The Best from Mediterranean France

The range of wines and styles produced in Provence and especially the Languedoc is mindbending, so vintage generalizations are of limited utility. That said, the '97 and '96 vintages, which were the focus of my recent tastings of these wines, are markedly different in character. The reds produced in 1996 tend to lack density, as the north wind that blew through France during the first two-thirds of September slowed the ripening process and preserved acidity levels. However, these wines are atypically fresh and perfumed, and the best of them benefit from juicy, harmonious acidity that intensifies their expressive fruit flavors. At the same time, though, numerous wines from this vintage are lean and green.

In contrast, the fruit in '97 ripened substantially earlier than normal. But due to problems during a very early flowering, the ripening was generally irregular. August was warm and tropical, triggering a host of grape skin-related problems. As in Bordeaux, the vines in many areas spent much of their energy on growing their foliage rather than on ripening and concentrating their grapes. Frequent showers during late August and early September added to the harvesting challenge. Growers who had to pick early in many cases brought in grapes short of maximal ripeness, while later-ripening carignan and mourvedre often attained high sugar levels. Many '97s betray the inconsistent ripeness of the vintage: they show distinct aromas of skin overripeness (or perhaps the beginnings of rot) without the fruit ever having achieved totally ripe flavors. Other wines are reasonably ripe and soft, and some are rather loosely knit if not downright dilute. A handful of wines are notably rich and altogether more serious. In general, the vintage favored Languedoc and Roussillon locations further from the sea, where rainfall totals were lower and the grape skins were sounder, as well as the eastern portion of Provence. The mourvedre harvest in Bandol, which typically takes place a good four to six weeks later than the harvest in the Languedoc hottest spots, benefitted from better weather during the latter half of September and finer conditions during the harvest.

The early buzz is that 1998 produced many outstanding wines in the southern Rhone Valley and France's Mediterranean rim. Indeed, the few '98 reds I've tasted to date from Provence and the Languedoc suggest that the best wines of the vintage will offer a felicitous combination of fresh, ripe fruit, above-average density and noteworthy length. More '98 reds will be shipped this fall, but the most serious barrel-aged examples will not arrive until next spring. In the meantime, check out the delightful roses from this vintage: they're uncommonly strong. Rose styles vary widely, with the lighter, crisper versions ideally suited as aperitifs. But more substantial bottlings with firm backbone make for remarkably flexible food wines, particularly in the summer months. Serve these wines with garlicky, salty or oily fish preparations (they are de rigueur with bouillabaisse in the local restaurants of Provence), grilled poultry or salade ni?se. They also go well with smoked ham or lighter meat dishes that incorporate garlic or fresh herbs.

Tasting notes on the following pages are limited to wines that scored at least 85 points in my peer group blind tastings. Due to space constraints, many additional wines rating less than 85 points have been omitted.