On my desk are two bottles of wine. They come from the same southern French producer in the Costières de Nîmes but the bottles and the labels are completely different. One costs twice as much as the other.
The cheaper one, the Cuvée Classique, looks perfectly respectable with its regular dark green bordeaux bottle and standard issue label with a little bit of gold to show there has been no cheese-paring.
The more expensive wine, called Garance after a local plant that once supplied red dye, comes in absurdly heavy, thick glass with a deep indentation, or punt, in the bottom - a sort of first growth bottle. Château de Valcombe's Cuvée Classique 2001 is currently on sale in Britain's Oddbins wine shops for £4.99 while such bottles of the Garance 2000 (£9.99) as Oddbins has been able to secure have been allocated to a handful of specific stores.
And which wine is the more delicious? For me, the Cuvée Classique (retailing in the US for about $9 a bottle) by a mile. It is fresh and fruity and expresses exactly what this region on the cusp of the southern Rhône Valley and the Languedoc does best: juicy but authentic reds for early drinking.
(And that fine exponent of this genre Château Grande Cassagne - sold in the UK by La Vigneronne of London SW7 and imported into the US, like Château de Valcombe, by Robert Kacher of Washington DC - is also making some extremely well priced Rhône-ish white now too. Château Grande Cassagne Blanc 2001 is £5.95 at La Vigneronne. Here again, the basic version seems much better value to me than the oaked Hippolyte bottlings, red and white, at nearly £10.)
The regular Cuvée Classique of Château Valcombe is made from Grenache and Syrah in equal parts, has been vinified deliberately for early consumption but has all the guts, herbs and just slightly dry finish of top-quality, fully ripe, hand-reared, dry-farmed southern Rhône Grenache.
The Garance, on the other hand, made mainly from the estate's oldest Syrah vines with some Grenache and aged in new French oak for 15 months, is to my palate positively unpleasant to drink now. Its flavours are dominated by this expensive oak that has encouraged its makers to charge so much more for it (along with that heavy bottle of course). The finish is so dry and tannic that I just cannot imagine that it will somehow become balanced and delicious with time. There are also Tradition and Prestige bottlings at £5.99/$11 and £6.99/$13 respectively - successively oakier and tougher - but Garance is new.
No doubt the Ricombe family of the ancient Château de Valcombe, who have been there for three centuries after all, are extremely proud of this new essence of what their vineyards can produce. But to me Garance is quintessentially a wine for buying, selling and boasting about rather than drinking.
This category of wines that represent some new achievement on the part of the winemaker (bigger, oakier, darker, stronger than ever before) and another on the part of the seller (more expensive, less of it and in a heavier bottle than ever before) is expanding rapidly. I view this as a dangerous phenomenon, and have been disappointed by all sorts of 'superior' special bottlings of wines, from Dolcetto to South African Cabernet.
What is wine for? For drinking and sharing of course, not for admiring and trading.
But then I am a romantic as far as wine is concerned. From an economic point of view, I can see why wine producers want to sell more expensive bottlings, even in regions like the Costières de Nîmes and much of the Languedoc-Roussillon, whose strongest suit is relatively simple wines. The urge to produce something with a nice big profit margin is understandable. But it has to be done extremely well to succeed. When most of the best grapes grown in this warm, distinctive part of the world have so strong a character of their own anyway, and a fair level of natural tannin, it is not always a bonus to smother it in a layer of oak.
Hervé Bizeul of Clos des Fées, a new Roussillon producer, has also gone into product segmentation in a big way with a juicy Les Sorcières 2001 Côtes du Roussillon which Oddbins is selling for £7.49; an inkily, almost aggressively concentrated Vieilles Vignes at £14.49; the very limited edition, etc, etc, Le Clos des Fées 2000 at £25.99; and, not yet released but designed to be talked about, La Petite Siberie at £80 a bottle - unheard of for this part of the world. (Eric Solomon of European Wine Imports is the American importer.)
Yet again, my wine drinker's palate is most titillated by the least expensive, and most widely available, bottling - wittily packaged with its silhouette of a witch and star on the cork. (Although Olivier Pithon's La Coulée 2000 Côtes du Roussillon, to be imported into the US by Jeroboam Wines and retailed at $18, tasted alongside was subtler, livelier and more digestible.)
The small-production bottling already released, Le Clos des Fées, is in this case very well made. Its intensely spicy flavours come from very low-yielding old vines grown for decades in this part of the world to produce dessert wines. Its velvety texture owes more to extremely skilful winemaking, use of oak and - a crucial factor in wines made somewhere this hot - what is called tannin management. But at 14.5 per cent, this is a wine to be tasted warily rather than drunk - and at £25.99 it is hardly a bargain.
Just to show that I am not routinely prejudiced against ambitious winemaking however, I can thoroughly recommend the superior version of a pair of wines made just north of Beziers by François and his son Vincent Pugibet (whose wines are also sold in Britain by La Réserve shops in London and Les Caves de Pyrène of Artington near Guildford). The 50:50 Domaine La Colombette Grenache/Syrah 2000 (£4.49 Waitrose) is good value and slightly gamey but the Domaine La Colombette Lledoner Pelut 1999 (£10.99 Waitrose) is something very special. It is made from Lledoner Pelut, an an old, 'hairy-leaved' strain of Grenache particularly common in Roussillon that was first planted on this family domaine in 1968. Now this wine, enlivened by almost Burgundian grace, is so full of harmony it sings, and should make delicious drinking from next year. (La Colombette exports to Wine Merchant and Vintner Select of Ohio and Jeroboam Wines of New York.)