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Wine of the Week: 2011 “Cuvée Rouge aux Lèvres,” Bainbridge and Cathcart, Loire Valley

When we consider lighter, more refreshing red wines, more often than not Pinot Noir seems like the logical solution. It’s the white wine of red wines, right?

Enter the exceedingly obscure Grolleau Noir grape. It even sounds like the aggressive, confrontational cousin to the clean-cut Pinot Noir. The grape is only found in one end of the Loire region and usually only used as a blending grape. If you’ve had Loire Valley red wines, chances are you’ve had a wine involving Grolleau Noir without knowing it. Interestingly, the grape cannot be listed in AOC red wines from the Loire, but can be listed as a blending grape in rosés. Oh, A.O.C. standards. Hence, the “Rouge aux Lèvres is actually a “Vin de France,” usually a term for more inferior wines. That’s not the case here. This is a case of modern bureaucracy and loopholes.

Rouge aux Lèvres on the left

Rouge aux Lèvres on the left

 While enjoying the wine at the biodynamic wine bar Terroir in San Francisco, I was told the wine is as close to a single grape Cabernet Franc as you’ll get from a different grape. He wasn’t kidding.

 Grolleau Noir is very similar to Cabernet Franc in numerous ways. While Cabernet Franc often functions as the unsung blending grape in Bordeaux’s red blends, Grolleau Noir does the same for the Loire. Cabernet Franc provides strong tannins with a very puckery jam, speckled mouth feel. Grolleau Noir has the same medium bitter raspberry jam note, without the strong tannins. In fact, there are very few, if any noticeable tannins involved. Both sport similar prickly, spice heavy closing elements.

 For those seeking a wonderful introduction to the Grolleau Noir world, the “ Cuvée Rouge aux Lèvres” is where to begin your journey. Slight carbonation hits you throughout the flexible, refreshing body, comparable to an Italian Lambrusco. Currants, marjoram, and ripe summer plums mingle flawlessly with a very dry finish hinting of cardamom. Being a light yet sturdy wine at just 12% ABV, the “Rouge aux Lèvres” can easily be both a chilled spring picnic wine or a very pleasant accompaniment to a spicy grilled lamb chop dish with fresh English peas this time of year.

 Bainbridge and Cathcart is the natural wine project of British ex-pat Toby Bainbridge and wife Julie, a native Oklahoman. Toby worked for years as one of the winemakers for the famed Domaine Mosse Vineyards of the Loire. In 2007, the Bainbridges joined Ali and Rob Cathcart and bought some vineyards in the southeast region of the Loire, prime Grolleau Noir territory. Now Toby is on his own and emerging one of the exciting leaders of France’s ever-increasing natural wine community.

Terroir's recent menu

Terroir’s recent menu

 The “Rouge aux Lèvres” arrives in a clear, screw cap topped bottle that almost seems more appropriate for mineral water. That carbonation noted on the palate does indeed come from the addition of CO2 to the bottle, perking up the wine, and smoothing out the rugged acid edges the wine might have straight. The body glows a healthy magenta hue, ranging from a rose outer edge to a dark cherry color in the center.

 It’s a dynamic wine, always captivating, but never distracting. The narrative of the wine is as intriguing as the peculiar story of Grolleau Noir itself.

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