Discover Roussillon: Hardscrabble Southern France Region Produces Great Table Wines by Jeff Diamond
I recently returned from a wine buying trip in France, and while the entire sojourn was informative, eye-opening and full of the joy of great wine, food and, well, France, it was my first stop that opened my eyes to a new world of wine that I had known little about beforehand. It was the Roussillon, a tiny appellation tucked against the Pyrenees in far southern France.
Most wine drinkers only know Roussillon as the region tacked onto the end of “Languedoc-Roussillon,” a vast swath of different wines, soils and grapes that roughly comprises the wine regions of the western French Mediterranean coast.
Roussillon is the sunniest region in France, and benefits from the strong tramontane winds that blow north from the Pyrenees mountains. In fact, the climate, history and traditions of Roussillon make it more similar to Spain in the south than to its northerly neighbor Languedoc.
Roussillon is a hardscrabble area bounded on three sides by mountains (Mount Canigou, the Pyrenees and the Corbières mountains) and the Mediterranean on the south. It was the last area in continental France to be admitted to France (in the 1700s), when the treaty of the Pyrenees was signed between the Kingdoms of Aragon and France.
The folks are fiercely independent and rightly proud of their heritage. Catalan is the language spoken here, and the food and culture look more to northeastern Spain than to France. Bullfights, paella and chorizo rather than sauce béarnaise, oeufs mayonnaise and Grand Prix racing.
In the past, Roussillon has mainly been known for its fortified sweet wines — and rightly so. Muscat de Rivesaltes (a white wine made from Muscat d’Alexandria and Muscat à Petits Grains grapes), Banyuls, Collioure and Maury (made from Grenache grapes) have been regarded as some of the finest dessert wines in the world.
Only recently have world wine lovers discovered the pleasures of red and white table wines from the region, based upon Grenache, Carignan, Mourvèdre, Syrah and Cinsault for red and rosé wines and Muscat, Grenache Blanc, Macabeu (Macabeo in Spain), Malvoisie and Viognier for their seafood-friendly whites.
Wine has been produced for many hundreds of years in Roussillon — various sources credit either the Greeks or Romans with introducing viticulture there, and now wine grape growing is the leading agricultural and commercial activity.
Roussillon is blessed — for wines anyways — by great weather (325 days per year of sun), strong winds (350 days per year) and poor soils. The climate and soils are perfectly suited for wine production — hot sun, little rain and diverse soils (from clay and limestone to slate and quartz-rich schist).
It’s these mineral-laden soils that help to make the most interesting wines in the region: You can almost taste the slate in the inky-dark wines from Maury or the quartz in the red wines from the Côtes de Roussillon.
International winemakers have discovered the Roussillon, and have established outposts there, including The Prisoner’s Dave Phinney, Bordeaux’s Jean-Luc Thunevin, California cult-winemaker Abe Schoener and Rhône giant Chapoutier. And the critics have responded in kind, with Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate awarding some premium bottlings from the region with scores of 95 and above. Importer Dan Kravitz calls the region “a cross between Châteauneuf and Priorat,” and I’d have to agree, as the best wines have the fruit-forward and mineral-laden characteristics of Priorat to the south combined with the high tones and garrigue of wines from the southern Rhône. But, while some of these wines can set you back a considerable amount of money (some of Domaine Gauby’s top wines cost more than $200 per bottle), the Roussillon is home to many fine producers making wines of character, quality, provenance and flavor for less than $20 per bottle.
My trip was with the folks from Robert Kacher Selections, and while we concentrated on the two estates that they represent — Domaine Cazes and Mas de Lavail — these wines are representative of the types of wines you can find from the region for not very much money.
The soils at Cazes were astounding. This part of the Roussillon is ancient riverbed, and the soil — if you could call it soil — is all river stones of varying sizes, going down nearly 4 feet (where it hits a layer of limestone, giving the wines a fresh minerality, as well as acting like a sponge, retaining moisture in the hot summer months).
Here’s a small smattering of wines from the Roussillon that you can find in select wine shops:
Domaine Cazes Canon Blanc and Canon Rouge
With 220 hectares of vines planted, Domaine Cazes is the largest certified organic and biodynamic estate in the world.
The Blanc is a blend of Viognier and two different varieties of Muscat: Muscat d’Alexandrie, which gives weight and fruity flavors; and Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains, to give finesse. The wine is fresh and pure with a medium body. It finishes dry with citrus and lingering grape flavors. Fresh and lively.
The Rouge is a blend of Syrah and Merlot. An easy drinking wine, the supple tannins and smooth, velvety mouthfeel are in perfect balance and the finish is round and long.
Chateau St Roch Chimères
Syrah, Carignan and Grenache combine to deliver a mineral-laden, heady red blend that scored 91 points from Parker. Not bad for under $20.
Orin Swift d66
An opulent blend of Grenache, Carignan and Syrah in the classic Orin Swift (The Prisoner) style.
Clos des Fées
Mostly old vine Grenache, with amazing minerality.