The Best From Mediterranean France

Wine lovers who bring modest expectations to the red wines of Provence and the Languedoc cannot help being charmed by the warm, inviting character of these wines. Generally retailing under $15, they rank among the world great wine bargains. It's only when one is looking for the tang and class of red Burgundy or the complexity and sap of top Cote-Rotie that mnay of these wines (the best Bandols are a notable exception) cannot quite measure up.

As I tasted through scores of these bottles in recent months, I found many that showed cooked, tired flavors and others whose pepper and garrigue character was not supported by sufficient fresh fruit. Note garrigue is the wild and pungently spicy brush that dots rocks and hillsides along France's Mediterranean coast, infusing many wines with aromas of thyme, rosemary, basil, sage, lavender, wild mint, and fennel.] Too many wines lacked flesh in the middle palate or finished with a distinctly dry edge. The challenge facing growers across much of the Mediterranean rim is to get enough build-up of fruit flavors before the grapes must be harvested-before grape sugars (and thus potential alcohol in the finished wines) soar, the grapes turn to raisins, and natural acidity levels plunge.

My coverage on the following pages includes notes on dozens of very good to excellent red wines that will barely dent your wine budget. Most of these wines are from the 1995 and 1996 vintages, which produced many excellent bottles. The '95 reds are often quite substantial wines, and in numerous cases rather tannic, while the '96s, capitalizing on unusually cool nights through much of September, show exuberant fresh fruit, if not quite the density of the best '95s. During the course of my tastings, I also sampled three or four dozen white wines from the region and was once again unimpressed. Certainly the heavy rains of late August and early September of 1997 resulted in many white wines with washed-out flavors or dangerously low acidity. With relatively few exceptions, these wines lack fruit and freshness. But then, I've never seen the point of most white wines from Provence or the Languedoc. The roses from the region, in most cases from red varieties picked later under better conditions, are much better, and insiders claim that the '97 reds, just beginning to come on the market, are a rich and generally successful group of wines.