized wine magazines started to notice and write about the increasingly impressive qualities of some of the wines produced by serious growers in this region when they started not only to collect medals in national wine competitions but also attracted the attention of well known British and American Importers-distributors, who regularly came to visit with the owners and “maitres de chais” of these vineyards. One of them, Robert Kacher, based in Washington DC, became one of the best specialists of Costières and Vins de Pays du Gard and he can claim nowadays to have been the pioneer in recognizing their great quality-price ratio and introducing them in the American marketplace. www.robertkacherselections.com The soil of most of the Costières area is made of round rolled pebbles called “gress’’, and of a peculiar type of reddish clay. To be officialy recognized and labeled as AOC the red wines must be made of at least of 20% of Syrah, 25% of Grenache, and 40% of Carignan. The whites are made mainly of Grenache blanc, and in lesser proportions Clairette and sometimes Roussane or Bourboulenc. The very fragrant lovely rosés are made of Carignan, Cinsault, Mouverdre, and some Syrah. Some people think that the characteristics of the Costières de Nimes, in terms of grapes and aromas, are much closer to those of their neighbors to the North-east, the Côtes-du-Rhône, and for a long time the appellation was included in the classification of Southern Rhône. But it is, for my taste, definitely a Languedoc wine. In the summer the fruity but dry rosés are perfect companions to salades niçoises, taboulé, stuffed peppers, olives, sauteed or marinated mushrooms, tapenade, ham, patés, and cheese platters, or even pizza and barbecued chicken. All year long the reds, which are intense, with concentrated aromas of red berries, vanilla, and sometimes a trace of licorice or leather, and benefit from lovely mellow tannins, can be enjoyed with lamb and beef dishes, especially leg of lamb and “daube de boeuf”, a regional beef stew. They are beautiful matches to venison dishes and to grilled rabbit, as well as any kind of grilled sausage. The whites are becoming more complex and seductive every year. They are enjoyable as a pre-dinner drink (apéritif), with chicken dishes cooked in a sauce, and with any kind of goat cheese. Here are my 10 favorites COSTIERES ROUGES AND ROSES, that you can find in Chicago stores, like BINNY’S or the beautiful shop of KENSINGTON’S WINES (http://www.kensingtonsfinewines.com/) that specializes in special events, internet sales and auctions. They are listed in decreasing order of preference: Chateau de Valcombe Chateau Mourgues Du Grès (Cuvée Galets Rouges if you can find it) Château d’Or et de Gueules Château de Campuget. After a long eclipse from Chicago, they found a new importer and their very fine wines are again available in several stores, including SAM's. Chateau Grande Cassagne Mas des Bressades Domaine des Cantarelles Chateau Guiot Cuvée des Launes (Cave coopérative de Galician) Mas Carlot Like I said earlier, you can also find splendid and very low-priced Vins de Pays du Gard, from various “terroirs”: Vins de pays des Cévennes, Duché d’Uzes, Vin de pays des Côteaux Flaviens,Vins de pays de la Vaunage,Vin de pays du Pont du Gard, etc. They can be made of traditional regional grapes: Grenache, Syrah, Carignan, Mourverdre, Cinsault, Grenache blanc, Ugni blanc, Roussane, or from other “cépages nobles” that started to be planted and vinifie with success in the late seventies in that area: Cabernet-sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Viognier. Here are some very good Vins de pays du Gard (red and rosé), an excellent value considering their high level of sophistication and bouquet, that you can purchase in American wine stores: Domaine Gournier- Vin de pays des Cévennes (Their Merlot is a clone from Château Petrus in St Emilion) Mas de Guiot (60% Cabernet Sauvignon- 40% Syrah) Domaines des Cantarelles- Cabernet-Syrah Mas des Bressades Rouge and Cabernet-Syrah Mas Carlot- Les Enfants Terribles and rosé du Pays d’Oc Montroche- Cuvée Giorgina Domaine Petite Cassagne
Average prices per bottle (in Chicago) for the Costières de Nîmes range between $ 8.99 and $14.99
And from $ 5.99 to $ 10.99 for the vins de pays.
A ta santé...