Mais Oui! 

Relishing France's ambiguity and complexity.

Dissing France — especially if you're a Californian talking about wine — is way too cheap and easy. I've done it here on several occasions, most recently imagining the horror wine snobs must have felt over the revised French regulations allowing wine producers to put varietal names on their labels. Traditionally, French labels have listed the wine's appellation most prominently, with nary a peep about which varietal the bottle contains. That's because, bowing to the concept of terroir, the region of origin is considered an indicator of varietal, so Burgundy equals Pinot, and Sancerre is Sauvignon Blanc.

That all makes loads of sense if you're French, but it leaves the average American consumer puzzled and reaching instead for rot gut. How populist, then — as thirsty Wineaux cry: Tell me what I'm drinking, please! — to replace this Byzantine system with something a little more straightforward. Except... isn't it just a wee bit ugly-American, a tad Freedom-Fry-ish, to insist that another country simplify the way it brands the product of its most exalted craft? I've come to believe that it is, and upon blind-tasting this week's three French wines, I've also come to think that sometimes there is a correlation between the complexity of what's on the bottle and what's in it.

Take, for example, the 2005 Château Le Roc Côtes du Frontonnais red wine ($9.99), from the Fronton region near Toulouse in the South of France. Fronton is known for the Négrette varietal, and that unusual grape is what dominates this intriguing blend. At first the aroma of the Côtes du Frontonnais was deep, velvety juice, but a few minutes later it had a powerful perfume-y scent. The taste was woodsy, with a depth that matched its bouquet. Overall, we found this to be a nice wine with a level of sophistication beyond its price tag, and thought it would get even better after a year of aging.

Less pleasing to me, but finding a fan in our Token Winemaker, was the 2003 Croix Fadet Vin de Pays Charentais ($9.99). We both got a strong whiff of eau d'animal in the aroma, and for him that scent gave way to blackberry pie. He praised the intense dark berry flavors and wondered if it was a Syrah. It's actually a Merlot-Cabernet blend, hailing from a region — and a producer — best known for cognac.

We got our Syrah fix from the Domaine Astruc Syrah-Viognier blend ($8.99) from the Coteaux du Languedoc region. Domaine Astruc has actually gone American on its label, with the varietal name in full view — no surprise from this progressive region known for great values and, in recent years, a notable improvement in the quality of its wines. A deep red color despite the white grape in its blend, the Domaine Astruc had an intense cherry/berry aroma that was somewhat at odds with an almost creamy taste — a duality that, in the manner of a Creamsicle, actually worked for me. There was a slightly charred element to the finish here, but even that couldn't ruin an overall essence that our Token Winemaker aptly declared "charming."


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