I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard friends say “I can’t really afford French wine.” Even after I suggest that there are plenty of French wines under twenty bucks, they’re still liable to complain that they can’t really afford “good French wine.”
Whenever I have that conversation I find myself wishing I had a backpack full of wines from the Languedoc handy. I’d whip out a bottle and a corkscrew like a gunslinger from the wild west and set them straight once and for all.
The Languedoc has been the historical home to most of France’s low-end table wine for decades, and indeed still is. But this massive appellation in the southeast of the country has also been home to hundreds of small family estates whose humble wines continue to be some of the country’s best, and least appreciated values.
Domaine de Nizas does not quite fit the profile of most of those old country estates. It is neither old (established in 1998), nor run by a quaint family who has been farming the area for centuries (it is owned by American John Goelet, who also owns Clos du Val winery in Napa and Taltarni winery in Australia, among others). But for all of its shiny newness, this estate is making wines that fit the profile of what I have come to love about the Languedoc: solid, characterful, delicious, and relatively inexpensive.
Goelet, along with Clos du Val president Bernard Portet purchased the Nizas estate in may of 1998 and spent the next two years reworking the property — replanting portions of the vineyards, retrellising others, and retrofitting the winemaking facilities on site. During these early years, and until their own were ready, they made the estate’s wine at the facilities of a nearby winery. In 2001, with its own facilities in operation Nizas first started importing its wines to the United States.
Despite its association with a “Big American Brand” Nizas is really quite small. While it might be a newcomer to the area, the domaine seems focused on making quality wines that represent the best of what the region has to offer. All of the wines are made from 100% estate grown grapes from the roughly 140 acres on the estate. Nizas grows Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache Noir, Carignane, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cinsault, nearly all of which it picks, sorts, and de-stems by hand before fermenting in small lots. For some wines, including their Carignane, they use the painstaking and nerve-wracking carbonic maceration process in which the whole grapes begin fermenting within their own skins. Oak (most often from large, old barrels) is used judiciously and only on certain wines. The Carignane, for instance, is fermented in cement tanks and aged only in stainless steel.
In addition to the wines below, the winery produces a rose (which I have had on another occasion and found to be good) as well as a Vin de Pays d’Oc called “Mosaique.”
Full disclosure: I received these wines as press samples.
2005 Domaine de Nizas Sauvignon Blanc Vin de Pays
A light blonde-gold color in the glass, this wine smells of golden apples and citrus. In the mouth it offers tangy apple flavors with hints of tart orange peel and reasonably good acidity, but lacks any dynamism or complexity that would merit attention. There’s nothing really wrong with this wine, but nothing really interesting, either. 1900 cases made. Score: 8/8.5 Cost: $10. Where to Buy?
2001 Domaine de Nizas “Mas Salleles” Vin de Pays
Dark garnet in color, this mix of Cabernet, Syrah, and Merlot has a gamey nose with slight barnyard aromas mixing with a pleasant, herbal garrigue. In the mouth it has a beautiful smoky aspect as it sits nicely balanced on the tongue with redcurrant and tart plum flavors mixing with the distinct signature of oak that manages to keep some restraint. The wine finishes a bit shorter than I might light, but this is one of my few complaints. 4300 cases made. Score: 8.5/9 Cost: $11. Where to Buy?
2001 Domaine de Nizas Coteaux du Languedoc
Dark ruby in the glass this blend of Syrah, Mourvedre, and Grenache Noir has a nose of salami and smoked meats with just the hint of a floral high note. In the mouth it has a lovely acid balance and a delicious swirling mix of cherry, sour plum, smoke and finally cedar qualities that linger into a substantial finish. Excellent, and a fantastic value. 3200 cases made. Score: 9 Cost: $18. Where to Buy?
2002 Domaine de Nizas Coteaux du Languedoc
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of smoky meats, dark cherry and redcurrant fruit. In the mouth it possesses nice balance and a smooth texture on the palate with an earthy aspect. Primary flavors of black cherry and redcurrant mix with spice box and leather notes through a nice long finish touched by very light, smooth tannins. Score: 8.5/9 Cost: $18. Where to Buy?
2004 Domaine de Nizas Carignane Vielle Vignes, Vin de Pays
Dark garnet in color, this 100% Carignane wine from 50-year-old vines has a nose of cassis and blueberry fruit. In the mouth it possesses a lovely texture and weight, but shows simpler flavors of black currant and grapey fruit that are enjoyable but don’t evolve much complexity across the palate. This is a pleasant wine — worth drinking, but not something I get very excited about. 1100 cases made. Score: 8.5 Cost: $13. Where to Buy?