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Roussillon - under a Catalan sun

text and photographs ©2005 Tom Cannavan, 07/05

Part I

For all its tongue-twisting possibilities, the name Languedoc-Roussillon rolls off the lips easily enough for most British wine lovers. With the influence of flying winemakers and modern vinification, the quality and value of the region's wines is now well-known - for both traditional AOCs featuring southern blends of Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah, and the Vins de Pays using international varieties like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. (Right: vineyards of Château de L'Ou).

Yet the most southerly part of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, the vast territory of Roussillon that stretches from north of Perpignan, down to the Spanish border, and penetrates deep into the Catalan countryside of the French Pyrenees, has largely escaped the attention given to the trendy communes further north.

   Roussillon - fiercely Catalan, and independent of spirit - has been faced with a wine marketplace that is changing faster and more radically over the past few decades than in the century that had gone before.

Every wine-making area in the world has faces the problem of global over-production, with wines from Europe, Australia, Chile, South Africa and the rest flooding the market to such an extent that wine is in surplus and cellar door prices are squeezed into submission.

Consumption of wine amongst the young has given way to euro-lager, lychee-flavoured vodka, and any number of more "trendy" drinks than the wine of the countryside.

But a particular trial has faced the wines that were once the pride of the Roussillon - Banyuls, Maury and Rivesaltes. These are fortified, sweet wines made in a painstaking tradition that stretched back for centuries. Though as good as anything that Porto or Jerez had to offer, sales have been haemorrhaging. They are faced with modern wine tastes that have moved away from this style, and a new found Puritanism, enforced by the French government, that suggests abuse of alcohol, drink-related road deaths and the collapse of French society can somehow all be laid at the door of wine.

   The situation then, is not easy. Banyuls and Maury must find some way of stopping the downward spiral in sales of their glorious wines, whilst the table wines of the region need to scale new heights of quality. There has been quality, in the shape of generally inexpensive AOC Côtes du Roussillon, but the historcal bulk of table wine production was "En Vrac": cheap wine dispensed by co-ops from petrol pump-style stations into five litre plastic containers.

Rustic reds from over-cropped grapes, with fierce tannins and a rough charm where once the staple of Roussillon's table wines, with very few of the many large co-ops aspiring to much more.

Times change however, and the vignerons of Roussillon have had to grasp the nettle of improving quality and finding new markets for premium bottled wines.

The past decade or so has seen sweeping changes in the region, and a re-engineering of the Roussillon: a move from Vins Doux Naturels to table wines, a move from co-ops to single estates, and a concentration on Roussillon's terroir. The biggest challenge will be how to manage this without endangering that legacy of wonderful indigenous vines and unique wine styles.

Appellations and Vins de Pays

Land under vine in Roussillon today is just half of the 70,000 hectares of the 1960s. The AOC of Côtes du Roussillon remains the bedrock of quality dry wine production. Covering 5,600 hectares of the Pyrénées-Orientales, Côtes du Roussillon consists of around 80% red wines, 13% rosé and 7% white. 32 towns are entitled to the more selective Appellation Côtes du Roussillon-Villages, where a further 2,100 hectares of vines are planted on steeper slopes giving lower yields. Only red wines qualify for the Villages status.

Collioure is a relatively new appellation for dry whites, reds and rosés that covers the same geographical area as AOC Banyuls for fortified wines, the final part of its AOC status being granted only in 2003. Another notable sign of innovation and quality in the region is the creation of the first Côtes du Roussillon 'Cru', called Les Aspres. Côtes du Roussillon Les Aspres was recognised in 2003, only for red wines, because of the unique terroir around the villages of Aspres and Albères.

There are also several Vins de Pays areas defined within Roussillon, from the catch-all Vin de Pays d'OC, which covers all of the Midi, down to tight localised zones like Vin de Pays des Coteaux des Fenouillèdes, where some truly exciting wines are being produced from both indigenous and more international varieties.

The fortified sweet wines of Roussillon are world famous: AOCs Banyuls, Maury and Rivesaltes produce "Vin Doux Naturels": wines that have been made by a technique called "mutage", in which grape-based alcohol is added during fermentation. Around 5 - 10% of spirit is added to the must, which raises the alcohol, stops fermentation, and allows the wine to retain sweetness from grape sugars. Most Vins Doux Naturels are then aged under oxidative conditions in oak casks, barrels or demi-johns left in the open air (right: demi-johns of Banyuls ageing at Domaine Piétri-Géraud). Some Vins Doux Naturels are not deliberately oxidised, including white Muscat de Rivesaltes, probably the most famous example of the non-oxidised style.

wine styles and quality

For all the appellations of Roussillon, improving quality is paramount in the fight to maintain and improve their position in the world's changing markets. That means tending vineyards with more care than ever before, and revolutionising tired cellars. But it also means infusing the local wine industry with energy and enthusiasm, to celebrate what is unique about these terroirs and wines, and getting that message across to modern consumers.

I visited Roussillon in early summer 2005 to judge the Saint-Bacchus, a competition where each year an international jury awards a trophy to the best wine of each of Roussillon's Appellations. I visited a dozen estates, and saw signs of change and an acute awareness of the task that faces Roussillon everywhere I went: re-vitalised Co-ops that have made huge investments in cellars and vineyards and are reaping the rewards with high cellar door prices and 90-odd Parker points, Biodynamic producers intent on pushing the boundaries of styles and grape varieties, and family estates run by a younger generation of savvy and switched-on winemakers who have a clear vision of the path ahead.

I also tasted some ravishing sweet wines from Banyuls, Maury and Rivesaltes, offering endless complexity at bargain-basement prices. But this raised many questions too, with some producers close to despair that the struggle to sell these most traditional wines of Roussillon had almost defeated them. Some producers have already abandoned the style to peruse new markets for dry wines, and there is a real danger that some superb producers will join them, losing some of the world's best and most distinctive wines.

Go to part II: producer profiles and 40 wines tasted