Wine, Spilled: Côtes de Gascogne
Welcome to Wine, Spilled, a weekly column in which EMD's Justine Sterling shares the myths, legends, tall tales, and short stories of the wine world, and recommends a couple bottles that won't break the bank. Today's wine: Côtes de Gascogne
It's hard to be cool; you have to be a unique individual, but you can't try to hard. You have to be accessible. You have to be easy going. You have to find your vintage, ironic Hall & Oates t-shirt at a garage sale you just happened to stumble upon. Not be pretentiously odd, but not submit to mass produced trends. Well, this week's wine fits that bill; this week's wine is cool. It's not the easiest to find (though it is attainable), but it's made with the second most widely planted grape in the world. This week's wine is Côtes de Gascogne Vin de Pays.
The second most widely planted grape in the world (the first being the equally obscure Spanish Airén) goes by many names: Trebbiano, St. Émilion, Rossola. Today we’re going to call it Ugni Blanc. Good old Ugni is grown all over the world, from Italy to Mexico to South Africa. So why aren’t you drinking it every day if it’s so prolific? Because it’s not often made into a straight wine, it's made into the hard stuff. Most famously, it is the main grape used in Cognac and, to a lesser extent, in Armagnac.
You know Cognac. Think Courvoisier, think Hennessey. Think blinged-out rap videos with glistening, undulating women. Or, conversely, think of older gentlemen reclining by the fire discussing their ascots. Cognac has been around since the 16th century when the Dutch came into the area that would later be called Cognac to purchase salt, wood and wine. When the wine proved difficult to preserve, the Dutch distilled it into an eau-de-vie, which worked but was a bit crass for their tastes. So they distilled it a second time, which created a more elegant product: brandy or, for our purposes, Cognac. From that point on, Ugni Blanc was all but locked into its role as brandy base.
Where else is Ugni Blanc used? In vodka. Specifically, it is the base for Sean “P. Diddy” Combs’ Ciroc Vodka; bring back those shiny ladies and bumping beats. Ugni Blanc is just base booze for these producers, a means to a hard alcohol end. While brandy, vodka and any of the other stiff potables Ugni Blanc is processed into have their time and place (when poppin’ bottles in the club, when being saved by a St. Bernard toting a small keg around its neck, when swirling a snifter and contemplating Proust), today we're going to take about the wine made from the Ugni Blanc, Côtes de Gascogne, instead.
When researching this grape, I couldn’t help but notice how cruel even the references were to it. Wikipedia, for instance, notes that the grape “gives good yields but makes undistinguished wine at best.” Youch. This is mostly due to its very high acidity level, but also because Ugni Blanc grows in high volumes in vineyards. This does not usually produce very dynamic wines as vines that produce large amount of fruit tend to yield one-dimensional fruit. Well, you need only pop open a bottle of Côtes de Gascogne to disprove these naysayers. It is not that the Côtes de Gascogne region has magic soil or the ideal Ugni Blanc climate, as the grape will grow pretty much anywhere there’s dirt and sunlight. What the Gascogne winemakers gave Ugni Blanc that others hadn’t was a buddy.
Like a wild and crazy, outrageous, living-life-by-his-own-rules cop in an early 1990’s buddy movie, Ugni Blanc on its own is unbalanced. It can't succeed, it gets used by the man and receives no credit. It certainly isn’t getting the girl with its whacky, overly-acidic antics. Then, in walks Colombard, a fellow varietal used to make brandy. Weaker than the sturdy Ugni Blanc, Colombard is often at risk of mildew (which is why it eventually moved out to California’s Central Valley and thrived – but that’s the sequel). It is more grounded than Ugni Blanc, less acidic. It’s delightfully lively but in a more civilized way. Paired together, the two balance each other to perfection creating a racy, citrusy, floral blend that gets the job done and for darn sure gets the girl (that’s you in this scenario).
Charismatic wines from Côtes de Gascogne
- Domaine D’Uby - Bursting with kumquats and key limes, this bottle is fit to be drunk on its own, possibly just by sticking a straw in the bottle. $10
- Domaine du Tariquet - Very light and floral. Crisp and minerally, pair a glass or three with an heirloom tomato salad or fresh peaches. $10
- Domaine des Cassagnoles - Full of grapefruit and white pepper, this wine is ultra refreshing on a hot summer day down by the river (or any other body of water – yes, the East River counts). $9
- Domaine San de Guilhem - If you’ve ever licked a limestone you’ll have a vague idea of how this blend goes down. Bright, unripe nectarines round out the experience. $10