The wines of southern France are some of the more immediate, approachable, recognizable, and lovable anywhere. Those warm, ripe flavors, intense aromatics and bodily heft yield reds as characterful as they are inviting. Drink a red wine from the southern Rhône, Roussillon or Languedoc, and it’s hard not to feel like you’re at wine’s origin point, the benchmark toward which all other wine ought to aspire.

I don’t much like them, if such a simplistic, unfair provocation can be made. It’s got something to do with the ample alcohol, the compacted quality of the fruit flavors, the sun-baked richness. There’s a lot in these wines, mostly blends led by grenache, and I often feel coerced by them, with not enough room to breathe.

My antipathy is bizarre and, given how incongruous with the tastes of the majority of wine drinkers, a sign that selling and writing about wine is perhaps not an ideal position for me to be in. But here we are: you stuck with me, me stuck with my taste, and all of us stuck with this enormous, intimidatingly varied, much beloved collection of sub-regions that demand attention.

So let’s attend. I’m thinking of everything from Côtes-du-Rhône and then south and west, through the esteemed villages of Rasteau, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Vinsobres and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Continue westward to Costières de Nîmes, Luberon, the eastern Languedoc, Hérault, the western Languedoc, then south through Roussillon.

There are worlds within worlds here. Books could be written, books have been written, books will be written. This is a newspaper column. I hope over the next year or so to cover many of the appellations named above, but today I’ll start with a region that has most recently offered a number of articulate retorts to my ignorant generalizations about the character of southern French wine: Minervois.

Minervois is not the best known of areas in the Languedoc; Corbières probably bears that mantle. Pic St-Loup, Faugeres and St-Chinian are close behind. But Minervois is singularly illustrative of two important principles: Even within a given designated region, topography and geology vary – and matter – immensely. And individual vignerons (winemakers) can transform the character of their region’s wines by making decisions that run somewhat against the grain.

Minervois vineyards lie on hot, flat, arid land that slopes toward the Mediterranean, and also on rugged hills that push northwest into the Montagne Noire and are touched by a cooler Atlantic climatic influence. The former has high-yielding plots that contribute to the notion of the Languedoc as France’s “wine lake,” supplying so much of the country’s generic, mass-produced, supermarket-friendly bottles. The blends of grenache, syrah and mourvèdre taste like so many other such blends you’ve drunk: a bit spicy, dark-fruited, rather rough, same-same, plodding.

Head to the hills, though, and you can encounter something far finer and more complex. The cooler climate is less conducive to grenache, and so other Rhône varietals provide the drama: cinsault (“san-so”), carignan, and greater proportions of syrah. Hillside vineyards are also difficult, if not impossible, to tend and harvest mechanically, and cannot produce the quantity needed to make cheap, bland wine. Grapes can be harvested later in the season, attaining a more balanced ripeness than the sped-up heat blast of the southern plain will produce.

LIVING CALCAREOUSLY

The hills of northern Minervois’ Black Mountain consist predominantly of calcareous limestone, an ideal subsoil for old vines to build character while transmitting a bracing cut and acidity to the grapes they nurture. Winemakers who acknowledge and celebrate this terroir can bring about wines that marry to the traditional scrumptious earthiness of southern wines a freshness and vibrancy more commonly associated with the North – specifically Burgundy, whose wines’ poise and acidity are due in part to the same calcareous limestone.

It’s not an overstatement to call the Minervois wines of Benjamin Taillandier Burgundian. Clean, grippy and poetic, in contradistinction to so much flaccid, prosaic Minervois, Taillandier’s wines attain a rare delicacy and silkiness. There’s just something special about limestone, a coolness and precision that are immediately recognizable.

Taillandier bought vineyards in the right place, but then he made difficult decisions based on that place. From the outset in 2007, he farmed organically, and has now completed a transition to 100 percent biodynamics. While the AOC’s maximum yield is 50 hectoliters of wine per hectare of vineyard, Taillandier keeps his yields to 30 hectoliters or less.

He harvests relatively early from his vines, most of which are more than 50 years old, in order to retain more acidity in the grapes and keep alcohol levels low. The wines ferment primarily in stainless steel and only with their native yeasts, are neither fined nor filtered, and a scant 10g per hectoliter of sulfur is added at bottling.

Taillandier has also altered his process in the cellar, in the relatively short time he has made Minervois wine. He told me that he used to do more pumping-over and punching-down, two methods employed to extract more flavor from the grapes. Now he lets the grapes ferment more calmly, and relies on a longer, more passive maceration process. This lets the tannins integrate into the wine and soften, deepening the wine’s character without overwhelming it.

THE SOUTH RISES

His Laguzelle 2014 ($16) is the freshest, liveliest red of the bunch. Younger vines (average 30 years old) of the thin-skinned, lively cinsault, blended with syrah and carignan, produce a wine that’s all joy in personality. Floral, with blueberry coolness and peppery spice, it’s this rare thing, a southern wine that doesn’t deny its origins but takes on aspects of regions known for lighter-toned wines.

The Viti Vini Bibi 2014 ($17) is Taillandier’s grenache wine, but that grape’s deeper-plunging fruit flavors are offset by the jester-like cinsault and firm spine of carignan. It’s a more luscious wine than the Laguzelle, and at 14 percent a full degree of alcohol higher, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a grenache wine with this much verve and agility. Its very fine tannins only support and deepen the wine’s overall gulpy, food-loving vin de soif (thirst-quenching) character.

The Bufentis 2012 ($23) takes the VVB’s hints of silkiness and expands them, stretching into an unbelievably complex package. The primary player here is syrah, blended with minority grenache, both of which undergo a long maceration and spend more than a year aging in old barrels. The wine’s texture is unbelievably creamy, contrasting with the inimitably spicy flavors of syrah. And there’s this deep vanilla note, but not the vanillin style brought about by vinification in new oak with cultured yeasts; I mean actual vanilla bean flavor, both savory and sweet.

This is a truly unique wine, with the complexity of much more famous and expensive regions, yet flavors, layers and character all its own. It’s really unmissable.

Taillandier is not the only winemaker of note in Minervois. For a denser, more chock-full style, not as porous as the Taillandier wines, there’s the Château Coupe Roses La Bastide 2013 ($17), a blend of old-vines carignan and grenache. Françoise Le Calvez and Pascal Frissant work their vineyards organically on the high hills in Minervois’ far northeast. They, too, keep yields at around 30 hectoliters per hectare, and the grapes ferment with native yeasts in stainless steel tanks. Savory, foresty, with loads of classic southern dried herb character, La Bastide pulls in more of that plum and wild-berry fruit profile so closely associated with the area’s wines. But it’s further proof that a wine from Minervois can keep a southern temperament without alienating those of us who tend to favor the brighter tones of the North.

Joe Appel is the Wine Buyer at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:

[email protected]