A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Counoise - Vin de Pays du Gard, France and Lake County, California

Counoise is one of those grapes that you may have already had, though  you might not be aware of it.  It finds its way into wines in such small proportions that not only would the winemaker probably not bother to mention its inclusion on the wine's label, but even if they did, it would have been nearly impossible to really  get a sense for what the grape tastes like.  It is perhaps best known in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape region of France, where it is one of the thirteen varieties allowed in the region's red wines.  Many Châteauneuf-du-Pape producers don't give any indication on their bottles what grapes and proportions are used in their wines, though, so it may be hard for one to say definitively whether there's any Counoise in a given bottle.  Château Beaucastel is a famous exception as they are well known for using all thirteen varieties in their wine and, according to their website, their final blend typically contains about 10% Counoise.  On the whole, though, the chances of a little Counoise ending up in your average Châteauneuf-du-Pape bottle aren't all that good.  Less than 1% of the total vineyard area of Châteauneuf-du-Pape is planted to the Counoise grape.  Counoise can also be found throughout some of the other regions of Southern France like Languedoc-Roussillon, but not in any significant numbers.  In 2000, there were only about 1500 acres (about 640 hectares) planted to the grape in all of France.

Exactly where the grape ultimately came from isn't known, but there is a story that the grape may have come come into France via Spain.  The story goes that a papal office made an offering of the grape to Pope Urban V during the period of time (the 14th Century) that the papacy was located in Avignon (whence Châteuneuf-du-Pape, or "the Pope's new castle," gets its name).  The grape was spread throughout the region and used primarily as a blending grape until the late 19th Century when the Château la Nerthe estate began to use it more heavily.  Their example wasn't followed by other producers, though, until Beaucastel decided to increase its presence in their blend.

It has never been a star in Châteauneuf-du-Pape (or anywhere, really), for a variety of reasons.  The main reason is that it is only an average yielder so it never really caught on in the more productive regions of southern France in the way that Carignan did.  Further, wine made from the grape oxidizes easily and lacks tannic structure, so it isn't really well suited to lengthy bottle aging.  Since many Chateauneuf-du-Pape bottlings are made to undergo serious cellar time, extensive reliance on high doses of Counoise isn't really feasible.  It does, however, provide nice acidity and a peppery kind of flavor that blends well with Grenache and Syrah, which has probably helped to keep it around in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyards.

I was able to try two wines made predominantly from the Counoise grape.  The first was the Domaine Monpertuis "Vignoble de la Ramiere" which I picked up locally for about $12.  This estate is located within Châteauneuf-du-Pape, though the vineyard that these grapes come from must not be.  It would be legal to bottle a 100% Counoise under the Châteuneuf-du-Pape AOC, but this wine is labeled as a vin de pays, which makes me think that it must fall somewhere outside the boundary.  In the glass the winew as a medium purple-ruby color.  The nose was nicely aromatic with wild strawberry and raspberry fruit along with some tea leaves and a kind of damp leafiness.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity and medium tannins.  There were flavors of wild strawberry and stewed red berries along with some leather, wet leaves and chocolate.  The wine was very berryish with an interesting leafy earthiness to it.  It actually reminded me quite a bit of the Mencia grape from Spain.  To go a little more mainstream, it was somewhere between a Loire Valley Cabernet Franc and a light Oregon Pinot Noir.  Those looking for solid, red-berry fruit dominant red wines would be well-served checking this out as it represents a very nice value for only $12.

The second wine that I tried was the 2007 Jed Steele "Writer's Block" Counoise from Lake County, California.  I picked this up over the Christmas holidays near my mother's home in South Carolina for about $17.  There are a handful of California winemakers messing around with the Counoise grape and Jed Steele is one of them.  This wine is about 90% Counoise with the remaining 10% coming from Grenache and Syrah grapes.  The grapes come from a small parcel within the Jacobsen Vineyard owned by the Jed Steele estate.  Those interested in the finer details of the wine-making process for this bottle are directed to the winery's website here.  In the glass the wine was a fairly light ruby color.  The nose was nicely aromatic with briary, brambly raspberry and blackberry fruit fruits with some black cherry and leather.  On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with fairly high acid and fairly low tannins.  There were flavors of black cherry and blackberry fruit with some charcoal, smoke, baking chocolate and cola.  There was a bit of wild strawberry and spicy black pepper, but overall, the flavor profile on this wine was a bit darker than the French version, though it still had a wild, berryish kind of appeal.  I found this version much more deep and interesting and felt that it definitely was worth the extra $5.

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