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There’s red -- and then there is Roussillon

Special to The Times

UNCORK an old-vine red from Roussillon, the wine region in southeastern France near the Spanish border, and pour a Grenache-Carignane blend, perhaps, from the hot new domaine Clos des Fées. Now take one step back. In about five seconds you’ll begin to understand why the artisanal wines of this region are the toast of nouvelle wine bars in Paris.

First, you’ll immediately discover that, when it comes to color, there is “red wine red,” and there is Roussillon red -- red on another order of magnitude. Impossibly inky and brilliant, the color is so rich, velvety and saturated it should have its own paint square at the Home Depot. There is nothing like it.

And if you think the color’s intense, just wait till you taste the wines. Aromas of wild herbs, pine and olive; rich red-fruit flavors; fresh, firm textures: Few wines in France are as tightly woven as these. Although demand is so great that many Roussillon wines never leave France, you can still find a good selection of high-quality, well-priced examples that are now making their way to Southern California.

For years, Roussillon was known for its sweet wines, white Muscats from Rivesaltes, and succulently sweet reds from Banyuls. These still are marvelous wines. But the excitement in Roussillon now is in the dry red wines, coming from the ancient Catalan winegrowing regions near the border with Spain, and in the rugged hills away from the coast. It’s a region where 50-year-old vines are commonplace; 80-year-old vines aren’t unheard of, and century-old parcels and older are still producing some of the most unique and powerful fruit expressions in all of France -- something neighboring Languedoc cannot boast.

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Strong personalities

TOGETHER, Languedoc and Roussillon make up France’s largest appellation, Languedoc-Roussillon, and one of the country’s 26 regions (states). But the only thing that connects them, besides a hyphen and a highway, is the Mediterranean coastline that wends its way west from the Riviera. The two regions are home to two entirely different cultures, with different customs, languages and distinctly different viticultural traditions. Languedoc is the bastion of the Occitan, an ancient culture that still clings to its own language (the source of its name, the Langue d’Oc) and customs. Roussillon, by contrast, is defiantly Catalan, a culture with roots in Spain.

Well-made wines from Languedoc bear more than a passing resemblance to well-made Rhône wines, a region it borders on the east. But there’s nothing Rhône-like in a Roussillon wine. The aromas of smoke and bacon fat associated with Syrah and Mourvèdre are largely absent, and the palette of herbs found in good Languedoc wines -- rosemary, lavender, white pepper -- seems to have been swapped out for an entirely different anthology of scents -- licorice, pine, olive, laurel. These savory elements accompany ripe, succulent, dark red fruits -- the spectrum of flavors of Grenache and Carignane grapes -- ranging from black cherry, and plum, to cassis and black raspberry.

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But the real difference is in the mouth. Roussillon wines attack with a kind of coltish, overachieving intensity, at once fresher and more focused than most southern French wines, and they have a grab-you-by-the-collar grip of minerals so tactile it feels like a violation of personal space. Only on the finish do Roussillon reds relax, leaving a dusting of tannin and a tingle of herbs as they recede, like a sprig of wild thyme between your teeth.

These attributes tended to get stifled in the bulked up textures of traditional sweet wines of the region. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, however, Roussillon experienced a modest renaissance as producers edged into new dry-style territory -- and thrilling new flavors emerged.

Roussillon is wedged between the Languedoc and the towering peaks of the Pyrénées. The soils are primarily granite and schist and have much in common with the great Catalan wine region in the mountain range’s other (southern) foothills, the Priorat in Spain. From opposite sides of the Pyrénées, Roussillon and Priorat share a dramatically rugged terrain, similarly impoverished soils and a warm sunny climate suited to stubborn-to-ripen varieties such as Grenache and Carignane. And both are renowned for their old vineyards, often the source for wines of exceptional concentration and complexity.

Roussillon has several AOCs (Appellations d’Origine Contrôlée), including the vital sweet wine appellations Banyuls and Rivesaltes (the dry red wine produced in and around Banyuls is known as Collioure). Much of the rest is referred to rather generically as Côtes du Roussillon and Côtes du Roussillon-Villages. The Agly Valley and northwestern Roussillon bear the Côtes du Roussillon-Villages appellation, which has stricter blending standards than the Côtes du Roussillon. There are also Roussillon wines labeled “Vins du Pays des Côtes Catalanes,” which usually means that the winemaker chose to defy AOC blending requirements.

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Move to biodynamics

ONE of the first producers to champion the modern dry wine style in Roussillon was Gérard Gauby at Domaine Gauby. Gauby resurrected his family vineyards with careful farming of older vineyards (culminating in 2001 with his converting the domain to biodynamics) and meticulous winemaking. Gauby’s wines, such as the stylish 2003 Vieilles Vignes blend, stand out for their pronounced, almost Bordeaux-like polish, classically balanced and mannered, with a beautiful expression of earth and fresh, red-fruited elegance.

Other traditional producers followed Gauby’s lead, including Jean Gardiès, who has parlayed old-vine Grenache and Carignane into masterful succulent blends, such as the 2005 Les Vieilles Vignes, a deep and intensely briary wine with breathtakingly deep plum flavors, accented by notes of olive and minerals.

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These successes have attracted a number of outsiders to the prospect of reviving untended old vines in Roussillon, one of the few places left in France where ordinary people can still purchase land for a reasonable price and act on the dream of becoming a vigneron, or vine grower.

After a career designing train and subway systems all over the world, Olivier Bernstein fell in love with wine, and trained with such esteemed winemakers as Thierry Allemand in Cornas and Henri Jayer in Burgundy. Buying land in Burgundy was an impossibility, so he settled for the more affordable older vine plots in Tautavel, founding Mas de la Deveze in 1999. He makes several cuvées. Two of his best are the “66" Côtes du Roussillon-Villages (named for the Roussillon area code), a delicious, mostly Grenache blend, and a succulent, slightly more polished wine, Mas de la Deveze.

Hervé Bizeul at Domaine du Clos des Fées has a similar story. Bizeul was a successful wine journalist and sommelier in Paris who jettisoned it all in 1998 for a scattered selection of old vine parcels near Vingrau. His bottlings at Clos des Fées are among the most highly regarded wines in the Côtes du Roussillon, blends of old hillside vineyard Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignane and even Lledoner Pelut, an indigenous Grenache-like variety. Bizeul’s wines range from the charming, inexpensive Les Sorcières to an array of arresting Vieilles Vignes bottlings that are astonishing acts of textural seduction.

Other French winemakers have put down roots in Roussillon. Prominent players from Bordeaux have new ventures there; perhaps the best known is garagiste Jean-Luc Thunevin, whose St. Emilion wines at Château Valendraud have garnered worldwide attention. Thunevin has teamed up with Roussillon native Jean-Roger Calvet to form Calvet-Thunevin. The pair is producing some lovely old-vine based blends including such wines as “Hugo” and “Les Dentelles,” as well as one of the region’s best bang-for-buck blends, Cuvée Constance, a quietly understated cuvée with succulent red fruit that sees no oak, so the wine’s dark mineral core really shows through.

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Finally, in and around the Tet Valley, in the foothills of the Pyrénées, so close to Spain that most references to Roussillon, and even to France, are left off the labels of the wines produced here, there are a number of artisanal producers. One of the best in the area is Domaine Ferrer-Ribière, and its talented winemaker is Bruno Ribière. This small traditional winery releases a wine called Empreinte du Temps (appropriately, “imprint of time”) composed of fruit from 127-year-old Carignane vines. For less than $20, you won’t find a more charming, character-rich wine, with a meaty cherry scent and juicy black cherry fruit flavors, just a hint of herbal flavor and fine succulent tannins of the sort that only old vines bestow. That purity of expression is the essence of great Carignane, and is the kind of pleasure that Roussillon has waiting.

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food@latimes.com

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Chic and affordable

Roussillon wines may come from any of the region’s several AOCs ((Appellations d’Origine Contrôlée ). Many of the modern dry style wines are labeled Côtes du Roussillon or Côtes du Roussillon-Villages. When you see “Vins du Pays des Côtes Catalanes,” it usually means the winemaker has defied AOC blending requirements, as in the 100% Carignane below. Most of these selections come from three import companies dedicated to the region’s wines: Eric Solomon, Vinalia and Weygandt-Metzler. Wines are listed in alphabetical order.

2004 Calvet-Thunevin Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes “Cuvée Constance.” Aged in concrete tanks and never seeing wood, this blend of Grenache and Syrah with a touch of Carignane leads with a delicate nose of plum blossoms and brown sugar with hints of olives and herbs. Its flavors are deep black cherry, with lovely gripping black tannins. Honest wine for a great price. About $15 at Wine House in Los Angeles, (310) 479-3731, www.winehouse.com; and K & L Wine Merchants in Hollywood, (323) 464-9463, www.klwines.com.

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2005 Clos des Fées Côtes du Roussillon “Les Sorcières.” A lovely, inexpensive blend of Carignane, Grenache, and Mourvèdre with plenty of succulent ripe fruit that neither strays nor loses its balance. The Carignane stands out in the seductively plummy scent and black cherry flavors, supported by a fine, mineral texture. About $18 at Wine House.

2003 Clos des Fées Côtes du Roussillon-Villages Vieilles Vignes. This wine has considerably more stuffing than the same producer’s “Les Sorcières.” A briary aroma is overlaid with scents of anise and mint. Flavors are succulent, dark plum and black cherry with a mineral texture almost like granite dust, but plenty of juiciness on the finish. But the finish goes on and on. It’s an earthy wine, generous and complex. About $30 at Wine House.

2001 Domaine Ferrer Ribière Côtes du Roussillon “Selenae.” A higher-end bottling blended from the same Carignane as the “Empreinte du Temps” with additions of Syrah and Grenache; it sees quite a bit more oak aging, in neutral barrels. It’s a big meaty wine with a bit of smoked beef in its aroma. But on the palate, that juicy, plummy Carignane shows through, with fine-grained tannins and an elegant polished texture. About $35 at Woodland Hills Wine Co.in Woodland Hills, (818) 222-1111, whwc.com.

2003 Domaine Ferrer Ribière Vin du Pays des Côtes Catalanes “Empreinte du Temps.” Made with fruit from 126 year-old Carignane vines, this beautiful wine is grounded with scents of olive tapenade and tar against bright cherry. On the palate it seems as if you can really taste the vine age: A firm texture supports flavors of red plum and herbs. It’s complex, with a long finish -- and a bargain for a wine so stylish. About $18 at Wine House and Woodland Hills Wine Co.

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2005 Domaine Gardiès Côtes du Roussillon-Villages Vieilles Vignes. Dark and figgy, with a beautiful scent of dried wild herbs and olives, this concentrated wine tastes like black figs and plums in compote. An intensely mineral texture and mouth-coating tannins give the wine a low center of gravity. Still young, it should age admirably. About $20 at Wine Exchange in Orange, (714) 974-1454, www.winex.com; Wine House and Woodland Hills Wine Co.

2003 Domaine Gauby Côtes du Roussillon-Villages Vieilles Vignes. An exotic wine showing the best of the region in a stylish package. Aromas of sassafras and Arabica coffee complement a wild-herb top note of olive and pink peppercorn. The raspberry fruit flavors are admirably restrained, with a crisp texture that gives the wine elegance. About $32 at Woodland Hills Wine Co. and Wine House.

2004 Domaine Le Roc des Anges Côtes du Roussillon-Villages “Les Vieilles Vignes.” A straight-ahead red from a small domaine near Calce, this is a blend of about half old-vine Carignane and the balance of Grenache and Syrah. Despite aromas of smoke and violets that hint at the Syrah in the blend, the Carignane does much of the work here: The palate is marked by succulent red cherry, with a firm and silky texture. About $20 at K & L Wine Merchants.

2003 Domaine Olivier Pithon Côtes du Roussillon “Saturne.” A deeply scented blend of Carignane and Grenache, with a touch of Syrah, this wine leads with notes of licorice root in its herbal bouquet, adding complexity to its black raspberry scents. The texture bears a mineral core that is quite fine-grained, with notes of dark spices. About $30 at K & L Wine Merchants and Wally’s Wines & Spirits in Los Angeles, (310) 475-0606. www.wallywine.com.

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2005 Mas de La Devèze Côtes du Roussillon-Villages “66.” Fresh, bright and sappy, this mostly Grenache bottling has a minty top note with bright, expressive fruit, plainly in the red spectrum. Its texture is sprightly and fresh with a good dusting of tannin and a long, mildly herbal finish. About $16 at Colorado Wine Co. in Eagle Rock, (323) 478-1985, www.cowineco.com; and at Silverlake Wine in Los Angeles, (323) 662-9024, www.silverlakewine.com.

2004 Mas de La Devèze Côtes du Roussillon-Villages. Olivier Bernstein’s estate blend of old-vine Grenache and Syrah has an aroma of fruit-soaked leather, with a hint of tar. Its fruit flavors are all about dark fig and cassis, accented by a twiggy, sassafras flavor. Firm, gripping tannins mark the texture, giving the wine impressive length. About $27 at Mission Wines, Pasadena, (626) 797-0500, missionwines.com; and Wine Exchange.

-- Patrick Comiskey


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