The drier side of Roussillon

The drier side of Roussillon People & Places Articles
  • Thursday 1 May 2003

Long known for its sweet white wines, in the late 1970s Roussillon began to produce dry reds and whites to rival the rest of France. NORM ROBY investigates.

Long known for its sweet white wines, in the late 1970s Roussillon began to produce dry reds and whites to rival the rest of France. NORM ROBY investigates.

Roussillon, the large, long-sleeping giant in France's Midi, is beginning to stir and shift its focus from aperitif and dessert wines to AC red. Like the Languedoc next door, Roussillon enjoys a sunny, relatively dry climate and contains an enviable number of soil types and spectacular, low-yielding steep slopes. Its greatest resource is an inordinate amount of old-vine Grenache, Carignan and Mourvèdre. When Syrah planted over the last two decades is factored in, it is easier to accept that this ancient, slumbering wine region is finally moving in a different direction. With most of its old vineyards located within its two top ACs, Côtes du Roussillon and Côtes du Roussillon-Villages, Roussillon is beginning to showcase blended red wines that are quintessentially Mediterranean.

Roussillon has long been dominated by cooperatives and high-yielding vineyards feeding the vins doux naturels, vins ordinaires and plonk pipelines. In 1936, when Maury, Rivesaltes and Banyuls were granted AC status for their vins doux naturels, growers responded by expanding their holdings of the two primary red grapes, Grenache and Carignan, along with various Muscat varieties. By the 1960s, vineyards within Roussillon had expanded to 70,000ha (hectares).

Since then a weakening demand – first in France and eventually across the world – for aperitif and dessert wines, the specialities of the area, has been felt throughout Roussillon. As a result Roussillon's vineyard size gradually dwindled to today's total of 38,000ha. There are still 60 coops, and the latest figures indicate they are responsible for producing 75% of the region's 1.5 million hectolitres each year.

Among independent producers, the first signs of an awakening occurred in the late 1970s when Domaine Cazes Frères, one of the leading producers of vins doux naturels, geared up for change by planting Syrah. A few years later Domaine Gauby began challenging Roussillon's old ways. In 1989 the Henriquès family acquired Força Réal. That same year Jeannin-Mongeard left the family nest in Burgundy to run the newly acquired 30ha property, Domaine Mas Cremat. By 1990 a new generation with new ideas had taken over the reins at other key, family-run estates such as Domaine Fontanel, Domaine Gardies, Domaine Piquemal, Domaine Joliette, Domaine des Schistes and Domaine Mounie. Today, numerous small family-owned domaines located along the streets in Maury, Rivesaltes, Tautavel, Vingrau, Thuir and Terrats are producing and bottling their own wines. As they do, they are changing the way people think about Roussillon.

Focus on Syrah

The mainstream Cazes brothers (André and Bernard) of Domaine Cazes and the maverick, outspoken Gérard Gauby of Domaine Gauby were among the first to send out shockwaves. While the former continues to make outstanding Rivesaltes, Gauby believes the biggest blight on Roussillon's image is its association with vins doux naturels. However, working independently, they were united in their experiments with non- traditional varieties and with innovative farming practices to control yields. Each winemaker is now committed to Syrah.

With 160ha under vine in the Agly valley, Domaine Cazes is one of Roussillon's largest family-owned estates and produces 16 different wines. Both the winery and the winemaking style are relatively modern. By 2001 all of the Cazes vineyards were converted to biodynamic farming.

There are three noteworthy cuvées all made from at least 50% Syrah and not a drop of Carignan. Alter and Ego began life in 1998 as the same cuvée, with the former aged one year in oak and the latter not oak aged at all. Both were bottle-aged for three years before being sold. However, it is the harmonious 1999 Trilogy (Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Grenache), aged for 15 months in oak, that is being positioned by winemaker Bruno Cazes as the new direction for Roussillon reds.

Modern wines

Inheriting 5ha in 1985, the high-energy, charming Gauby cleverly snapped up high-elevation, old-vineyard parcels that were being neglected. Today he owns 40ha. In addition to brilliant Vieilles Vignes 2001 Blanc and 2000 Rouge, both AC Côtes du Roussillon-Villages, Gauby has crafted a Syrah-driven cuvée, La Muntada, that in both 2000 and 2001 goes way off the charts. Working with partners from the UK, Gauby has added wines under the Domaine Soula name. A blend of Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc from late-maturing hillside sites, Soula's 2001 Blanc is an amazing, vibrant wine. The Soula 2000 Rouge, predominantly old-vine Grenache aged in new oak, is concentrated and garrigue scented.

Domaine Gardies and its young winemaker, Jean-François Carrel, burst onto the scene in the mid 1990s. Since putting his signature style on the 1996 vintage, he has become one of the top winemakers here. His wines are also having a profound impact on the future direction of Roussillon: intricate, structured and harmonious, they show the kind of restraint often tagged feminine with regard to ripeness, oak level and flavour complexity. With the 2000 vintage, Domaine Gardies hit full stride. With half of the cuvée aged in oak, the 2000 Gardies, Les Millères (50% Syrah and equal parts Mourvèdre and Grenache) is finely balanced. The 2000 Vieilles Vignes Côtes du Roussillon-Villages is 70% Grenache and seductive. With fine tannins and perfect balance, Domaine Gardies 2000 La Torre, (Mourvèdre, old-vine Grenache and old-vine Carignan) is an outstanding example of the heights that can be reached with a traditional cuvée. Part philosopher, part poet, Carrel is passionate about Roussillon's potential. Acknowledging the difficulties winemakers face in this warm climate, he feels that knowing when to harvest is the key to success. Picking a day late or a day early can spell the difference between a balanced wine and overripe jam.

What aligns Carrel with the Cazes brothers and Gauby is a belief in their unusual terroir. 'From selected sites within Roussillon, we can offer wines that are modern but authentic. If you are passionate about wine, you want authenticity. Without it, or when you try to make wines in the international style, you lose your identity as a region and as a winemaker.'

Roussillon has attracted limited interest from outsiders, and, discounting an encounter with two British tourists cramming cases of Domaine des Chênes into their car, I could not uncover any significant international connection here. But, because its vins doux naturels are highly regarded throughout the world, Domaine Mas Amiel stands out as a marketing powerhouse. This venerable producer recently completed construction of a separate facility with custom-fitted stainless steel tanks and oak barrels to house its impressive new red and white wine programme. The only other sign of serious money being spent on a facility hits you at Força Réal, a site revived by the Henriquès family. Enjoying a spectacular view from one of Roussillon's highest points, Força Réal recently completed a handsome barrel-ageing cave and a visitors' centre. The Henriquès family has also redeveloped its 40ha vineyard, adding Syrah and creating a 10ha olive grove. But before anyone thinks this sounds like a Napa Valley ego trip, the best news is that Força Réal's wines are among the best value in the region.

No region going through radical changes is complete without a garagiste or two, and Roussillon is no exception. This role is filled comfortably by former sommelier Hervé Bizeul at Domaine du Clos des Fées in Vingrau. Harvesting old vines whose fruit has reached optimum phenolic maturity, Bizeul holds back nothing when it comes to giving his three wines the most meticulous care, and each is hand-made. Both his 2001 Les Sorcières, with a hint of oak, and his 2000 Vieilles Vignes with more oak are intense, complex and long agers. Bizeul's high-end cuvée is Le Clos des Fées, from equal parts Syrah, Grenache, Carignan and Mourvèdre. Aged in oak for 18 months, this incredible wine is hard to top, but with its special cuvée – 2000 Selenae – made from low-yielding (15hl/ha) hillside vineyards, Domaine Ferrer-Ribière has thrown its hat into the garage wine competition.

In 1997 both Côtes du Roussillon and Côtes du Roussillon-Villages were granted AC status. Despite being relatively new, these ACs came with hand-tying impediments to quality. For red wines, five varieties are permitted – Grenache, Carignan, Syrah, Mourvèdre and the rarely seen Lladoner. To qualify for either AC, winemakers must use a minimum of three varieties, with the two most significant used not to exceed 90%. When Carignan is included, the law requires that at least 50% of what is included be made by carbonic maceration.

For red wines, this means that some of the best wines from the region might go into the market as vins de pays rather than appellation wine. For example, Domaine Gauby's Cuvée des Calcinaires is a Grenache, Carignan blend but contains a splash of Cabernet Sauvignon which makes it a vin de pays. Wines made from one or two varieties are also excluded from the ACs. Domaine Mas Amiel offers a 100% Grenache named Le Plaisir, and Domaine du Mas Cremat's 2001 Tamarius, a tasty blend of 60% Carignan and 40% Grenache, is a vin de pays des Côtes Catalanes. Another unusual vin de pays d'Oc is Dernier Bastion's Perles Noires, made from 100-year-old Grenache vines and a splash of Syrah and Mourvèdre. All these are good-value. The cooperatives should not be overlooked either. A hidden gem was uncovered at the Vignerons de Maury, a blockbuster Grenache named Terra Novo.

Of the two appellations, Côtes du Roussillon extends over more territory and includes more low-lying vineyards. The area covers 6,300ha in and around 118 towns. As a rule of thumb, red wines from this appellation are likely to contain more Carignan and are less likely to have been oak aged. They can offer exceptional value.

Confined to the northern sector, Côtes du Roussillon-Villages covers 2,500ha and is for red wine only. It includes some of the oldest and steepest vineyards – many of these must be terraced.

In 1997 after a lengthy wait, AC status was given to four stand-alone communes: Tautavel, Lesquerde, Caramany and Latour de France. But at the moment, only Tautavel merits such special status. In fact, Tautavel, which consists of the village of Tautavel and its neighbour to the north, Vingrau, is on a course to become Roussillon's rising star.

With both 2000 and 2001 rated as good to excellent vintages, now is a fine time to explore Roussillon's reds. The best from each can be aged at least four to five years. The 1999 vintage fared better here than in other parts of France and drinks well today. However, 1998 was exceptional, and other good recent vintages include 1995 and 1992.

Norm Roby writes about wine from his two bases in California and south-west France.

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