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Beauty, value from France’s Rhône

Wine of the week: Domaine Lafond a seductive blend of pear, banana, honey
/ Source: contributor

A small sea of red wine (and a trickle of white) flows out of France’s long Rhône Valley, and when you hit the right wine at the right price, the region can’t be beat in terms of interest and value. Two wines from a producer in the southern Rhône - one red and one white — provide delectable evidence of this.

The wines are from Lirac, not far from the storied Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and are made by Domaine Lafond, which is actually better known for its rosés from neighboring Tavel. In all, the Lafonds — Jean-Pierre the father and Pascal the son — farm about 175 acres of vineyards in Tavel and Lirac, as well as a tiny parcel in Châteauneuf.

The white 2002 Lirac is a gorgeous, aromatic blend of half Roussanne and half Viognier, the two most important white Rhône varieties. Indeed, we are talking about something quite distinctive here — about as far away from clichéd forms of Chardonnay, for example, as you can get.

The aromas are seductive — pear, banana, honey. In the mouth some orange rind and spice (cinnamon, nutmeg) join the mix. The wine is at once refreshing, complex and substantial and has good length, meaning that it fills the mouth and lingers expansively. And yet, there is a delicacy as well. Be careful how you match it with food. Fillet of sole broiled with fennel seeds was just about right. Accompanying broccoli rabe sautéed in olive oil with garlic was too bitter. Most not-too-spicy chicken dishes would work well.

For some further insights I called Alain Junguenet, Domaine Lafond’s genial and knowledgeable importer whose company, Wines of France, is based in Mountainside, N.J. “Structure, concentration and aroma — that’s what Roussanne makes,” he noted. The Viognier? That, he said, provides an “almost aggressive” flavor, especially so-called exotic fruit tastes such as the aforementioned banana. He called the white Lirac one of the best values he has found. I would put the red in a similar category. Both sell for a remarkable $10 to $12.

As for the 2000 red Lirac, it is signature southern Rhône — big, dark, flavorful and spicy, hardly delicate but delicious. Grenache accounts for about 60 percent of the blend, Syrah about 35 percent and the rest Mourvèdre. As I breathed it in I detected black cherry and a dry, almost powdered sugar aroma. In the mouth, plum, dark berry, mocha, even a bit of spearmint present themselves, set against a peppery backdrop (from the Mourvèdre) as the wine goes down. Steak au poivre and grilled lamb would be obvious food candidates.

On the label, just under Domaine Lafond, you’ll notice the words Roc-Epine. When I asked Alain Junguenet about that, he explained that the elder Lafond had a fondness for racehorses, and that Roc-Epine pays homage to a champion trotter in the 1960s named Rocquepine. Based on their white and red Liracs, the Lafonds also seem to have an eye for wines that will go the distance.