The Noble Writ: Comfort Wine


My tastes generally run to the esoteric, the obscure, the endangered and, sometimes, the downright odd. Which isn't to say I can't and don't appreciate more "mainstream" wines, because I can and do, but with so many wines available in the market, I can't resist the urge to explore.

Occasionally, however, I want a sure thing. One of the wines that has served steadfastly in this role for me over the past seven vintages or so is the Les Hérétiques bottling from the Iché family at Chateau d'Oupia in Minervois. The Iché family has been one of the leading lights in the region, producing excellent wines from an area that has concentrated far too long on quantity over quality. The patriach of the Iché family passed away almost two years ago, but importer Joe Dressner's remembrance of M. Iché provides a glimpse of the lives behind these wines.

Les Hérétiques is inexpensive -- shockingly so for the quality of the wine in the bottle. When I first started buying it, I believe it cost about $6 a bottle, and that was from a shop in New York City. Over the course of almost a decade, the wine's distribution has migrated to the Midwest, but the price has risen to the princely sum of $10.

Les Hérétiques is a Vin de Pays, technically a Vin de Pays de Hérault. French wine is organized largely on a geographic basis with the broadest category, Vin de Table, having the loosest production constraints. The restrictions grow as the geographic scope of the wine region decreases, with French law regulating everything from the grape varieties that can be used, to the yield from the vineyards, the manner of harvesting, and minimum levels of alcohol in the finished wine.

In practice, the legal restraints are so loose that quality-minded producers don't need to worry about meeting the requirements. The only one that is of real concern is the restriction on grape varieties: Producers who want to raise grape varieties that are not "traditional" in their region may find themselves stuck with the Vin de Table label as a result.

The department of Hérault is highlighted. - USER "MARMELAD," WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • User "Marmelad," Wikimedia Commons
  • The department of Hérault is highlighted.
There are six broad regional Vin de Pays (VdP), with Vin de Pays d'Oc being the most commonly seen on U.S. store shelves, each of which contains numerous departmental VdP whose borders match one of France's departments (like a state), and each of these contain numerous local Vin de Pays whose borders may be geographic or based on some historical tradition. Today's wine is a Vin de Pays de Hérault, a departmental VdP, meaning that all of the grapes used come from somewhere in the department of Hérault.

The grapes used to make today's wine are carignan and syrah. Carignan suffers from a poor reputation as growers pushed it to produce very high yields of grapes (which, sadly, is permitted under the wine laws) for decades. The resulting wine is diffuse, weedy and not very pleasant. But, when carignan vines get older, and their crop is significantly reduced, the wines can be very good indeed.

Syrah hardly needs an introduction any more. It's the great grape of Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie and Cornas in the northern Rhône, and it has been spreading throughout California over the past twenty-five years.

  • Dave Nelson
Today's wine, as well as others from Ch. D'Oupia, are available locally at Bon Vivant Wines, where the Les Hérétiques costs $10 a bottle.

2007 Les Hérétiques Vin du Pays de Hérault: Deep, full, almost opaque purple in the glass. Nose is ripe blackberry, but nicely cut by high-toned aromas from the syrah. Quite full and flavorful in the mouth, with plenty of fruit. There are some nice, slightly rustic tannins giving an element of structure. Good length.

While this wine is worthy of contemplation, I also highly recommend just taking big mouthfuls of it to wash down some freshly grilled lamb. The interplay of the fat with the tannins, and the slightly gamy meat with the fruit is not to be missed.

Dave Nelson is the author of the blog Beer, Wine and Whisky. He writes about wine for Gut Check every Tuesday.


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