WHAT GOES AROUND comes around, so now one of the world's oldest wine-growing regions, the Languedoc-Roussillon area in southern France, is enjoying a renaissance of sorts. . . .
Wine companies from around the world are turning their eyes and energies to this area, with vintners from Australia and California leading one charge to prove that exceptional winesmaybe even great onescan be made in this area. . . .
Robert Mondavi Winery is so convinced by the Languedoc's potential that it is moving its entire Vichon winery, lock, stock, and barrels, from Napa Valley to France, and recently rolled out its first Vichon "Mediterranean" wines. . . .
This first batch includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Chasan (a hybrid of Chardonnay and Listan, which is really Palomino), Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Viognier, all from the 1995 vintage. . . .
THESE ARE LIGHTER-styled wines that sell for $8 to $12. They're well-suited for everyday drinking and should be available in most supermarkets even as I type. . . .
The Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, for instance, are clean and flinty, with no attempts at heavy oak or residual sugar, which are found in many of the California appellation wines that they will be competing with. . . .
My two favorites are the Syrah, which has a meaty, peppery, smoky edge, and the Chasan, a wine that is entirely new to me and has the body of a Chardonnay and the fruitiness of the Palomino. . . .
These wines were made by Mondavi through tasting finished wines and blending, but in the future the winery hopes to fully integrate operations and work closely with growers and winemakers to ensure a steady rise in quality. . . .
WHILE THE LANGUEDOC, which was first plowed by the Greeks and Romans, is the oldest wine-growing region in France, its reputation suffered at the turn of the century when phylloxera destroyed the best vineyards in France. . . .
Many vines in the Languedoc did survive, however, because they were planted in sandy soils, which phylloxera doesn't like. Because the Languedoc had grapes and wines, the vines were pushed to increase volume, and quality subsequently declined, leading to this area's reputation for "plonk". . . .
Today, there are vineyards there that are producing 20 tons an acre, about five times what is desired, but the Mondavis, led by Michael and Tim, are more excited by the diversity of the area, its varying soils and microclimates. . . .
"When we first went there, we tasted everything and anything, looking for quality," says Michael. "Then we followed the wines we liked back to their vineyards, even studying the area in the dead of winter". . . .
The next step is to lock in contracts with growers, work to limit yields and create wines of greater concentration and distinction. As Michael puts it, "We're dancing with different growers to see who we want to get married to. . . ."
UPGRADING WINEMAKING FACILITIES is another major issue, as most of the equipment is outdated, with many wines being fermented in unlined cement tanks; sanitation is another problem that needs to be addressed. . . .
French appellation laws are also working in the Languedoc's favor, Michael insists, as the government is interested in improving the area's reputation and the quality of its wines. . . .
Blending is not allowed, as varietal wines, such as Cabernet or Merlot, must be 100 percent varietal, 100 percent Languedoc and 100 percent from the stated vintage. . . .
Once the growers are lined up and the production facilities improved, Mondavi will set up Vichon so it's run by the people who best know the vineyards and how to make wine therethe French who live there. . . .
"I believe that within a decade the Languedoc will compete with the great wine regions of the world," says Michael, "but I don't believe it will be with Cabernetit will be with Syrah. . . . "
THE POTENTIAL OF THIS REGION IS UNLIMITED, according to Michael, with nearly 1 million acres in vines and the capacity to produce about 350 million cases . . . .
Michael estimates that that would be about six times the capacity of Gallo, the world's largest winery, and about twice the output of the entire California wine industry. . . .
Having mature vines already in the ground, along with the desire to make great wines, gives Languedoc a big advantage over other areas around the world that are still untried. . . .
Of course, Mondavi isn't the only company hiking through the vineyards there. The Australian wine company Penfolds; California's Kendall-Jackson, Sebastiani, Fetzer, and Seagram; and even Chateau Lafite are poking around with a serious eye to the potential and future of this region. . . .
For Mondavi, a publicly traded company, this Mediterranean adventure offers case volume growth and bottom line revenues. . . .
SURELY THE COMPANY'S STOCK has been on fire the past year or so. . . .
When Mondavi went public in 1993, the stock opened at around $14, then dropped to $7, but if you open a newspaper today and check its price you'll see it's been hovering around $40, which is a nice round number anyway you slice it. . . .
The Robert Mondavi Winery is committed to further growth outside California because, Michael says, the family still finds it exciting to explore new opportunities. . . .
In 1979, for instance, it formed a joint venture with the owners of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild and created Opus One. . . .
In 1984, it bought Vichon, and even though it struggled with that winery while in Napa Valley, the experience taught the family an important lesson. . . .
"PEOPLE ARE THE soul of a winery, and we learned from Vichon that it's the people that make it run," says Michael. This is why when Mondavi agreed to buy Byron Vineyards & Winery in 1990, the key provision was that Byron's founder and winemaker, "Byron" Ken Brown, stay on and run the business. . . .
In Chile, Mondavi's brand is Caliterra, which makes Cabernet, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Carmenere, a grape once popular in Bordeaux but no longer grown there. . . .
Then there's the Italian connection with the Frescobaldi family, dating to 1994this June at Vinexpo, the two families will announce the name of their new joint-venture wines. According to Michael, one wine, a blend of Cabernet and Merlot designed for aging, will be of Opus One quality (and price), and another will be a different blend of those two grapes, priced at about $18-$20. . . .
AND IT DOESN'T STOP there. Michael believes that the next new region for Mondavi will be either China or India, where the winery hopes to begin experimental vineyards and start making wines. . . .
"My father [Robert Mondavi] was [in China] seven years ago and wanted to plant an experimental vineyard, but then there was the episode at Tiananmen Square and that set things back," says Michael. . . .
While wine isn't part of the Asian diet per se, there is keen interest in wine, especially as it relates to a healthy diet and numerous studies that link moderate wine consumption to a healthy heart. . . .
What's good for the heart is good for the soul. . . .
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