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Where the Big Reds Grow

Michel Chapoutier, Dave Phinney, Jean-Luc Thunevin and others are mining an obscure region in France for bold yet affordable reds

Posted: Mar 26, 2013 12:45pm ET

By Ben O'Donnell

If you're a fan of big, ripe, concentrated reds nowadays, you can expect to get slugged with equally muscular prices. In the span of a decade and change, longtime aficionados of Napa, Bordeaux, even Piedmont and Châteauneuf, have seen prices fly away, often out of reach.

There is yet one place, in France no less, where intense reds pop for as little as 10 or 15 bucks. "This region has been forgotten for 50 years," Michel Chapoutier said. "You can have some of the best soil in France and probably in the world." Could this be the next great region for red wine in France? "Oh, I am absolutely certain about that," he said. "Absolutely."

If you haven't guessed, we were talking about the Roussillon region, known in the United States as sidekick to the massive Languedoc zone in the south of France, with Roussillon reaching the Spanish border. Rhône power player Chapoutier has been snapping up plots around Roussillon for 15 years or so now, most of which go into his Domaine de Bila-Haut label. The wines run about $10 to $25, depending on the subappellation.

"The best-looking Grenache I've ever seen in my life" is how Joel Gott, a Napa-based winemaker with collaborations all over the world, described his first look at the terraced black schist vineyards of the Maury appellation in 2010, at the invitation of friend and fellow terroir chaser Dave Phinney, whose Orin Swift Cellars had already been making wine on the slopes under the D66 label. Together they now make a Grenache called Shatter, after the vineyard affliction that drops budding flowers off the vine—especially century-old Grenache vines battered by heavy winds coming off the Mediterranean. The resulting paucity of berries intensifies concentration in the survivor grapes. "We might as well call this wine Shatter since the yield is a quarter-ton an acre," the two joked. (Grenache can clear an easy 8 tons per acre in California.)

Though on maps, Roussillon looks like a rabbit's tail on the Languedoc, sizewise, it's actually comparable to Sonoma County, and the acreage under vine is similar, too, at about 60,000. That's down from some 175,000 acres in the 1960s, however.

That makes for quite a buyer's market. "A hectare of Hermitage is 1 to 2 million euros," Chapoutier said. "If you buy in Roussillon, you have some amazing quality [soil] at 15,000 [to] 20,000 euro. That means that instead of proposing a very high quality bottle at 50 or 60 euro, you can have some of the same quality at 8, 9 euro! That's very important if we don't want our children to be beer drinkers."

The comparison to the Rhône is unavoidable: warm climate (but warmer), Mediterranean influence (but more so), limestone soils (also sandstone, gneiss, granite, schist, clay) and the dominance of Grenache and Syrah, with "some density of wine that you will not find in the Rhône Valley," said Chapoutier. "Concentration, but not heaviness."

The region is priming for the big stage in the United States—the publicity campaign kicked off in earnest two years ago—in part with a new appellation you'll start seeing on bottles this year: Maury Sec. Or, more accurately, an old appellation with a new groove: Maury has historically been home to sweet fortified wines made from varieties such as Grenache and Muscat. As of the 2011 vintage, vintners can label their dry red blends as Maury Sec, potentially a cannonball red. At 100 percent Grenache, above the 80 percent maximum permitted, Shatter doesn't qualify, but if it's any indication of what to expect, think "Grenache pie"—luscious, though at almost 16 percent alcohol, a style that may be too heady for some tastes.

Joining Chapoutier, Gott and Phinney in the region are Californian Abe Schoener, Rhône négoce Pierre Gaillard, Bordeaux impresario Jean-Luc Thunevin of Château Valandraud and Languedoc big shots Hecht & Bannier. They're getting while the getting's good. You'd have only yourself to blame if you don't.

You can follow Ben O'Donnell on Twitter, at twitter.com/BenODonn.

Thad Cox
Knoxville, Tn., USA —  March 27, 2013 12:42pm ET
I am a big fan of the Bila-Haut and Hecht & Bannier wines. Dollar for dollar, they deliver outstanding quality and give the Cote du Rhones of the southern Rhone valley a serious run for their money.
Thomas Burnakis
Jacksonville, FL USA —  March 28, 2013 12:01am ET
We "discovered" Languedoc-Roussillon a few years back and fell in love. There is loads of history, superb wines (think Corbieres, Minervois, La Clape and St. Chinian) at almost embarrassingly low prices and if you like seafood - well Bouzigues or Sète cannot be beat. The final upside is that American tourists have not tumbled fully to the area so there seems to be more tolerance for them throughout the region. If you go, drive up to the little village of Roquebrun where, in addition to a nice local wine cooperative they have a restaurant, La Petit Nice with some of the best trout I’ve ever had.
Eric P Perramond
CO —  March 28, 2013 11:10am ET
Two producers to watch for.
In the Corbieres, Domaine Ligneres makes great stuff, very carefully produced.
In the area around Trouillas, in Roussillon, Domaine Treloar (Kiwi/Brit) transplants producing some of the most elegant, dense vin de pays to be had in the area.

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