Columnist, Food

Michel Gassier in his vineyards in Costières de Nîmes, the southern end of France’s Rhone Valley. (Courtesy Michel Gassier)

The vinoscenti seek out wines of terroir, those that taste of a place and could come from nowhere else. The great vineyards of the world command exorbitant prices for their wines. Those of us who love to experience this singular expression of the grape but can’t always afford the most prestigious cuvées seek out wines from similar but less exalted regions. And when we find a talented winemaker in such a region, we hit the jackpot.

Michel Gassier is such a winemaker. Gassier is a fourth-generation vigneron in the Costières de Nîmes appellation in southern France. Costières de Nîmes, just southwest of Avignon, is the southernmost extension of the Rhone Valley, as though the region was stretching its foot into the Languedoc to try to stick a toe in the Mediterranean. Vineyard soils in Costières de Nîmes resemble the famous terroir of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but with a significant difference in climate.

“We have the same pebbly soil as Chateauneuf,” Gassier says, “but we also have the Mediterranean.” Chateauneuf is famous for the round stones that absorb the sun’s heat and reflect it back on the grapes, helping them ripen. The wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape have become sought after and expensive over the past 20 years. But they often tend to be heady, with alcohol levels approaching 15 percent or more. Some producers are trying to moderate the alcohol in response to market demand for more elegant, restrained wines.

In Costières de Nîmes, Gassier, argues, restraint comes naturally.


Vineyards in Costières de Nîmes have stony soils similar to the famous terroir of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. (Courtesy Michel Gassier)

“We are less than 10 miles from the sea, and the thermal winds cool the temperatures so the fruit is fresher and retains acid better,” he says. The maritime breeze deposits dew on the vines in the morning, helping alleviate water stress, but the dew burns off in the midday sun, avoiding disease pressure. Vines were first planted in the region by the Greeks around 600 B.C.

Gassier, 56, has ties to the Washington area. He served his 18-month national service obligation working for the French agricultural attache at the embassy here from 1983 to 1985. He then worked for a wine distributor in New York and New Jersey. While living in the States, he met and married Tina Suszynski, a native of Rockville.

In 1993, Gassier’s father decided to retire and asked him to return home and take over the family vineyards and winery. His brother now handles the family’s fruit orchards. I met the Gassiers recently while they were visiting family in Washington.

The wines of Chateau de Nages, the family estate, are available locally at Total Wine & More stores. But Gassier has expanded his brand and reputation with other labels.

He also converted his vineyards to organic farming. “When tasting other wines, especially from Chateauneuf-du-Pape, we realized the ones that best balanced the alcohol were either organic or biodynamic,” he says. “Yields dropped a bit, but the balance was so much better.”

Vignobles Michel Gassier features a label called Nostre Pais, which has similar blends to Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The 2014 red contains Grenache, carignan, syrah, mourvedre and cinsault; it is deep and savory, with a lush texture and an appealing freshness. The 2015 white, a blend of Grenache blanc, roussanne, Viognier, clairette and bourbelanc, somehow avoids the plodding heaviness that often afflicts white Rhone wines. It is fresh and flowery, combining heft with lively acidity. At about $20 a bottle, they are tremendous bargains.

Gassier partners with Philippe Cambie, a noted viticultural consultant, and importer Eric Solomon on two other Rhone-style blends called Cercius. Gassier almost giddily describes the 2014 Cercius red “a full-throttle, hedonistic baby Chateauneuf-like Cotes-du-Rhone.”

Rhone fans will notice that syrah, the red grape famous in the northern Rhone appellations of Cornas and Hermitage, plays a prominent role in Gassier’s red blends. That’s because of the moderating effect of the Mediterranean on the region’s temperatures. “It’s why syrah does so well,” Tina Gassier says. “Costières de Nîmes has the most syrah in the southern Rhone.”

Syrah stars in wines Michel Gassier and Cambie make with Bob Bertheau, head winemaker at Washington state’s Chateau Ste. Michelle. The line, called Tenet, includes a 100-percent syrah (dubbed the Pundit) from Washington’s Columbia Valley and another (Le Fervent) from Costières de Nîmes, as well as a Washington blend. These wines are New World in style with their fruit-forward character, yet they show a delicious Old World sensibility.

They are an expression of a winemaker with roots in both worlds, but whose heart is home among the vines and rocks of Costières de Nîmes.