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Malcolm Jolley: Searching for the best deal on French wines? Look to Roussillon and the Côtes Catalanes this summer

Commentary

We don’t have a house wine, chez nous, but we often have a wine or two of the month. It’ll be something good at a good price that I buy a bunch of while it lasts. The really good deals tend to come and go, and they tend to change up.

My provincial liquor retail monopoly outlet is a big enough store that it has a large “Vintages” section. The stock in this section changes over by design. Wines in it arrive in limited quantities either because the producer will only allocate so many cases to the Ontario market, or because the wine is being tried out in our market with hopes that it will do well and be reordered in a larger quantity in the future.

It’s usually the latter category that becomes a wine of the month since they tend to be priced aggressively for an exceptionally high quality-to-price ratio. Sadly, if and when the wines return a year later in the next vintage, they’re often more expensive, or sometimes less good, since production has increased to meet greater demand.

It’s not just the labels of the wines of the month that change, it’s also the regions. Regions will come in and out of fashion, albeit slowly in an industry that measures production in years. The South of France has always been one of my favourite sources of great quality wine at a pleasing price, but the best deals seem to be increasingly found moving west from Provence and the Côtes du Rhône to Languedoc and now Roussillon.

Roussillon is where the Mediterranean coast of France turns left and goes from facing south to east. To the north are the Corbière Mountains which form the frontier with Languedoc. To the south and west the Pyrenees and the border with Spain. The department is made up of three river valleys: the Agly to the north, the Tech to the south, and the Têt, which runs through the capital of Perpignan, from which the Aragon Kings of Majorca once ruled from a fantastically crenelated castle.

Roussillon is sometimes called North Catalonia, and it is linked with Catalonian Spain across the mountains through common language and culture. I visited Roussillon, staying in Perpignan, tasting wines, and visiting vineyards and wineries across the land as a guest of the Consul Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon in May of this year. Of the half dozen or so producers I remembered to ask (in French), all of them told me at home they spoke Catalan.

In the wine world, Roussillon is (or was) most famous for its fortified sweet wines called (somewhat confusingly) Vins Doux Naturels. While these remain important products, especially domestically, the region is increasingly focused on high-quality dry wines: red and rosé from Carignan, Grenache, and the usual Southern French suspects (more on these to come), and whites.Note: most wines from Roussillon are either classified as Côtes du Roussillon AOP (or a variation thereof) or Côtes Catalanes IGP. The rules for making the latter a little bit looser, and the former includes wines that can name a particular village. There are also distinct AOPs like Coulliore. Generally speaking, the wines are made in similar ways from the same pool of grape varieties. The white wines in Roussillon, often made with novel combinations of grapes, really made an impression on me, and one of them is my wine of this month.

Château Saint Roch is owned and operated by one of Roussillon’s better-known and larger producers, La Famille Lafage. The 2021 Saint Rock Corbarol is a crisp green apple white wine that mellows into blanched almonds on its long finish. It’s lovely and it’s presently $17.95 at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.

The Corbarol is also a great example of my often repeated theory that some of the most interesting white wines that are both concentrated in fruit and naturally refreshing with acidity are now coming from warm climate regions. Roussillon has been under drought conditions for years.

At the beginning of May, the temperatures soared under cloudless skies, and producers complained that the winter of 2022-23 brought nearly no rain. And yet, like the Corbarol, the whites I tasted were almost all fresh, albeit in a mellow South of France way, without the clunkiness that can happen with acidulation.

The Corbarol is made with two grapes: 60 percent Grenache Blanc and 40 percent Roussanne. Roussanne gets around the South of France, from the feet of the Alps all the west and south to the Pyrenees. Grenache Blanc does too, at least from the Rhône, but the Roussillonais seem particularly adept at making wines from the white version of the Grenache grape.

Like Pinot Noir, Grenache and its good friend Carignan are not just “noir” or red wine grapes. Mutations of the grapes were long ago cultivated into white wine grapes in their own right: blanc (white) and gris (grey). Having originated just over the mountain in Spain, it would make sense for the vignerons of Roussanne would be particularly adept at making wine with these varieties.

The 2022 Henri Boudau Blanc is 80 percent Grenache Blanc with Macabeu, the principal grape of the Spanish sparkling wine Cava. The latter lifts it up into a particular citrussy freshness. It impressed enough to jot the name down on a paper menu at a seafood dinner on the coast, at Saint-Cyprien.

At the same dinner and tasting, Fabrice Rieu poured a number of interesting single-variety wines from the high-altitude vineyards of Maison Albera. There was a 100 percent Grenache Blanc and a 100 percent Roussanne, both fresh and full of minerals from vineyards over 500 metres above sea level. There was also a rare 100 percent Carignan Gris wine from the same high-altitude vineyard, lemony and weighty on the palate.

At another tasting, Monsieur Rieu poured a wine from Maison Albera called, Le Cépage Prohibé: The Prohibited Grape. The label did not say what the banned grape that made the 2022 wine was because as of that vintage, the Roussillonais and other French producers are no longer allowed to use the word Vermentino commercially.

The Sardinians managed to get the fix in at the EU, arguing that only they had the right to use what they deemed to be the Italian word Vermentino—the French would have to use Gallic word Rolle. The French are livid and refuse to abandon the word they have been using since as long as they can remember, preferring to say nothing about the grape that makes this citrussy wine perfumed with white flowers. But a Vermentino by any other name will still taste as fresh, fruity, and aromatic, so all’s well that ends well.

Opinion: More than a political opportunist, Canada’s most important prime minister was a distinctly Canadian conservative

Commentary

The following article is an excerpt from an essay, entitled “Canadian conservatism and national developmentalism: Sir John A. Macdonald’s Hamiltonian persuasion”, that was published as part of an essay compilation on Canadian conservative political thought earlier this year. You can find the book, edited by Lee Trepanier and Richard Avramenko, here

Modern historiography still paints a picture of Sir John Alexander Macdonald, Canada’s first and most significant prime minister, as the consummate pragmatist who was driven more by partisan politics than a coherent ideological vision. He was indeed the ultimate coalition builder, the ultimate deal maker, the master compromiser. But this political savvy and skillful statecraft, which made him a successful and dominant political force, was, according to the standard historiographical narrative, not matched by any serious underlying worldview or ideology. While scholars may accept that he had instinctual loyalties and political leanings, the prevailing story is that Macdonald’s concerns were ultimately practical and prudential, not philosophical or ideological, and it was this lack of coherent political worldview that ultimately made him an effective political operative.

His legacy has also at times been diminished by modern conservatives who have both accepted the academic historians’ characterization of Macdonald as an unrooted political opportunist and criticized his use of the levers of state power (including preferential tariffs and business subsidies) to actively shape certain market outcomes as out of step with contemporary libertarian economics. It is not uncommon, for instance, particularly among young conservatives, to instead elevate Liberal Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier (who was known for rhetorical flourishes such as “Canada is free and freedom is its nationality”) as the real antecedent to modern conservatism’s emphasis on economic freedom in general and liberal economics in particular.

These interpretations of Macdonald are superficial and unfair. They are predicated on a narrow conception of political values that belies a more sophisticated reading of the intellectual foundation of his enduring accomplishments. They, in short, reflect a misunderstanding of the Canadian conservative tradition.

We argue that Macdonald possessed a political worldview that situates him into a distinct conservative tradition that fits the Canadian context much better than other abstract and decontextualized accounts of what conservatism is about. Macdonald actually leaves a rich ideological tradition that we call (borrowed from Tyler Cowen) “state-capacity conservatism.” 

Although Macdonald’s worldview was fundamentally rooted in Enlightenment liberalism, it was tempered by his dispositional conservatism reflective of the unique particularities of nineteenth-century Canada. This amalgam of liberalism and conservatism manifested itself in a political programme that envisioned a limited yet energetic role for the state in supporting national development.

Our understanding of Macdonald and his worldview is premised on an important assumption about conservatism itself. Drawing on the ideas of conservative historian Samuel Huntington, we argue that conservatism, properly understood, cannot be understood absent of the specific situational and historical contexts in which it is found. There is no purely abstract perspective or ideal form of conservatism that looks the exact same in every place or context. The inherent nature of conservatism necessarily makes it context dependent. Macdonald’s political worldview cannot therefore be properly understood divorced of the geographic, historical, and political context in which it found expression.

Macdonald is, in other words, a keenly and inescapably Canadian conservative. His form of state-capacity conservatism—including the creation of the Canadian state and the building of a national economy and political union—are tied up in the practicalities of British North America. The country’s unique political geography in particular fundamentally shaped Macdonald’s own conservatism. 

Confederation produced a large, sparsely populated nation that quickly became a continental federation. Market forces alone were not going to bind the country together as an economic and social union. Building a new nation with a such low population density was necessarily going to require a unique political economy model that saw a role for the state that went beyond enabling certain market activity and instead was prepared to guide and shape the market in the realms of agriculture, transportation, manufacturing, and so forth. Canada, in short, needed a national developmentalist strategy that enabled it to overcome geographic and demographic obstacles to its nation-building ambitions.

Seeking to build a new nation in the shadow of a dynamic and rapidly growing America was also a significant contextual consideration. Confederation was in large part a union that was forged to ensure that the various colonies of British North America could resist absorption into a growing United States. Resisting the powerful pull of continentalism and building a new, distinct nation was going to require rapid economic and social development—particularly in the face of a real and perceived threat of U.S. expansionary ambitions. A durable union could only be realized and preserved through a dynamic combination of growth and progress.

Our geographic and demographic challenges, including proximity to the United States, form the basic conditions and context in which Macdonald’s conservatism has to be understood. In order to preserve and grow the new national union forged in 1867 in the face of the country’s harsh geography and sparse settlement, early Canadian governments could not succumb to dogmatism about market economics. The market alone was not going to connect the embryonic country due to its vast size and clustering of population in a small number of cities. Market forces, for instance, would not have produced a nationwide network of railway infrastructure or cultivated a domestic manufacturing capacity.

The Macdonaldian tradition is, by no means, statist.

Only a national development strategy—involving a combination of public and private investments—could realize these ambitious goals. This is where the need for a limited yet energetic state became crucial in incentivizing, de-risking, and even coordinating private investment and, in so doing, solving the market failures caused by such a massive political geography. The National Policy became the framework for the mix of public policies that formed the basis of such a nation-building agenda.

It is wrong to think that the National Policy in particular and Macdonald’s national developmentalism in general were somehow un-conservative. His state-capacity conservatism may have represented a different conception of the role of government than contemporary libertarian ideas but it has an analogue in America’s own history of national development and frontier political economy.

In a 2004 New York Times column, Canadian-born, conservative columnist David Brooks wrote the following about the evolution of American political ideologies:

Today we have one political tradition, now housed in the Democratic Party, which believes in using government in the name of equality and social justice. We have another tradition, recently housed in the Republican Party, which believes, or says it believes, in restricting the size of government in the name of freedom and personal responsibility. But through much of American history there has always been a third tradition, now dormant, which believes in limited but energetic government in the name of social mobility and national union. 

This third tradition—which Brooks and others would describe as “Hamiltonian” and we’d call “Macdonaldism”—is key to understanding the Canadian conservative tradition. It is neither statist nor egalitarian, neither Burkean nor Lockean. It is a composite ideology that, undoubtedly British influenced, is resolutely North American. It was fundamentally market oriented but saw a role for the state to solve for market failures and incentivize and support certain commercial activities such as railroad expansion and the rise of a manufacturing sector in the name of national development.

This point is worth emphasizing—particularly for readers steeped in contemporary conservative thinking about markets, government, and the limits of state intervention: the Macdonaldian tradition is, by no means, statist. Brian Lee Crowley, for instance, has shown that public expenditures in nineteenth-century Canada were lower, on a per capita basis, than in the United States. Macdonald’s public spending was principally dedicated to major public infrastructure (including subsidizing the building of transportation networks in a low-population-density country) and cultivating a manufacturing capacity due to its economic spillovers. This was not dirigisme. It was an ambitious yet pragmatic political economy programme focused on economic development and national progress. 

Macdonald’s state-capacity conservatism therefore should be viewed as a part of a well-rooted Canadian conservative tradition that was not merely about political exigencies. It reflected a mix of liberal and conservative ideas that came together in the British North American context and found expression in Macdonald’s audacious nation-building ambitions and the political economy programme that ultimately helped to fulfill them.