Quality over quantity in the basin of Catalan culture
What is the Roussillon?
by Bill Zacharkiw
Let’s start with where is it. The Roussillon is the most southern of France’s wine regions, shaped like an amphitheatre and bordered by Spain to the south, and nestled in between the western coast of the Mediterranean and three mountain ranges – the Corbières to the North, the Pyrenees to the West and the Albères to the South.
Its northern border is the beginning of France’s largest wine producing region, the Languedoc, which it was “fusioned” with in the 1970’s. So for many wine lovers, when they hear Roussillon, it is often as part of this greater entity. But while the Roussillon shares certain soil and climate characteristics with parts of the Languedoc, it is a very different place.
The Roussillon, which came into France as a province in 1659 and became the department of the Pyrenees-Orientales, is the basin of the Catalan culture in France.
Historically, the Roussillon made a name for itself with fortified wines, and up until as recently as the 1970’s, fortified wines represented over 80% of all wine made in the region. The reason might be that the first patent for the process of “mutage” was granted to a Catalan doctor Arnaud de Villeneuve at the end of the 13th century.
As fortified wines have shown a drop in sales over the years, wineries gradually have shifted production towards table wines, but fortified wines still represent an important part of the region’s identity, and most wineries offer one or more of the five designated AOPs (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) for fortified wines: Rivesaltes, Muscat de Rivesaltes, Maury, Banyuls and Banyuls Grand Cru.
Maury and Banyuls
Maury and Banyuls can be made with white grapes, but are made primarily with grenache noir, often with a touch of carignan and to a much lesser extent, syrah and mourvedre. Like vintage Port, some Banyuls and Maury are aged for over a year without contact with oxygen and then continue to age in bottle. These wines are called “Rimage,” in Banyuls, and “Vendange” or “ Vintage” in Maury.
The dominant style, however, are the oxidized wines, much like Tawny Port. The wine is exposed to oxygen and acquires a “nutty” aroma. In both appellations, many wineries will use a technique of leaving all, or part, of the fortified wines outside in the sun in glass containers for up to two years. The combination of heat and sun speed up the oxidation process, which adds complexity and gives them their unique character.
These wines are arguably the ideal pairing for chocolate, though they can also be drunk on their own or with stronger cheeses.
Rivesaltes and Muscat de Rivesaltes
The rest of the Roussillon is covered by the two AOP’s for fortified wines: Rivesaltes and Muscat de Rivesaltes. As the name suggests, Muscat de Rivesaltes is made with muscat grapes: muscat petits grains and muscat of Alexandria. These are primarily sold young and offer up a host of tropical and citrus notes.
The family of Rivesaltes are made with both white and red grapes, and all are aged oxydatively. Amber Rivesaltes are aged a minimum of 30 months, and made entirely with white grapes. Tuilé Rivesaltes are also aged a minimum of 30 months, but can be a mix of red and white grapes. Rivesaltes Hors d’Âge is an Amber or Tuilé Rivesaltes with a minimum of 5 years of age, and sometimes much more. These wines can live for decades, and even centuries as I discovered during a recent trip to the region.
The Dry Wine Revolution
Many wineries have now shifted the majority of their production to table wines. While there was little in terms of tradition with respect to making “dry” wines, the region’s grapes and terroir are ideally suited to making this style of wine.
What the Roussillon has going for it is a complex mosaic of quality soils, and a warm climate that is fairly constant. Name a famous soil type, from limestone to schist, and you will find it in the region. Many of the vineyards are grown at higher altitudes, or by the sea, which both act to temper the heat and allow for the grapes to keep great acidity and show solid, though ripe, tannin.
But the greatest strength in terms of quality and uniqueness is that the Roussillon is a treasure trove of old vines, specifically carignan and grenache noir in red, and grenache blanc, grenache gris and macabeo in white grape varieties.
There are three main AOP’s covering dry wines: Côtes de Roussillon, Côtes de Roussillon Villages and Collioure. Côtes de Roussillon includes red, white and rosé. Côtes de Roussillon Villages is exclusively red wine and can include five named villages: Caramany, Latour de France, Lesquerde, Tautavel and Maury sec (dry Maury). Collioure which can be red, white and rosé and is the AOP which covers the same region which produces Banyuls.
All of the red wines must be blends and have a minimum percentage of syrah or mourvedre, which are newcomers to the region, alongside the carignan and grenache. The style tends to be riper wines, with alcohol levels often around 14% but with exceptional acidity. I often call them the perfect median between classic European structure and riper styled, new world wines.
The hidden gem might be the region’s white wines. With its limestone and schist soils, grenache gris and blanc perform extraordinarily well. Those who believe that minerality is reserved for northerly growing areas will be taken aback by the sheer rockiness that one finds in these wines. These wines can age with the best of them, and are a truly unique.
And perhaps unique is the best word to describe what has become one of my favourite wine regions in the world. The Roussillon is visually stunning, with a deep history in winemaking, its own culture, and a region which specializes in quality over quantity. Any true wine lover deserves, and needs, to discover what I believe is one of France’s most dynamic regions.
Discover the wines
Here’s a short list of some Roussillon wines that have been reviewed recently either by me or my WineAlign colleagues. You can find many more available at your favourite store by searching this tag: Vins du Roussillon.
Domaine de Rancy Ambré Rivesaltes 1948 “At 65 years of age, remarkably fresh and surprisingly delicate.” – Bill Zacharkiw
Domaine La Tour Vieille Reserva Banyuls “Barely sweet, and remarkably fresh. One of the better dessert wines out there.” – Bill Zacharkiw
Château Saint Roch Chimères 2013 “Seductive, ripe plummy, peppery nose nicely finished with subtle oak.” – David Lawrason
Domaine Lafage Côté Est 2013 “This is a lovely, exotic, bloomy and spicy young white” – David Lawrason
Domaine Lafage Cuvée Nicolas Vieilles Vignes Grenache Noir 2013 “A very rich grenache brimming with aroma and character.” – Sara d’Amato
Chapoutier Les Vignes de Bila Haut Côtes Du Roussillon Villages 2014 “A lovely, succulent fruity and spicy, oak-free red blend” – John Szabo MS
Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 60 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!
Photo credits: Vins du Roussillon