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France's southern vineyards offer perfect grape-growing terroir

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The Romans recognized it; Julius Cesar rewarded generals who participated in the conquest of Gaul with choice vineyards in the region.

For centuries during the Middle Ages until the French Revolution, Benedictine monks recognized it, too. They established monasteries and carefully cultivated vines throughout the region to earn a winemaking reputation attracting pilgrims from throughout Europe.

Today, France's southern-most vineyards running westward from Montpellier along the Mediterranean coast to the border with Spain still offer unrivaled grape-growing terroir. An ideal climate combines with diverse soils and optimal topography to allow perfect ripening for many varieties.

Brilliantly sunny, warm days alternate with relatively cool nights. This enables the fruit to mature slowly, evenly and completely while retaining refreshing, vibrant acidity. Winds from the north and off the sea minimize diseases and rots that plague other grape-growing regions.

Limestone, quartz, flint, slate and gravels mix with sands and clay to lend complexity to the grapes. Plenty of the vineyards lie on hillsides and slopes to allow good drainage and optimal sun exposure.

After the French Revolution, macroeconomic and political trends converged to squander much of the region's potential. Instead, oceans of cheap wines flowed northward to quench the thirsts of industrial workers.

Today, the region's vineyards fall under the Languedoc-Roussillon rubric. With refocused work in the vineyards, the reputation for quality has gradually returned.

The Languedoc's leading sub-appellations include P ic Saint Loup, F augères, S aint-Chinian, F itou, L a Clape, C oteaux du Languedoc, L imoux (for sparkling wines), Minervois, Cabardès, Corbières, and Muscat de St-Jean Minervois (for fortified wines).

The Roussillon, also known as French Catalonia, covers leading appellations such as Banyuls (for fortified red wines), Collioure, Côtes du Roussillon-Villages, Maury (primarily for fortified wines) and Muscat de Rivesaltes (for fortified white wines).

Stock up on the following as go-to holiday wines:

(The Picpoul grapes translates to “lip stinger,” a reference to the variety's vibrant acidity. It provides a terrific foil for all sorts of seafood from oysters on the half shell to Bronzini — Mediterranean sea bass — baked with herbs and lemon.)

The 2011 Domaine La Reine Juliette “Terre Rouges” Picpoul de Pinet, Languedoc, France (Luxury 39706; $14.99) comes from limestone-rich vineyards lying close by the sea. Winegrower Guillaume Allies takes full advantage of the conditions and crafts a crisp, uplifting wine without a hint of oak-barrel aging.

Aromas of white flowers, citrus and peaches leap from the glass. Crisp grapefruit and peach flavors unfold with pleasant, creamy notes set against vibrant, refreshing acidity. The wine finishes dry and well-balanced. Highly recommended.

In 1981, winegrower Guy Moulinier returned from an office job in the city to take charge of his family vineyards in Saint-Chinian. Previously, the family sold fruit to a local cooperative, but Moulinier elected to bottle independently. He redoubled efforts to produce quality grapes from syrah, grenache and mourvèdre vines extending over hillsides laden with schist, sandstone, flint and limestone.

The 2011 Domaine G. Moulinier Saint-Chinian Rosé, France (Luxury 31074; $12.99) blends syrah and grenache for a lovely wine offering freshness like a white wine and depth of fruit like a red wine. The wine's salmon color reveals enticing plum aromas with spicy, peppery notes.

Refreshing strawberry and plum flavors merge with bright acidity and refreshing mineral notes through the dry finish. The absence of oak-barrel notes allows the fruit to sing. Pair it with baked salmon. Highly recommended.

The Tautavel Vingrau Cooperative's winegrowers cultivate vines extending over 2,000 acres of stony, ruggedly beautiful hillsides in the Roussillon. The cooperative emphasizes low yields to produce concentrated, quality fruit. State-of-the-art, shared winemaking facilities allow the group to take full advantage of the fruits of the terrific terroir.

For example, the 2010 Le Cirque Rouge Vin de Pays Côtes Catalanes, France (Luxury 45756; $13.99) blends carignan, mourvèdre and syrah for an irresistible expression of pure, ripe fruit.

Dark fruit aromas of plums and black raspberries mingle with smoky, meaty notes. Delicious dark-fruit flavors balance with meaty accents and subtle herbal notes. Firm acidity and moderate tannins provide backbone unaffected by oak-barrel influences. Pair it with grilled rib-eye steaks with shallot butter. Highly recommended .

Dave DeSimone is the wine writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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