On the global wine scene, it's easy to think of France as a nation of oenophile purists, protectors of tradition, defenders of the industry's most time-honored practices. Even when the industry as a whole seems to rally around technological innovation, France's regulation-burdened system tends to lag behind. That's why it came as a surprise when I recently tasted three French wines — all offbeat white blends — and found nary a natural cork among them. That's right: 1) screwcap, 2) screwcap, and 3) synthetic cork were the closures of choice for value wines from the houses of Abel Clément, the Producteurs Plaimont, and — perhaps most shockingly — Baron Philippe de Rothschild (he of the long-standing partnership with Robert Mondavi that brought Opus One into being).
Taking chances with packaging shouldn't come as a surprise from the Producteurs Plaimont, a progressive winemaking co-op based in southwest France. Plaimont's 2006 Colombelle ($9.99), a blend of Colombard and Ugni Blanc, hails from Gascony. Lurking beneath its peach aroma was something a little dusty and mushroomy — which made an odd match with the slightly sweet, fruity flavors on the palate. This was a strange little wine with a subtle, vaguely burnt-match finish.
Rothschild's 2006 Mouton Cadet ($7.99) from Bordeaux, made of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Muscadelle, had a surprising burst of strawberry on the nose, along with a little citrus. This dry, tart wine brought oranges to mind; its fun, strong flavors would be best paired with food. Or, as our Token Winemaker suggests, use it for sangria.
Finally, the standout of this tasting and one of the best bargain whites I've tried in a while: the 2007 Abel Clément ($7.99) from Côtes du Rhône. Made from Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, and Viognier, this wine had a strong floral aroma, peach and apricot flavors, and a dry, woodsy quality that could appeal to a range of tastes. Our Token Winemaker praised its surprisingly full body, crispness, and nice balance. Maybe the adoption of screwcaps in France is a simple matter of strength in numbers, because Abel Clément also is a cooperative — this one based in the Southern Rhône.
Of course, there's no shortage of winemaking Francophiles right here in the East Bay. Consider Steve Edmunds of Edmunds St. John, one of the original "Rhône Rangers" famous for championing Rhône varietals in California. Or Jared and Tracey Brandt, who received their training from Rhône vintner Éric Texier. Or Jerome Aubin, whose Verve French Colombard hails from Gascony. You can sample the wares of the Brandts' A Donkey and Goat winery, Aubin Cellars, and thirteen other local wineries this Saturday, Aug. 9, at 2 p.m. at the Urban Wine Experience held in the Meadow at Jack London Square. For more information, visit EastBayVintners.com.