Feature Story

Keith Mabry on Roussillon Reds

Two years ago, Keith Mabry took over buying the wines of southern France for K&L Wine Merchants, a California retailer with shops in San Francisco, Redwood City and Hollywood. On buying trips, he always ended up visiting Roussillon last. And he began to think that its distance from travel hubs only reinforced its lowly place in the pecking order of southern French wine. “So often it’s overlooked in the larger world of the Pays d’Oc,” says Mabry, “like a little brother who never gets to play with the big kids.”

Keith Mabry Keith Mabry
The wines intrigued him, though; the grenache and carignan often seemed so much more vivid and powerful than their counterparts in the neighboring Languedoc. Some of the vinous traditions, too, were unique, and uniquely suited to the country’s warmest wine region. In particular, he was fascinated by the archaic winemaking techniques for the rancio dessert wines: “I loved imagining this process of putting a wine in a tank and saying, ‘See you in forty or fifty years.’ Trusting in your peers to steward it along for decades, maybe even after you’ve retired. All the forethought and vision and dedication was remarkable.

The Roussillon shelf has become a favorite section in the Hollywood store, where Mabry is based. He finds the wines are making inroads among lovers of both Spanish reds and American Rhône wines.

1. Domaine Ferrer Ribière Côtes Catalanes Empreinte du Temps Carignan

Ferrer Ribière controls several ancient vineyards southwest of Perpignan; their Empreinte du Temps comes from 137-year-old carignan vines. “I’ve been selling this wine for such a long time that I used it as a reference point on my first trip,” Mabry says. Its robust flavors are accented by a musky perfume that, for Mabry, is a marker for old-vine carignan.

2. Domaine Cabirau Maury Sec Serge et Nicolas

Mabry says that walking in this old carignan vineyard is “like walking on a di erent planet.” The vines grow out of sharp, dark brown-black slate. “The rocks slip out from under your feet, as if you’re walking on broken glass. You can’t get any purchase.” The vineyard grows a saturated red: It’s like drinking molten chocolate and black cherries, Mabry says, with gripping tannins as
sturdy as the vineyard’s slate is slippery.

3. Mas Karolina Côtes du Roussillon Villages

“Caroline Bonville is from the Entredeux-Mers; I think she has twelve sustainable hectares now. The pest pressure is minimal in this region compared with other parts of France; the Tramontane winds [northwest winds, similar to the Mistral] keep things cool and dry. This blend of grenache, carignan and syrah has an overt, almost overpowering fruit intensity. But with the best producers, like Caroline, the wines stay fresh, not baked.”

4. M. Chapoutier Domaine de BilaHaut Côtes du Roussillon Villages Latour de France Occultum Lapidem

This is Michel Chapoutier’s project in Roussillon. “I mean, he’s a syrah guy, he’s Chapoutier,” says Mabry, who adds that Chapoutier is devoted to finding better sites for that variety, higher in the hills, on schist, gneiss and limestone soils. This wine is mostly syrah and grenache. “It has that Chapoutier polish,” he says, “but that Roussillon fruit intensity. The syrah has more bass notes, it isn’t violetty or perfumed; it’s more peppery, darker, a loamy blackberry character.”

5. Domaine Gauby Côtes du Roussillon Villages Vieilles Vignes

“Gérard Gauby put this part of Catalonian France on the map. He made dry red wine production a serious venture here. Roussillon needed a producer like him, a forefather,” says Mabry, who has carried the wines for years, though at first they didn’t really register: “They start off very reductive. But I had the 2005 Vieilles Vignes a year ago and finally got how serious they are. It had the black and blue fruit character that we look for, and there was all this spice and minerality, beautifully evolved tannins, without any oxidation. Not only was it a great wine, I thought, ‘Now I know how they’ll evolve!’ Burgundy and Bordeaux both have their reference points with respect to reduction. This wine gives me a sense of where Roussillon can go.”

6. Mas Amiel 30 Year Maury

Mas Amiel is Mabry’s favorite sweet wine producer, specializing in rancio wines of muscat and grenache. “The first thing you see on a visit are all these demijohns sitting in front of the winery, in full sun. The wines slowly oxidize and develop in the sun; then they’re put in oak casks to age. This Thirty-Year is made in a tawny style, grenache with a touch of carignan and maccabeu. It has nutty, orange-scented fruit, with a lasting dried-fruit flavor. They make a few vintage wines also, very rare. We like to have them in stock for birth year wines; they never disappoint.”

This is a W&S web exclusive feature.
illustration by Gavin Reece