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1999 Louis Bernard Vacqueyras, Rhone Valley, France

Why people still argue about global warming is beyond me. The only proof I need are folks like the Inuit, whose boots are now squelching mud where permafrost used to be, and the grape growers of France's Southern Rhone whose weather is getting much less volatile and quite a bit warmer.

Most American wine drinkers, even those who consider themselves wine aficionados can't be bothered to keep track of the historically variable weather and subsequent harvest quality in the winegrowing regions of France. bernard.vacqueyras.gifHeck, I read all about it, but I can't always remember half the time whether it was 1987 or 1988 in which the late summer rains wreaked havoc with the Bordeaux harvest (87, now that I've looked it up).

Which brings me to my point. For those who don't care to play Gallic Weatherman Trivia™ when buying their French wine, the Southern Rhone now has an easy answer. Pretty most every vintage that consumers can find in stores these days is pretty darn good. Some have been spectacular, of course, and there's the 2003 heat wave which made for some pretty high alcohol wines, but by and large, it's tough to go wrong with these wines, at least from the standpoint of vintage quality.

Louis Bernard has been around long enough to testify that the weather, and the wine, just keeps getting better. Started in 1976 under the name Les Domaine Bernard in the town of Orange, Louis Bernard was a somewhat unique proposition at the time -- a small cooperative of several growers making wine under a single label. Louis Bernard was a small, somewhat consistent producer of wines from the Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Vacqueryas appellations for years. In 1998, however, it was purchased in by Boisset, the family owned wine distribution firm which started as a one man operation in Burgundy in the early 1960s and which has now grown to be one of the largest negociants in France.

These days, Domaine Bernard is still a winemaking cooperative, albeit on a much grander scale. Still headquartered in the town of Orange, it now includes more than 50 growers from all over the Rhone Valley, and has a somewhat official general manager (François Dauvergne) instead of a semi-socialist group of farmers at the helm. Dauvergne, along with winemaker Jean-François Ranvier seem to keep the label on track for delivering decent wines, at least at the lower range of the portfolio. I have not had a chance to taste the upper-end Chateauneuf-du-Papes that the estate produces to know whether they're also worth checking out.

Vacqueyras, as longtime readers know, is one of my favorite French appellations for readily drinkable, food friendly wines that don't cost an arm and a leg. One of the area's newest appellations (established in 1990) it is also one of the tiniest, comprising only about 2,471 acres in its totality. One of the great things about this appellation (apart from the fact that it used to be one of the favorites of the Knights Templar -- yes THOSE Knights Templar), is that its regulations limit yields in the vineyards, which means that when you buy a Vacqueyras wine, you're almost never going to get some industrialized swill that has been made in quantities approaching millions of gallons. In fact, the maximum yields are on a comparable level to the Grand Cru vineyards of Burgundy (3 tons per acre), which means pretty much everything is small production in this part of the valley.

Like most Vacqueyras, this wine is a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault, with at least 50% of that blend likely made up of Grenache. Because Louis Bernard is part of a big corporation, there's precious little information available about the specific vineyards or winemaking practices that went into this wine, but at fourteen bucks a bottle, there's only so much you want to know before you just shrug your shoulders and open another bottle.

Tasting Notes:
A medium ruby color in the glass this wine has a high toned nose of bright raspberry aromas mixed with sawdust and toasted oak. In the mouth it has a nice acidity and leans towards the fruity side for a Vacqueyras, with less black tea and earth flavors and a lot more raspberry and even strawberry flavors that luckily never cross the line into sweet, and instead hang about in the "mmmm, that's nice" part of the brain. The wine has very light, nearly imperceptible dry tannins, and finishes without flourish.

Food Pairing:
As I mentioned before, these lighter southern Rhone wines are great for pairing with all sorts of foods. In particular I think they're great for vegetarians who want to drink red wine but need something that's not going to overwhelm vegetables and starches. Try it with this vegetarian cous cous paella.

Overall Score: 8.5

How Much: $14

This wine, in more recent vintages, is available for purchase on the Internet.

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