Katherine Donnelly: Take a breath of French air
'Never pass a Cabardès' is a good rule of thumb when perusing the wine shelves.
It may not have the cachet of other French wine regions, but what it lacks in recognition and star quality it makes up for in delivering bang for buck. And while its wines may not reach the heights of some of its more famous French cousins, nor do its prices.
Cabardès will be in smallish print on the label, and the bottles will be tucked among others from the south of France/Languedoc, but it serves as an example of where looking beyond the obvious and familiar will deliver its own reward.
The Cabardès region is within a spit of Carcassonne airport, so Irish holidaymakers and second-home owners are probably more familiar with it than they know. As winemaking zones go it is small, but it has earned its own AC -- the highest level in the French hierarchy guaranteeing the area of production and other characteristics setting the wine apart -- for both red and rosé.
There are a number of things that make Cabardès special. Sitting in the south of France, it is pretty much assured enough heat and sun to ripen the grapes successfully every year, so vintage variation tends not to be a problem. Crucially, its vineyards are also perched at an altitude where they benefit from cooling breezes, from both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, which is so important because the freshness of the mountain air carries through to the wines.
So what you tend to get is good, medium-bodied, well-balanced wines that don't tip the scales on alcohol.
Uniquely for an AC in France, and reflecting its location and soils, the wines are a combination of grapes from both Bordeaux to the north west and the southern Rhône Valley to the north east.
So there is the lick of cassis, sweet red fruits and the whiff of cigar box of a typical Bordeaux blend, derived from grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cot (the latter probably better known as Argentina's Malbec).
But also in the mix is the peppery spiciness of Rhône varieties such as Syrah and Grenache, as well as the blacker fruits of the former and the natural sweetness of the latter.
At once, a claret and a Châteauneuf-du-Pape in a wine for every man at everyday prices.