The Roussillon region of France is breathtakingly gorgeous, with dramatic tall mountains jaggedly framing wide open blue skies. Everything in sight – gnarly bush vines, minerals sparkling in the black schist soil, and the tumultuous nearby sea are vividly animated and seem to take on a life of their own. And then there’s the famed Tramontane wind, occasionally shrieking through the vineyards like a wild banshee.
Though this region of France is often linked with the bordering Languedoc region, and shares many of the same grape varieties, in terms of culture and in terms of viniculture they are quite different. The Roussillon has a long historic link with Spain and many of the people in the Roussillon dearly cherish their Catalan heritage. Equally important, for centuries the Roussillon has been renowned for its delicious fortified wine from Maury, Banyuls, and Rivesaltes.
The climate in the Roussillon is ideal, with dry hot summers, and mild autumns and winters. You can best visualize the topography as an amphitheater dominated by mountain peaks that historically have separated the wine growing region from neighboring provinces.
And then there is the unique mosiac of soils. The soil is the most unique and diverse in the world because the Roussillon suffered enormous upheavals in the tertiary and quaternary periods. As a direct consequence, the soil and subsoil of the region are extremely varied, making for a multitude of terroirs with very different characteristics. Add to that the mix of wild herbs such as lavender and fennel growing through the rocks and you already have the recipe for making wines with great complexity. In some ways, the way the soils of the Roussillon have combined together is similar to the celebrated soils of Burgundy.
Rivesaltes, Maury, and Grand Cru Banyuls are among the classic sweet wines of the world, long taking their rightful place at royal dinners with classics such as Sauternes and Tokaji. Today these glorious sweet wines are still treasured, yet not to the extent they had been in the past.
To survive, individual producers and cooperatives have been devoting their attention to improving their knowledge of the elements that go into still wine viticulture and vinification, which is quite different than the production of fortified wine in terms of judging the right time to pick, protecting vines from the sun, and other factors.
Key Varietals of the Roussillon
Grenache in all its forms (Noir, Blanc, Gris) is extremely popular here, as it is in the Southern Rhone. Yet it is somewhat rare to find unblended Grenache Noir on its own. Its traditional red blending partners in many regions of the world are Syrah, Mourvedre, and here, in the Roussillon, Carignan. I was surprised to find that many producers ferment these varietals separately, giving special treatment to Carignan in that this variety undergoes carbonic fermentation to tame what can sometimes be pronounced, rustic tannins. It was also interesting that at the more basic levels, these blends rarely see oak. Yet because Grenache and the other varieties have such spice, they have some of the aromas and flavors one associates with oak.
Aside from Grenache Blanc and Gris, other popular white grapes include Macabeo, and the two popular Muscat grapes, Muscat a Petits Grains and Muscat d’Alexandrie. Vermentino is often used in white blends, noted for its freshness and strength.
International varieties of both colors are grown and can be used depending on the (strict) regulations of the individual appellation.
During the many tasting sessions with individual producers and at cooperatives, I had expected the rich, spicy red blends and the elegant red blends of the barrel-aged wines from the higher-end producers. I had expected and looked forward to the luscious finely made sweet fortified wine.
But what I did not expect were the very elegant, mineral driven dry white wines, usually made from a blend of white and grey Grenache and Vermentino, often barrel fermented. These wines had such incredible finesse it was difficult to believe it could come from such a hot, dry climate. The delicacy of these wines is a testament to the mosaic of soils as well a great deal of attention in the vineyard (pruning, canopy management, the right moment to pick) and the winery.
While producers and cooperatives are turning their attention to improving the quality of their dry wines, producers remain passionate about the production of their sweet wines. Producer after producer explained that the sweet fortified wines of the region are their tradition, their backbone, and their pride and joy.
And I must admit, there is nothing in the entire world like walking into a winery and seeing several giant wood vessels holding thousands of liters of slowly aging sweet wine, some of which has been there for decades. Sweet wine production is an inexact science. To some extent, producers have an intuitive sixth sense of what kind of maturation treatment the wine needs. For example, some producers typically age the newly fermented sweet wine in demi-johns out of doors for a year before putting it in barrel indoors. Others age the wine indoors in wood for a year or two before sending it outdoors in a demi-john. Some just put it into an enormous barrel and leave it for a generation, undisturbed.
A quick note on fortified wine production. Sweetness is achieved by arresting fermentation before the yeast has converted all the sugar into alcohol. So when the wine is about halfway through fermentation, a pure neutral alcohol of wine origin (96%) is added to the must. Aromatic Vin Doux Naturel (VDN) made from a grape such as Muscat, for example, begins with the freshly harvested grapes pressed, then the spirit added at the desired sugar level (usually 105 g/L residual sugar). This wine is meant to drink while it is fresh and young.
The opposite of a Muscat-based VDN could be an Ambre or Tuille made from a Grenache Noir majority, fortified with pure neutral alcohol of wine origin on the grape, and left to macerate from 15 days to three weeks to allow the alcohol to extract the color and flavor from the skins. Afterwards, it is aged in wood or tanks for at least 36 months and often decades. If a wine has a “Rancio” label it means that it has matured for at least five years before being exposed to extreme conditions to enhance its deliberately oxidative nature.
Many thanks to Eric Aracil, Export Director for the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon (CIVR), and Helene Losada of the CIVR, for going out of their way to make sure I saw the Roussillon and its producers from every possible angle, from boutique producers to large cooperatives. There were unforgettable moments: a visit to a remote single vineyard where I could see dozens of soil types at once; a visit to the colorful seaside artistic colony of Collioure; a tasting of the celebrated Grand Cru Banyuls in a tiny 17th century farmhouse; and even an eclectic “wine dinner” held in what was once an ancient water well. Both Eric and Helene work tirelessly 24/7, performing a variety of roles in order to bring this exquisite region to the world’s center stage where it so rightfully belongs.
In the individual producer stories you will read below, the producers are all united by a love of producing wine from the Roussillon. Virtually everyone I met displayed passion for making or promoting wine in the Roussillon, and seemed to feel fortunate to being able to live and work in this remarkable area.