The story of Domaine de Fontsainte, where the US market is concerned, is closely aligned with that of their importer, Kermit Lynch. Beginning in the early 1970s, Kermit was bringing many (now legendary) wines into the country, from the very first grower champagnes to Burgundy producers whose wines have recently skyrocketed to virtually unattainable heights.
His travels through Provence and the Languedoc, chronicled in Adventures on the Wine Route, planted the early seeds for the recognition that area now holds in the US. If you have enjoyed a glass of Domaine Tempier, Grange des Peres, or Domaine de Terrebrune, you have Kermit to thank.
The story of this property reaches much further back than their moment of introduction to the US…several millennia further. The vineyards of Domaine de Fontsainte appear to have been first planted by the Romans, and artifacts have been unearthed that date to 25 A.D. This is a fascinating corner of France with its own distinct culture and language, Occitan. When France moved in 2016 to streamline their internal political geography, Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrénées departments were combined to create Occitania, a modern nod to a very broad and ancient cultural region. Catalonia is just over the nearby southern border, and the trip to Barcelona from Boutenac takes little more time than Madison to Chicago.
The Corbières appellation itself is more approachable in size, but is by no means small, with over 13,000 hectares of vineyards planted. Domaine de Fontsainte is located in the very heart of the area, the so-called Golden Crescent (in French, a mellifluous and memorable “croissant d’or”). This is an ideal terroir for Carignan, Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Syrah - warm but with cooling influences from the Mediterranean, well-draining clay and limestone soils, and naturally sheltered by a sizeable forest from the coldest Atlantic winds out of the north.
Carignan in particular requires these perfect conditions to reach its full potential, or it will tend to lend an unappealing green character to the wines. As recently as the late 80s, it was the most planted grape in France, finding its way mostly into cheap blends and cherished primarily for its high yielding potential. The vine is late to bud and the fruit late to ripen, it truly thrives only in very warm regions, like those stretching from Spain, across southern France, and on the island of Sardinia. Carignan gives a firm structure of tannin and high acidity for more aromatic grapes to build upon, so it is often seen as a blending partner with Grenache or Syrah, as in the blends at Domaine de Fontsainte.
Though many vines were pulled up to give way to other varieties in the 80s and 90s, old vine parcels exist and can give exquisite, flavorful wines. Fontsainte’s Reserve la Demoiselle demonstrates this point, taking the bulk of its fruit from 100+ year old plantings. When compared to the Corbières rouge, the old vines give an extra lift and length to the wine, but both show robust fruit under a veil of herbal and earthy qualities, exactly what drinkers should expect from the region. For both wines, the Carignan undergoes carbonic maceration, a fermentation that happens in the absence of oxygen before the berries are crushed, and has two effects: bringing a more present fruity and juicy quality to the wine while dialing back the intensity of the tannin. That fruitiness is moderate in the Demoiselle after its time in barrel, but in the rouge it is deliciously present.
Rosé is another specialty of the estate, having pioneered the gris de gris style, a very pale rosé made in the saignée method. This category of wine has seen explosive growth in the last 10 years, with entrants from all over the globe, but the Fontsainte bottling remains a standout. It displays fruit, herbs, minerality all in balance with freshness and tension to keep you coming back for more, and the very moderate price of these wines will support that habit easily.
Now, about that pricing…Wine sellers love to talk about the magic of QPR, or quality/price ratio, usually as a way of highlighting an under the radar gem that could be charging multiples of their retail price. Honestly, once you leave Napa, Burgundy, Champagne, and Bordeaux, most of the rest of the world is filled to the brim with these exceptional, and exceptionally priced, bottles with very high QPR. With thousands of wineries releasing new vintages every year, the field is incredibly crowded, and it's hard for a wine that doesn't demonstrate a high QPR to make it to the market. It should be the rule, not the exception. We should expect more from our wine, our wine sellers, and our wine importers.
Domaine Fontsainte has changed their price so little over the decades that the value has done nothing but increase compared to other estates, even those with better known names. This is a fantastic time to get to know these wines, this region, and maybe a few other wineries from the Kermit Lynch portfolio, while you are at it.