Visit from a fair-weathered wine

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When I first tasted “Les Rials,” the implausibly delightful and inexpensive white sipper that jaunts over from the southwest of France each spring and lasts only as long as our pool passes and suntans, I wondered why I hadn’t heard of it before. It turns out that very little is known about the history of this wine. So I went sniffing for more information. After all, I love any wine that gives me a justifiable reason to drink a lot of it with a sense of urgency.

Usher in sweet summertime with a medium-bodied “Les Rials,” like this Domaine de la Chanade from Market Street Wineshop.

“Les Rials” (pronounced “lay ree-all”) is produced in the red wine-dominated Côtes du Tarn, nestled amidst the Pyrenees in Gaillac, France’s oldest wine-producing region. Grape-growing in this farming region replete with vineyards, orchards and gardens dates back to the Romans in 125 BC, but it was the Benedictine monks of the Abbey of Saint-Michel who began regular cultivation of the vines in 972 A.D.

The grape that makes “Les Rials” is a 1,000-year-old white wine varietal called Loin de L’Oeil (Len de L’Ehl in local dialect), which means “far from the eye.” The name comes from the grape bunch’s long stalk, which situates it near the front of the branch and thus far from the bud (or “eye”) of the branch and the bunch. Most likely blended into the sweet whites popular in England, Flanders and Holland in the 17th and 18th centuries, Loin de L’Oeil became 30 percent of the blended Gaillac whites by the 19th century. It wasn’t until the past 20 years that growing improvements resulted in a wine good enough for the grape to stand alone. Realizing that Loin de L’Oeil’s biggest flaws (over-production, early ripening and tendency to rot easily) could be used in their favor, winemakers began clipping the bunches and leaving them on the vine just through the region’s Indian summer, concentrating the normally weeks-long process of noble rot (see Winespeak 101) into just a matter of days.

The resulting wine is medium-bodied, off dry and bursting with every flavor from orange to passion fruit, but with the torched sugar, creamy finish of crème brulée. Incredibly versatile, “Les Rials” helped us celebrate the inaugural use of the BBQ with hot dogs, sweet potato fries and Asian cole slaw. Another night, it got along famously with tortilla chips and spicy guacamole. I already have visions of grilled asparagus, stuffed zucchini blossoms and heirloom tomatoes dancing in my head. I realize that I need to pace myself though, lest I leave none for my faithful followers. Domaine de la Chanade’s “Les Rials” 2010 is available at Market Street Wineshop, Orzo Kitchen and Winebar and Whole Foods for $9.99 a bottle. If it’s gone when you get there, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Bottle smart

Richard Hewitt

Always wanted to learn about wine, but can’t get past the first page of your Oxford Companion to Wine? Keswick Hall sommelier Richard Hewitt will offer the first of a four-part wine appreciation course on Saturday, April 9. Join him at 10am for an in-depth tasting of blended wines from around the world. In the afternoon, watch blending in action at Virginia Wineworks and then try your hand at a custom blend using local grapes. The course, at $175 per person plus tax, includes a light lunch. Call 979-3440 for reservations.

If you can’t make the full-day course, remember that every Thursday from 4 to 5pm at the Fossett’s bar, Hewitt hosts a tasting of Virginia wines. For $10, you get the view, the wine and the facts.

Winespeak 101

Noble rot (n.): a form of fungus (Botrytis) that grows under wet conditions on ripe wine grapes. If conditions stay wet, the fungus destroys the grapes; dry conditions, on the other hand, partially raisin-ate the grapes, introducing a welcome infection which results in very sweet, concentrated wines.

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