Guide to winetasting – part 5

Published by Sally on August 2, 2010

A version of this article first appeared in France magazine, May 2010.

In the full-bodied section we learnt most of France’s full-bodied wines come from the warmer Mediterranean climes and some of the spicier grape varieties.

This leaves most of France being cooler than Mediterranean, though growing season warmth is also to be found in more continental climates such as Burgundy and Alsace. And in a really warm vintage some of these otherwise medium-bodied wines may err towards full-bodied.

But how do we define a medium-bodied red? Clearly they do not have the gutsy, powerful, sometimes alcoholic, density of full-bodied wines. Their definition and focus lies around the expression of tannins and how oak can be used (or not) to portray the tannins in a fine and elegant composition. Additionally, alcohol is usually modest, or dare I say it, medium, to go with the body. In the French context, this would be around 12.5% to 13%. Medium-bodied wines can still have concentration and density, and they (and light-bodied wines) often have a refreshing quality to them.

Wines reviewed below

Wines reviewed below

Throughout the southern Mediterranean swathe of the Côtes du Rhône, Languedoc and Roussillon, grenache and syrah are the mainstay grape varieties. Depending on how they’re worked in the vineyard and the winery, wines from these regions can produce heavier or less heavy styles. More medium-bodies styles often have no overt new oak influence, which can otherwise add weight and power to these grapes. There are several winemaking options that can used to create medium-bodied styles, which often focus on the fruit characters, and their natural spiciness, rather than build structure and muscle.

Following the Rhône river north, the elegant, silky tannins and perfumed fruit of more continental syrah create enviable medium-bodied wines from appellations such Côte-Rôtie and Crozes-Hermitage. These are made exclusively, or near-so, from syrah. 

Further north again is Burgundy, in its two distinct parts.  Beaujolais, from the gamay grape, can made light bodied wines, but it is the more serious, structured, Beaujolais crus, where medium-bodied wines are to be found.  Traditional fermentation, rather than a carbonic maceration, which in Beaujolais is used to make light, easy, fruity wines, crafts a more complex, dark cherry, earthy style from gamay.

Then to the part of Burgundy where pinot noir is king, which also varies from light-bodied in the generic Bourgogne rouge locations to seriously medium-bodied in the village and cru appellations.  Producers using a greater proportion of new oak add a little more weight to their wines, but essentially pinot noir is a lightly tannic wine, and too much extraction can be a bitter thing.

But it is the classical interpretation of Bordeaux that is traditionally the prime exemplar of the medium-bodied mantle.  Bordeaux is all about being ‘medium’: medium-bodied, medium alcohol, medium weight, wrapped up in a firm, refreshing acid structure, with plenty of tannins but of such a fineness, in the best examples, that grip and power are not added by them, and the wine retains its medium-bodied heart.

Red Bordeaux, or claret, is made primarily from cabernet sauvignon and merlot, grapes that don’t perform their best when the climate is too hot.  The heatwave 2003 vintage is still fresh in the memories of the Bordelais, when the resulting wines were the most ‘new world’ in style, and sometimes full-bodied for that – tending to richness, fatness, supple rather than spine-firming acidity, and a sometimes noticeable heat to the fruit quality.

In ‘normal’ vintages though, on the left bank, cabernet sauvignon and merlot blend together to create one of the most applauded wines in the world. Plenty of new oak in the top examples adds weight to the modestly fleshed, but firmly backboned cabernet sauvignon, and merlot fills out the flesh, adding succulence. Together they combine cassis and plum fruit, with a sense of place expressed in a type of dry earthiness, a fresh compost.

The right bank, with its greater proportion of plump, fleshy, softer merlot, can be a little fuller and plusher than the left bank, but more often than not, still within the medium bodied genre. 

Château des Demoiselles, 2006, Côtes de Castillon, Bordeaux
£11.25 The Ledbury Wine Cellar  
Cork,  13%
Rather than any classic wine, this is from a lesser-known appellation on the right bank, and is thus merlot-dominated, with 70%, the rest being cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. It’s also had 12 months in oak, all of which has created a wine smelling of dark berries with hints of allspice. It’s supple with sweet fruit and upright, refreshing and ripe tannins, with the focus on the fruit. Completely approachable and rather tasty now.

Domaine de l’Hortus, Bergerie de l’Hortus Cuvée Classique, Pic Saint Loup 2007, Languedoc        
£11.95 Lea and Sandeman 
Cork, 13.5%
‘Younger brother’ and nearly half the price of the ‘big brother’ Domaine wine, and made in a supremely approachable style, with aromatic herbal and red berry spice on the nose, followed up by a sweet fruit attack with cardamom and allspice notes, perfumed cherry, raspberry and blueberry fruit with rich and smooth, piquant tannin support. The typical southern French grenache/syrah blend has been made a notable bit more sophisticated with some mourvèdre.

Cave du Château de Chénas, Moulin-a-Vent 2007, Beaujolais
£10.99 Waitrose 
Screwcap,  13%
From one of the best-regarded Beaujolais crus, this has aromas of fresh almond with blueberry and raspberry fruit crush, all of which plays onto this palate.  It has a nicely balanced smooth light-tannin structure with crunchy fruit texture and just a hint of characteristic dry earthiness. This is a gently structured wine with the fruit as foundation for its weight and volume.

Domaine de la Vougeraie, La Justice, Gevrey Chambertin 2006, Burgundy
£24.00  Laithwaites 
Cork,  13%
Aromatic concentration of wild strawberries and dark Scottish raspberries on the nose, delicately spiced with coriander leaves. The palate is well structured, with a typical firm acidity that freshens the core and provides a frame for the delicate and balanced fruit.  The tannins are restricted in pinot noir, and here they offer a complementary backbone to the acidity, from which the warm, aromatic fruits hang.

Domaine Alain Graillot, Crozes Hermitage 2008, Rhône
£16.50 Yapp Brothers
Cork, 12.5%
Pause to smell this wine, its immediate, sweet, intoxicating violet perfume deliciously invades the senses, and is followed up by fresh, sweet, Victoria plum fruit, a silky-smooth texture of the finest tannins. It is seductive, fresh, elegant, sweet-fleshed, and dry. Graillot coaxes out some of the finest expressions of northern Rhône syrah, and is regarded as one of its finest proponents in the modern era.

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