Extract: The wines of Roussillon by Rosemary George MW

21 July 2021 by in Classic Wine Library, Extracts, Wine and spirits

Setting the scene
Roussillon stands alone, proud and independent. For many years it suffered a union of convenience with the Languedoc, when the wines of two relatively unknown areas lacked any reputation, and when it was simpler to refer to the departments of the south, without differentiating between them, as Languedoc-Roussillon. Roussillon deserves so much more than that; it needs to come out from under the shadow of the Languedoc and stand alone. Its history is different, its language is different and the wines are quite different and original. Much of Roussillon is Catalan, with strong links to Catalonia in Spain. The local language is Catalan, whereas the Languedoc is part of Occitanie, where Occitan is the local language. Roussillon did not become fully part of France until the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659.

The original reputation of Roussillon is founded on what are rather clumsily called Vins Doux Naturels, VDN for short, fortified wines for which the key grape varieties are Muscat and Grenache, with their easily attained high alcohol levels making them the most suitable varieties. The natural sweetness is the sugar that remains in the juice after fortification. The wine growers tend to simply refer to the Vins Doux Naturels as vins doux, in contrast to their table wines, or vins secs. These are a relatively recent development in Roussillon. It is only in the last 20 years or so that vins secs have overtaken Vins Doux Naturels in importance. The first appellations in Roussillon appeared in 1936 and were for Vin Doux Naturel; the first appellations for vins secs did not follow until 1971, for red Collioure, and 1977 for Côtes du Roussillon and Côtes du Roussillon Villages, admittedly a few years before the key appellations of the Languedoc, in 1985.

Essentially Roussillon equates to the department of the Pyrénées-Orientales. Its boundaries are limited by the Pyrenees, with the Canigou the highest peak, at 2,785 metres, providing an important landmark. To the north, the foothills of the Corbières massif separate it from the Languedoc vineyards of Corbières itself, with the ruined Cathar castle of Quéribus and the lookout tower of Tautavel dominating the skyline.

Usually I have approached Roussillon from the Languedoc, driving south on the motorway. You pass Fitou, the last village of the Languedoc, reaching the extraordinary fortress of Salses shortly after, by which time you are in Roussillon and in northern Catalonia. In the distance is the outline of the Pyrenees, which are snow-capped for much of the year. These mountains unify the two halves of Catalonia. The fortress of Salses was first constructed in the fifteenth century and adapted by Vauban in the seventeenth century. It is well worth a visit, which you can easily do from the motorway aire, without leaving the motorway itself. Taking a slower and more scenic route over the hills from Corbières, you come past the castle of Quéribus and descend into the Agly Valley past either Vingrau and Tautavel or Maury. Alternatively, for still more dramatic scenery, there is the most stupendous of all the Cathar castles, the Château de Peyrepertuse, from which you could take in the Gorges de Galamus to St Paul-de-Fenouillet.

Three principal rivers cross the region to meet the Mediterranean. The most northern is the Agly, with the twin appellations of Maury and Maury Sec, as well as many of the villages of Côtes du Roussillon Villages. The Agly Valley really is the core of the vineyards of Roussillon, with awe-inspiringly majestic scenery. The vineyards peter out after Caudiès-de-Fenouillèdes, as the climate becomes cooler. If you carry on west along the valley past Axat and drive through the dramatic Defile de Pierre-Lys, with its threatening overhanging rocks, the next vineyards you encounter are those of fresher, more bucolic Limoux. The middle river is the Têt, which flows past the city of Perpignan and the northern edge of Les Aspres, where the vineyards are on undulating slopes. Then to the south there is the Tech, which meets the sea just north of the resort of Argelès and the vineyards of Banyuls and Collioure. Even without wine, Collioure and Banyuls would be worth the journey. Banyuls has an attractive seafront, with statues by Aristide Maillol, who was born here, and Collioure, dominated by its castle, is an enchanting fishing port with lively streets, known for its anchovies. The appellations stand slightly apart from the rest of Roussillon. The vineyards are even more dramatic than those of the Agly Valley, sitting on steep terraced hillsides, where mechanization is virtually impossible and heroic viticulture is the order of the day.

There are many strands to the wines of Roussillon. With some exceptions among the wine estates near the coast close to Perpignan, the vineyards are all on hillsides, some gentle, some much steeper. The flatter land to the west of Perpignan is a vast market garden, above all for apricots and peaches. March is a wonderful time to be there; the orchards are flowering and spring is coming, with vivid splashes of delicate blossom. The climate is essentially Mediterranean, but with climate change it is becoming much less consistent. The winds can blow hard. Winters are usually mild, and summers are hot, with drought conditions increasingly prevalent, having an inevitable impact on yields. As a result of the formation of the Pyrenees, the soil is enormously varied, more diverse than just about any other vineyard of France, with the exception of Alsace. Maury is based on schist, there is granite at Lesquerde and you will also find clay and limestone, marl, sandstone and gneiss. The variations are infinite.

As for grape varieties, Grenache Noir is the key variety for red wine, with the added attraction of old vines. You will see vineyards of gnarled, stubby bush vines that withstand the strong winds. Usually the wines are field blends, featuring all three colours of Grenache, often with some Carignan for good measure. There is growing interest in Carignan, with its acidity providing an important balance to Grenache. Syrah and Mourvèdre also feature, and to a lesser extent Cinsault, which was previously considered too light and not suitable for Vins Doux Naturels. The likes of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are relatively rare in Roussillon.

For white wine, Grenache Blanc and Grenache Gris are important, as is Macabeo, the traditional white grape of Catalonia, which is much less common in the Languedoc. You will also find Carignan Blanc (Carignan Gris is very rare) along with Malvoisie du Roussillon, or Tourbat, which has fallen from favour, but may be in line for a revival. Vermentino, Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier also feature in the appellations, and you may find occasional examples of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc in the IGPs. Muscat, both Muscat à Petits Grains and Muscat d’Alexandrie, is of course significant for Muscat de Rivesaltes, and also as a vin sec. One of the surprises and discoveries during my research was the quality of the white wines of Roussillon. It is an enigma that so many of the wines simply do not taste as though they come from a hot climate. You could be forgiven for thinking that the climate of Roussillon would be completely unsuitable for white wine, but other factors come into play, such as altitude, the proximity of the mountains and the suitability of the indigenous varieties to the terroir.

The red wines have evolved enormously, with many changes and developments over the years. Winemaking has become more refined, with less heavy-handed extraction, less use of small oak barrels and a shift towards bigger demi-muids and even foudres. You will also find eggs and amphorae. There is a quest for lower alcohol levels. People are experimenting with orange wines and wines without any added sulphur, even wine growers who I would have thought more conventional in their approach than the natural winemakers, for whom any additions or interventions are anathema. The natural wine movement has a firm foothold in Roussillon, centred on the village of Latour-de-France, and is popular with many of the new arrivals in the region. Like the Languedoc, Roussillon attracts outsiders, from elsewhere in France and from other countries and continents. The price of vineyards is such that they are accessible to those with more limited means. Often the newcomers have moved from other fields of activity, bringing a different perspective to a second career in wine. Although production was once dominated by the village cooperatives, these have become very much less important, with an escalation in the number of independent wine estates, each trying to make its mark. Several of the wine estates that I visited have made their first wines within the last five years, and certainly within the past ten years. Work in the vineyards has evolved. Organic viticulture and biodynamic practices are increasingly important, while some growers prefer to follow the requirements of Haute Valeur Environnementale (HVE), which places an emphasis on biodiversity. There is a widespread awareness of climate change and its impact, particularly on yields and grape quality.

Often the appellation requirements are questioned, with the restrictions found to be limiting. Consequently, the principal IGP, Côtes Catalanes, is widely used by those who prefer more flexibility and who find the appellations irksome; the IGP allows for single varietals, which are often particularly successful for white wine. Although blending is the essence of the appellations of Roussillon, sometimes a wine grower does not have the necessary proportions in their vineyards, and will again resort to the IGP (Pays d’Oc is less important in Roussillon than in the Languedoc). And for those who will have no truck with any regulations, there is always Vin de France. Do not dismiss a Vin de France from Roussillon; there will be a good reason why the wine is a Vin de France rather than an appellation or IGP. You may not like it, but it will have been made with passion and commitment.

The most original aspect of wine in Roussillon remains without doubt its Vins Doux Naturels, with the appellations of Maury, Banyuls and Rivesaltes. Rivesaltes and Muscat de Rivesaltes cover virtually the whole department, while Maury and Banyuls are focused on those two villages. The Vins Doux Naturels take two forms: reductive and oxidative. The reductive wines, Rimage and Grenat, are a more recent development, while the oxidative wines are an intrinsic part of the history and traditions of Roussillon. They may be described as rancio if they have developed the particular characteristics while ageing, in either a barrel or a glass jar exposed to the elements and extremes of temperature.

However, Rancio Sec, an old tradition that so nearly disappeared, describes a wine that is not fortified, merely aged for several years in barrel without any ouillage. Some say that historically rancio preceded the Vins Doux Naturels, as rancio does not require fortification. It is neither a Vin Doux Naturel, nor a vin sec, but depends on oxidative ageing to develop some wonderful original flavours, not dissimilar to fino sherry. Rancio Sec nearly disappeared, as so few people were making it, but happily a group of fervent enthusiasts managed to stem its decline, and now it features as a category of both Côtes Catalanes and Côte Vermeille.

One of the enigmas of Roussillon is the decline in its Vins Doux Naturels. The best, the Hors d’Age, which have spent at least five years in barrel, are truly wonderful original wines, and yet they have fallen from favour. How can their decline be halted? Another puzzle is why Roussillon has not acquired the cachet of Priorat. My friend and colleague Andrew Jefford describes Roussillon as a northern Catalan echo of Priorat, observing that ‘the wines are just as “mineral”; no less overwhelming; often fresher.’ I could not agree more.

Altogether this book is the fruit of some 30 days of research on the ground, totalling almost one hundred cellar visits concentrated between June 2019 and September 2020. What follows is the distillation of those conversations and tastings, capturing the current concerns and enthusiasms of the wine growers I talked to. As I was putting the finishing touches to my manuscript, the wines of 2020 were finishing their fermentations and being racked into barrel or vat. Despite the problems and challenges of Covid-19, the wine growers were happy with the harvest.

Wendy Wilson of Domaine le Soula describes the region as ‘a hidden treasure, waiting to be discovered’. So, I would urge you to discover the region for yourselves, first via the pages of this book, preferably with a glass in hand, but I also hope that it will encourage you to visit in person, once we are able to travel freely again.

Extract from The wines of Roussillon © Rosemary George (Infinite Ideas, 2021)
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