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Red wines with personality don't have to cost a fortune

Vineyards near Mont Ventoux in southern France. Château Pesquié

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You want a tasty, gutsy red wine to pair with a hearty winter stew or braised meat. You're looking for fruity personality and zip, but not a lot of oak. And you don't want to break the bank on the bottle.

Wine regions the world over offer such bottles, but none surpasses the south of France in producing staggering variety.

Beginning around Avignon in southeastern France, the area sprawls westward in a great arc parallel to the Mediterranean Sea. It takes in the Languedoc's many intriguing appellations in south central France and ends in the Roussillon in the Pyrenees Mountains foothills near the Spanish border.

A renaissance in quality over the last 30 years has witnessed dedicated growers capitalizing on the southern vineyards' prime asset — the remarkable terroir.

Well-drained, rugged hillsides bathed by brilliant sunshine and cool nights promote steady, even ripening. Soils rich in limestone, quartz and other exotic stones enliven the fruit's refreshing acidity. Persistent sea breezes chase away rot and insects that often plague vineyards in less-hospitable climes.

Growers, farming sustainably with low yields, harvest grapes of superb quality. The approach actually mimics grape-growing traditions prevalent from the Roman era through the Middle Ages. Industrialization's rise shifted the focus to quantity rather than quality.

Now, growers realize that competing internationally requires quality and value. Excellent bottles from southern France abound at less than $20. No need to covet “oaked up,” practically undrinkable blockbusters with high numerical ratings and exorbitant prices.

Stick to full-bodied, frankly fruity reds crafted to enhance, rather overwhelm food flavors. PLCB French buyer Jennifer Brown's terrific array of choices includes these gems:

The Corbières appellation covers a vast area of 33,000 acres with 12 distinct micro-climates, including Fontfroide. Located near the city of Narbonne not far from the Spanish border, the appellation takes its name from the Abbey de Fontfroide, a Cisterian monastery whose monks tended vineyards in the area for centuries.

The 2010 Domaine de Grand Planal Corbières “Cuvée Guy Roger,” France (Luxury 39965; $10.99) offers a pure, enticing example of Fontfroide terroir. The wine blends of mourvèdre, grenache and carignan grown in limestone and clay soils under vigneron Stéphan Roger's steady, practiced hand.

The grapes ferment in traditional concrete vats and age without the slightest hint of new wood. Lovely dark-fruit, smoked-meat and herb aromas greet the nose. Dark-fruit and savory flavors balance with smooth tannins and fresh acidity through the dry, fruity finish. Highly recommended.

The 2010 Domaine Lafage “Cuvée Nicolas,” Vin de Pays Côtes Catalanes, France (Luxury 39648; $15.99) relies exclusively on brenache grapes grown in the Roussillon, also known as French Catalonia.

The domaine's “old vines” in the Aspres subregion grow amidst aromatic thyme and rosemary in arid schist and marble soils. The powerful Tramontane winds buffet the vines to further reduce yields to a scant 15 hectoliters of juice per hectare.

Even though the reduced yields concentrate flavors, this tasty wine retains lovely balance. Dark, black-fruit aromas mingle with delightful floral notes. Concentrated black- and red-fruit flavors mix with meaty, savory notes. Fresh acidity and smooth, elegant tannins balance the dark, fruity finish. Highly recommended.

South of Avignon, the cooperative Les Vignerons d'Estézargues features 10 domaines that own the winemaking facility in common. Each domaine follows its own style, as in the delicious 2010 Domaine Andézon Côtes du Rhône, France (Luxury 39657; $15.99).

The wine comes primarily from old-vine syrah, with a smattering of old-vine grenache. The vines grow in meager soils of galets — large, smooth red stones — and clay. Concentrated, intriguing fruit results.

Ripe, dark-fruit aromas with peppery notes open in the glass. Intense, ripe dark-fruit flavors unfold with fresh acidity and smooth tannins. The robust, fruity finish lingers delightfully. Highly recommended.

Beneath snow-capped Mont Ventoux's brooding presence, vines unfurl on terraces known as restanques. The2011 Château Pesquié Terrasses, Ventoux, France (Luxury 39627; $16.99) comes from vines growing on restanques of gravel, limestone, sand and clay around Mormoiron, a scenic village and home of leading French sommelier Dominique Buffet.

Pure dark-fruit aromas with earthy, smoky notes lead to similar flavors with savory accents. Smooth tannins and fresh acidity carry through the tasty finish. Recommended.

Dave DeSimone writes about wine for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at ddesimone@tribweb.com.

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