The Roussillon region is one of the most attractive and varied regions in France, as well as being the southernmost departement. During the golden age of its history in the 13th and 14th century it was part of the kingdom of Mallorca, which had been put together as a combination of the Balearic islands, the Cerdagne highlands, the Roussillon and Montpellier by James the Conqueror for his peace-loving youngest son.
The Roussillon region has a number of advantages in terms of winegrowing, these were already evident to the Greek settlers in the 7th century BC, and are being used increasingly by modern winemakers today. The region is bounded in the south by the Albères mountain range, foothills of the Pyrenees, and in the east by the Mediterranean, the sun shines for more than 2500 hours a year, ensuring grapes become fully ripe. The northwesterly wind known as the Tramontane blows frequently, and thus drives off many vine diseases. Nature makes it easy for wine producers here to work organically, and an increasing number of producers is following this route.
The vineyards cover a total area of 35.000 hectares, and stretch from the low-lying stony terraces on the plain up to an altitude of around 600 metres above sea-level. Together they form a gigantic amphitheatre that is crowned by the majestic peak of Mount Canigou, almost 3000 metres high. The soils in the region are extremely varied, with varying levels of clay content, based on granite, slate, gneiss, gravel or limestone. This variety in natural conditions has led to a total of 14 different appellations being declared.
A speciality that dates back to medieval times can be found in the Vins Doux Naturels made in the appellations of Banyuls, Banyuls Grand Cru, Maury, Rivesaltes, Muscat de Rivesaltes and Grand Roussillon. The recipe for these wines is attributed to the famous medical doctor and alchemist Arnau de Vilanova (1240-1311), a Templar knight and later rector of the University of Montpellier. He had brought back his knowledge of the principle of distillation from one of the campaigns in the Middle East, and experimented with this on the Templar estate Mas Déu close to Trouillas, south of Perpignan. In the course of his studies he discovered the secret of “mutage”, the principle of interrupting and stopping fermentation by the addition of wine spirits. This not only stabilised the wine – a highly desirable effect in those times – it also ensured a considerable level of glucose remained in the wine, and so Vin Doux Naturel was born at a time when sweet foodstuffs were a rarity. (This principle is used for all fortified wines such as sherry, port, marsala, etc., but it is also the underlying principle of the wine-based aperitifs (à base de vin) such as Byrrh, Dubonnet or Saint-Raphael as well as. Among others, the Pineau des Charentes or the Floc de Gascogne, in these cases the wine spirits are added immediately to prevent fermentation completely, the result is a so-called mistelle.)
The dry wines have achieved recognition as Côtes du Roussillon and Côtes du Roussillon Villages appellations, with four communes having the right to append their names: Latour-de-France, Caramay, Tautavel and Lesquerdes. The first terroir of the Côtes du Roussillon to be awarded its own appellation is Les Aspres, whereas the dry wines of the Côte Vermeille, the home of the naturally sweet Banyuls, have been classified as AOC Collioure.
The grape varieties
The traditional grape varieties in the Roussillon region are the varieties also best suited for naturally sweet wines, namely Grenache in its three variants Blanc, Gris and Noir and the white varieties Macabeu and Malvoisie as well as Muscat à Petits Grains and Muscat d’Alexandrie. At a later stage, simple dry red wines came to be produced from the robust Carignan grape, and to a lesser extent Cinsault, as well as the rare Lladoner Pelut, a variant of Grenache Noir. When the Côtes du Roussillon and Côtes du Roussillon Villages appellations were classified in 1977, wine producers made great efforts to improve the vineyard material available for the production of dry wines, planting mainly Syrah, Grenache Noir and small amounts of Mourvedre. The early-ripening Syrah has expanded tremendously in Roussillon, and by now determines the character of most of the red wines, even though the rules of the AOC prescribe that this variety must always be blended with two other varieties.
The Vins Doux Naturels were the working man’s aperitif until the 1980’s, but have since run into the problems of a declining market, so that many producers are now using the grapes from the old Grenache, and to a lesser degree Carignan vines, which were previously used for this, to make red wines. This applies both to the vineyards along the coast, which are responsible for the growth of Collioure, but also particularly to the vineyard parcels in the Maury area. There the number of independent wine producers who have left the co-operatives has increased fourfold since 2000, to around 150 wineries, and this has also attracted a number of investors. This development has contributed significantly to the noticeable improvement in the quality of Roussillon wines in recent years.
The traditional grape varieties Macabeu, Grenache Blanc and Gris are available for the production of white wines, this has been augmented by the recent introduction of Marsanne, Vermentino and Roussanne. The grape varieties that used to dominate the scene, such as Malvoisie or Tourbat du Roussillon, which have undoubted qualities such as high acidity and complex aromatics, have not yet really experienced a Renaissance. On the other hand, a number of talented wine producers have recently demonstrated that one can make very characteristic white wines with a great deal of finesse from old vines of Grenache Blanc and Gris as well as Macabeu.
Apart from AOC wines, country wines are also produced in Roussillon, these are bottled and marketed as Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes or Vin de Pays d’Oc. The third option, Vin de Pays des Pyreénées Orientales, is rarely used. The main grape varieties used for red country wines are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, while Chardonnay dominates the white wines in this category. The Muscat sec holds a special position, it is made from the Vin Doux Naturel varieties Muscat à Petits Grains and/or Muscat d’Alexandrie, its intense aromas make it a pleasant light aperitif.
By Andre Domine