Puydeval, from the heart of the Languedoc but with its own heart beating

January 19, 2011 § 2 Comments

From Portland Press Herald, January 19, 2011

I recently got in over my head writing publicly about an issue that involves many different people. Of the myriad lessons relearned from that experience, perhaps these are the most lasting: Write only from direct personal experience, respect your readers and choose contexts appropriately.

I try to write about wine as a lover of wine rather than any kind of “objective” critic, and just hope that my subjective experience resonates with yours. This approach continually presents the danger of self-absorption, but my own experience is in the end all I can trust, so I take that risk.

I’ve come to these what’s-it-all-about contemplations tasting the latest vintage of Puydeval, a red wine that has become something of a legend in recent years.

It’s not a legend because it’s boutique-y, rare or dear. Its importer, Handpicked Selections’ Dan Kravitz, has made his name finding inexpensive wines of true character (some of the better known: Arco Iris, Cuvee de Pena, Plan Pegau, Domaine Cabirau and La Noble) and making them widely available. Kravitz joked to me last year that the Great Recession is one of the best things that happened to his business. His importation and marketing of Puydeval might be a close second.

The Puydeval 2009 is available for $12 or $13, and if your wine shop doesn’t have this wine, it’s either woefully ignorant or perversely contrarian. Many of you probably don’t even need this column to alert you to it.

The Puydeval legend obtains, first and foremost, because the wine is delicious. Also, the wine is made from an unlikely blend of majority Cabernet Franc (one of my favorite sleeper red-wine grapes), syrah and merlot, and has a truly distinct character — a character tethered to genuine terroir, although the wine is made in a region not known for distinctive soil, climate or artisanal attitude.

Puydeval is a Vin de Pays d’Oc, a “country wine” from the Languedoc, which has for decades been known as the primary source of France’s (and Europe’s) “wine lake” as it pumped out gigagallon after gigagallon of inexpensive – and usually ugly – plonk. The region, in France’s hot southwest, still produces one-third of that country’s wine and is the largest wine-producing region in the world.

Recently, though, winemakers have elicited ever more quality from the Languedoc, and ever more distinct AOCs – classified winemaking regions with certain yield maximums, varietal limitations and other quality-control measures – have been drawn up to keep pace. Offer me a Corbières, Minervois or Pic St.-Loup, and I’m thrilled at the genuine prospect of something interesting, inexpensive and expressive.

I’m also drawn to the distinct profile of many of those wines, because they’re usually unpredictable and equine: horsehide mouthfeel, leather-and-barn aromas, distinct notes of a horse’s hindquarters. I prefer such Languedocs, with their earthy, family-farm character and tangled, undulating texture.

This is not an objectively better style of wine; it’s not in closer contact with The Divine, or even The Good, than any other. Just because a wine is brambly, unhinged or sneakily weird doesn’t make it more worthy, more important or more serious – even if wine professionals praise it for their own personal-pride reasons.

Puydeval, for all its merits, is not one of those wines. Its genius lies in its unabashed polish – though a polish that has not forsaken its backwoods Languedoc pedigree. Puydeval is just about the closest I come to liking a wine from California. I mean, yes, it’s French – but it’s not too French. Its fruit is ripe and luxurious.

The syrah has little of the Rhône’s trademark pepperiness, taking on instead that mesmerizing grape’s West Coast profile of potent, deep black fruit. (The generous licorice belongs to both continents.) The finish is ebullient rather than brooding. Instead of the underside-of-the-saddle, rough-hewn texture I love, Puydeval’s frame is enrobed in merlot mink. (I enjoyed the Puydeval more the day after opening it, when the merlot’s dust and Cab Franc’s gritty herb-and-garlic-steak-rub seized the upper hand.)

This is terrific wine, and we’re lucky it exists. Puydeval is real, it’s unusual, and it invites repeated attention while remaining unthinkingly fun. And it’s not quite my thing. But I hope it’s yours, and let’s keep in touch.


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