Roussillon wines of South Eastern France
Roussillon wines – It is not an easy endeavour to write objectively about one of your favourite wine regions. Since I started drinking wine in my early 20’s, my darlings of wine have been Roussillon and the Rhone. There has been a few adventures in Bordeaux, Alsace and the Southwest but you always come back to your first love which were Roussillon wines. In April, I visited the Rhone and just a few weeks ago, I came back from the Roussillon. The sunny region of Roussillon is officially one half of the Languedoc-Roussillon department in far south eastern France, though the hyphen is pretty much all that the two regions share. Situated in eastern Pyrenees, the region produces 2% of France national wine output.
Roussillon is much smaller and more obscure than the big Languedoc—and its inhabitants identify themselves as Catalan rather than French. This fact comes with a long history attached: Once part of the principality of Catalonia, Roussillon was passed between Spain and France for hundreds of years.
What’s not to love about Roussillon?. First, it’s wine diversity. Rousillon makes wine from 23 different grape varieties grouped in 9 PDO in dry wines ( Protected Denomination of Origin), 3 IGP ( regional appellation) of dry wines as well and 5 PDO in fortified wines.
Then there is the wonderful weather. In wine jargon the term “Mediterranean climate” pretty much defines the delicious conditions that prevail here. Enviable, never ending sunlight and dry heat most of the year is nicely tempered by cooling sea winds. Ripe and healthy grapes magically appear in almost every vintage, with great conditions for most varietals. More importantly the most sun-loving grapes like Grenache and Mourvèdre can reach for their fullest flavour and power. The area gets 2530 hours of sunlight which translates to 316 days per year.
Second, the aromas of the terroir. Rousillon, shares with the Rhone and Provence a dry landscape dominated by a scrub known as ‘garrigue’, which impart nuances of resinous wild herbs such as rosemary and thyme to the local wines. Across my trip, I saw patches of that wonderful heady scented scrub.
UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre defines garrigue as “discontinuous bushy associations of the Mediterranean calcareous plateaus, which have relatively alkaline soils. It is often composed of kermes oak, lavender, thyme, and white cistus. There may be a few isolated trees.”
In Rousillon, I saw discontinuous patches of garrigue in wide and open spaces, and is often extensive. It is associated with limestone and base rich soils composed of different schists and chalk.Lavender, sage, rosemary, wild thyme and Artemisia are common garrigue plants found in the region.
Besides garrigue, It could be argued that the geology of Roussillon is a bit more superior to other wine region such as the Rhone. The more open-knit Rhone wines are born from sands, they say, and the more gutsy wines come from clays. But from a “minerality” point of view, they are not extremely interesting. By contrast the Roussillon has a palette of the salty sea on one side and on the other (inland) it is invaded by the Pyrenees huge rock formations. Hence, most of Roussillon benefits from a good diversity of microclimates, from limestone, to diverse types of schists.
Third, the diversity of wine styles. Roussillon wines can be described as a cross between the great wines of France’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Spain’s Priorat—when Many of the same red grapes are used:Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Carignan among others—though Carignan has long been the blue chip in Roussillon.
There are excellent white wines made in Roussillon, as well, and while the reds may take the lion’s share ( 69% of the production is red), the whites, made from Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris, Macabeu, Muscat and other grapes, have elicited great interest recently, especially among winemakers. Those were the wines that impressed me the most during my week in the region. With a merely 5% of total wine production, I hope the share will continue to grow in the near future.
It may sound strange to portray a region with hundreds of years old of winemaking tradition as possessed of “potential,” but Roussillon today is very different than it was just a few decades ago. Until recently the region was dominated by cooperatives, and most producers turned out large quantities of rough, rustic wines. There are excellent producers making high quality wines with an excellent price ratio mostly in the $20-$30 range today.
Next week: the wild side of Carignan and the whites of Rousillon.
Red Rousillon wines of the week:
Domaine Lafage Cuvée Nicolas 2015
SAQ: 12211366 $19.80
(100 % Grenache noir old vines-65 years old-, coming from the Aspres terroir, consisting of slate and schist marble)
2016 tasted at the Domaine: Exuberant ripe fieldberry fruit such as strawberry and black raspberry with soft earth and rock nuances.. Full body, polished in the palate with round and generous tannins.. Very elegant and harmonious
Château Les Pins 2012
SAQ # 00864546 $20.70
( Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache Noir coming from shallow pebbly quaternary soil on terraces with low water retention)
Deep aromatic ripe dark fruits with balsamic undertones bringing to mind licorice and eucalyptus. On the mouth, flavours bringing to mind notes of roasted herbs and cassis marmalade. Structured and racy with a lot of flesh and a solid tannic bite.
Mas Amiel Vers le Nord 2015
SAQ # 12773422. $36.50
( La Devéze parcelle from Maury AOP. 92% Grenache and 8% Syrah)
On the nose, lots of black cherry, orange blood and . menthol notes. Smoky animal notes as well. On the mouth, garrigue infused with a polished texture and fluid fine tannins.