Despite being dominated by cooperatives, Roussillon has what it takes to become famous for more than just fortified wines – and a small but growing band of producers are determined to prove it. STEPHEN BROOK pays a visit.

The vines of Roussillon delve into its most remote corners. While tourists bathe along the Mediterranean coast at Banyuls and Collioure, ancient Grenache vines struggle to survive in the harsh schist-soiled hinterland, where their roots twist through fractured rock to find water. It’s a similar story in the scorching inland valleys west of Perpignan, where vines can barely reach commercially viable crop levels.

With a range of spectacular soil types, old vines, and a hot yet maritime climate, Roussillon should be world-famous for its wines. Certainly its fortified wines, such as Muscat de Rivesaltes and the rich Grenache-based Banyuls, enjoy international renown, though even they remain overshadowed by port.

The reasons for Roussillon’s dim reputation are not hard to discern. For one thing, fortified wines are still being produced in prodigious quantities, and although the best bottles can be sublime, the worst, which are in the clear majority, are atrocious. There’s a domestic market for cheap Rivesaltes, which, like port of wretched quality, is a popular aperitif in northern France. These headache-inducing brews will hardly provide a foundation for a Roussillon revival.

Secondly, the cooperatives account for 75% of production. Some of the 60 coops are well run and produce sound and inexpensive wines, with here and there a smattering of exceptional cuvées. But no region has ever ridden to glory on the backs of cooperatives.

What the country regions of France need to attract international attention is seriously good and consistent wines from outstanding estates. For the past 10 years or so, Roussillon has had one supreme estate, that of Gérard Gauby. With unfaltering self confidence Gauby has shown just what can be achieved in these parched valleys.

Whereas the great estates of the Languedoc have spawned numerous imitators, Gauby has few followers. Low yields and brilliant vinification have allowed him to charge high prices and get away with it. Few private estates dare move in the same direction, though former sommelier Hervé Bizeul has done so at the Domaine du Clos des Fées at Vingrau, northwest of Perpignan. The wines are true to the grape varieties of Roussillon but are often aged in new oak using modish techniques such as lees-stirring and micro-oxygenation. By 2003 he was releasing wines at prices that make Daumas-Gassac look cheap. In their way they are good but seem too worked over and crafted to retain a Roussillon character.

New Start

Now, at long last, a handful of other growers – many of whom have shaken off the shackles of cooperative membership – are following the path Gauby has laid for them. In the village of Rasiguères, Jean-Pierre Séguéla’s small winery is encircled by ancient Carignan vines embedded in crumbly schist soils. Carignan is a tough grape giving tough wines but, as in Corbières, Carignan from very old vines can produce impressive wines with a robust black-fruits character. Séguéla crops his old Carignan vines at less than 30hl/ha to produce a cuvée called Les Candalières, blended with a minority of Syrah and Grenache. The wine is unoaked but complete nonetheless, with aromas of prune and liquorice, and peppery black fruits.

However, I prefer the Syrah-dominated Cuvée Jean Julien, aged half in new barriques, half in tank. There’s an explosion of cloves and other spices, all wrapped in a powerful peppery cloak of black fruit. Just as fine is the Cuvée Planète, a blend of four grape varieties, aged in one-third new barriques. Exceedingly low yields result in a wine of formidable concentration, yet not lacking in finesse. Whether Séguéla can afford to maintain this level of quality is open to question, but he has built on Gauby’s demonstration that the inland valleys of Roussillon can produce wine of superb quality.

In Canet, a couple of kilometres from the coast, former ceramics manufacturer Serge Baux purchased a small property with a remarkable terroir comparable with that of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, being composed of heat-retaining, potato-sized boulders. Baux grubbed up two-thirds of the vineyard, retaining only some mature Grenache and Muscat vines. Most of his wines are made from young vines and had to be released as vins de pays until 2002. He produces various red blends – too many to avoid confusion – and quality is hit and miss. But a handful are impressive, notably the 2001 Rouge Baux, Syrah-dominated but with a good dose of Mourvèdre and Cabernet Sauvignon added.

It is definitely the uncompromising winemakers such as Gauby, Séguéla, Baux, Bizeul, and Jacques Sire of Domaine des Schistes who are setting the standards for the new Roussillon. Such wines will always be made in fairly small quantities and will always be expensive, so the mainstay of Roussillon (other than cooperative wines) will continue to be mid-sized producers of reliable but rarely dazzling wines. These include Piquemal, Forca-Réal, Casenove, Sarda-Malet, Lafage, Château de Jau, Cazes Frères (which can excel, especially for its fortified wines), and a handful of others.

All these wineries offer a range of dry and fortified wines, but usually focus on red blends, both unoaked and barrique-aged. Some domaines use international varieties such as Cabernet and Merlot to produce easy-drinking vins de pays which, given their high yields and lack of concentration, do little for the reputation of Roussillon, despite the combination of modest prices and drinkability.

At the lower end of the scale some cooperatives and other large-scale producers are moving away from bulk wine production and tentatively taking on the New World in the brands game, since only they have the volumes to produce such wines.

Les Vignerons Catalans sources its wines from 26 cooperatives and 20 private domaines, using its own winemakers to supervise vinification and then blending and bottling the wines in Perpignan. Quality used to be lacklustre, but things are changing. In 2001 the company created the Art de Vivre brand primarily for the British market, focusing on sound quality and innovative packaging. The wines are unashamedly commercial, as they need to be to slip under the £5 price barrier. The Chardonnay and rosé are adequate but the red, a Côtes du Roussillon from Grenache, Syrah and Carignan, is ripe, sleek and highly enjoyable.

While visiting the Vignerons Catalans, I sampled their 1974 Rivesaltes Ambré, the traditional fortified wine from white grapes. It had a rich orangey nose and, for a 30-year-old wine, remarkable freshness and a long bright finish. I expected this to be an ancient reserve excavated from the cellars, but it turned out to be one of their current vin doux naturel offerings, priced at t8 for a half-litre. In short, they were giving it away. A handful of producers can achieve high prices for their finest fortified wines, but these are the exceptions. A huge quantity of vin doux naturel is still produced every year, and although there is a domestic market for the wines (provided they are cheap), it’s hard to see how any producer can make a profit from them. When Baux bought his domaine, he immediately changed the orientation of the estate from fortified to dry wine production. And quite right too.

Image Problem

Roussillon can produce wines of the highest quality, and more and more estates are showing this to be the case. Yet the image of the region remains low, hampered by its over-production of mediocre fortified wines and nondescript vins de pays as well as DOC wines. And though some cooperatives make wines of good quality and value, too many remain at the mercy of their members. At the Lesquerde cooperative I watched grapes arriving during the harvest and was surprised at the seeming lack of quality control at the reception area. When I asked the director if he had the right to refuse grapes, he frankly replied: ‘Non.’ Not an encouraging sign.

The range and quantity of fortified wines confuses rather than enlightens most consumers, but among these are wines of superb quality, especially from Banyuls and Maury. Rich reds will continue to be the mainstay of Roussillon, but whites are improving. In the years ahead, the perfectionists such as Gauby and Séguéla will grow, and it is they who will demonstrate the true potential of the Roussillon area.

Domaine Cazes, Muscat de Rivesaltes 2000

Perfumed, dry, and refreshing. Drinkable from now. £9; EnW

Gauby, Muntada, Côtes du Roussillon Villages 2000

Very rich and sumptuous Syrah. Up to 2014. £38.68; ABt

Domaine de la Rectorie, Le Séris, Collioure 1998

Intense black-cherry fruit and supple tannins. Up to 2009.

£10.95; SVS

Domaine du Clos des Fées, Vieilles Vignes, Côtes du Roussillon Villages 2001

Fleshy oaky nose; ultra-ripe but also peppery, sleek, and long. Up to 2014. £16.99; Odd

Domaine Séguéla, Cuvée Jean Julien,

Côtes du Roussillon Villages 2001

Cloves, pepper, and black fruits in a liquid form. Enjoy at its best between now and 2011. N/A UK

Gauby, Vieilles Vignes Blanc 2002

Rich weighty wine that demands food. Up to 2006. £15.66; ABt

Maury, Préceptorie de Centernach, Terre Promise 2001

Plums and liquorice on the palate, and a long earthy finish. Up to 2010. £9.30; SVS

Pétri-Géraud, Collioure 2001

Spicy, slightly gamey, showing great concentration and vigour. Up to 2010. £8.60; M&V

Mas Baux, Rouge Baux 2001

Ripe blackcurranty fruit, underpinned by new oak. Up to 2009. N/A UK; +33 4 68 80 25 04

Domaine des Schistes, Tradition, Côtes du Roussillon 1999

A ripe, velvety, concentrated and balanced wine that will be very enjoyable up to 2007. £6.46; M&V

Vignerons Catalans, Hors d’Age, Rivesaltes 1974

Rich and orangey, this is still a remarkably fresh wine. £10.95; Roo

Domaine Pietri-Géraud, Cuvée Joseph Géraud, Banyuls 1994

Figgy aromas and gorgeous flavours of dates and caramel. This wine is drinkable from now until 2019. £11.50; M&V

Written by By Stephen Brook